SATURDAY, JULY 3, 2021
So much energy, so little (critical) mass: Early on this July 3 morning, we sat beneath our mighty pear tree. As we did, a squirrel who was breaking the fast showered pear shards down on our heads.
We were reading Karen Attiah's column in the Washington Post. Also, Walter Isaacson's brief passage concerning "the most famous equation in all of science:"
E = mc2.
Attiah started as shown below. It made us think of Charles Blow:
ATTIAH (7/3/21): “This is not a joke,” Nikole Hannah-Jones said. “I’m a journalist, and I don’t speak in hyperbole.”
The Pulitzer Prize winner who was the driving force behind the New York Times’ 1619 Project was speaking Wednesday in Chicago at the unveiling of a monument to pioneering Black journalist Ida B. Wells, who famously overcame so many obstacles in pursuit of justice and truth in America. “To hold up her legacy, we have to talk about the precarious state that our democracy is in right now. We are actually fighting against the same tyranny and white supremacy that Ida B. Wells was fighting against all those years ago.”
Here in Our Town, is it really "the same" today? Renouncing hyperbole as we do, are we actually fighting against the same tyranny which confronted Ida B. Wells back in the 1890s?
Is today's tyranny really the same? Or is that a bit of hyperbole?
More thoughts on that below. Meanwhile, Hannah-Jones' formulation made us think of the formulation which recently came from Blow:
BLOW (7/1/21): I emerged into full adulthood as a political naïf.
Then began my education, my quest to unlearn what little I had been taught and to learn for the first time all the things I hadn’t been taught.
First, I guess, were the widespread and never-ending attempts, with some devastating successes, to disenfranchise people, often Black people. And there was nothing like the sting of reading the words of some of the men who were engaged in this suppression. Nowadays, those who suppress votes disguise their motives, but years ago the motives were well articulated and abundantly clear: to establish white supremacy and disenfranchise the Negro.
Now, only the articulation is absent; the results are the same.
According to Blow, those who tried to disenfranchise Americans of African descent made no attempt to disguise their motives at some undefined point "years ago."
Today, they do disguise their motives. But "the results are the same."
Are the results really the same? Absent hyperbole, can anyone really believe that? Does that statement make sense?
Almost surely, it all depends on what the meaning of "the same" is! That said:
Years ago, it was once virtually impossible for black people to vote across wide swaths of the nation. Today, black turnout exceeds that of whites in many of those same states.
To Blow, this doesn't contradict the claim that results today are "the same." And Blow is a high-ranking journalist here in Our (comically self-impressed) Town.
Absent hyperbole, are matters today really the same, as these journalists have said? Are we actually fighting the same oppression? Are results the same?
It all depends on what the meaning of "I don't speak in hyperbole" is! Alternately, it can sometimes seem that Our Town is capable of generating a large amount of a type of hyperbolic energy from a fairly small amount of critical mass.
That brings us back to Isaacson's account of that most famous equation. Einstein laid the groundwork for this equation in a paper he published in 1905, when he was just 26.
We were reading Isaacson 2007 biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe. Isaacson limns it thusly:
ISAACSON (pages 138-139): The result was an elegant conclusion: mass and energy are different manifestations of the same thing. There is a fundamental interchangeability between the two. As he put it in his paper, "The mass of a body is a measure of its energy content."
Say what? Mass and energy are different manifestations of the same thing? There is a fundamental interchangeability between the two?
Of what "same thing" are mass and energy different manifestations? What "same thing" is that?
Therein conceivably lies the rub! But as he continued, Isaacson reconfigured this formulation in a way we can all understand:
ISAACSON (continuing directly): The formula he used to describe this relationship was also strikingly simple...
E = mc2.
Energy equals mass times the square of light. The speed of light, of course, is huge. Squared it is almost inconceivably bigger. That is why a tiny amount of matter, if converted into energy, has an enormous punch. A kilogram of mass would convert into approximately 25 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. More vividly: the energy in the mass of one raisin could supply most of New York City's energy needs for a day.
For our money, a lot of fuzz has been disguised within that short, highly readable passage. That said, the passage ends with a statement which is easily understood, though highly counterintuitive:
The amount of energy in one raisin could supply (most of) New York City's energy needs for a day! This helps explain why one atom bomb was able to rain so much destruction on Hiroshima, in one application of this principle against which Einstein warned.
Returning to first principles:
In some manner or other, a raisin is simply a reconfiguration of (what will seem to us to be) a vast amount of energy.
By our lights, a raisin doesn't contain, or manifest, a large amount of matter or mass. (Isaacson uses each term.) But by our lights, that same small raisin could be converted into ginormous amounts of energy.
Almost surely, this is the part of Einstein's work which is easiest to visualize. That said, how well can we be said to "understand" the state of affairs Isaacson has described?
More specifically, what exactly is this "energy" which is somehow present in the mass of a raisin? All matter is really a form of that entity—but what kind of entity is that?
As the analysts pondered these questions, Hannah-Jones was being quoted saying it's still the same. No hyperbole was involved, she made a point of noting. In the Washington Post, Attiah cheered her on.
Two days earlier, Blow had seemed to say the same thing. Nothing of substance has changed, he declared in the New York Times, the famous newspaper which is branded as Our Town's greatest and smartest.
These are some of the high-end thought leaders currently found in Our Town. Even on a weekend like this, Our Town is arguably a somewhat limited place.
In recent years, Our Town has been full of thunder of the type we're discussing here. In other towns, The Others sometimes roll their eyes at these pronouncements. When they do, it isn't clear that they're wrong.
Their thought leaders are strongly inclined to peddle hyperbole too. The difference would be this:
Here in Our Town, we can spot the hyperbole of The Others. We have a hard time spotting Our Own.
We nod in agreement with any claim which supports Our preapproved Point of View. Experts say it's done this way in almost all human towns.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but phantoms are pretty much everywhere. We refer to phantom explanations.
Given the limits of our species, is there some other kind?
Coming: Perhaps the earliest phantom