Ethically, you can watch the Olympics!

SATURDAY, JULY 31, 2021

Phantom erudition: We're so old that we attended "the greatest track meet of all time."

The aforementioned "greatest meet" took place in July 1962 at Stanford Stadium. Thanks to the generosity of a friend and his family, we were there both days. 

We were 14 at the time—just over 14 and a half. By the time of our senior year, our friend was a 9.8 sprinter himself, though that was 100 yards.

Back to the greatest meet, which you can also read about here:

Bob Hayes won the men's 100 meters; Wilma Rudolph won the women's 100. Valery Brumel set another world record. On overall points, the Soviet team prevailed.

On overall points, the Soviets won; Tamara and Irina Press won their standard three events (shot put, discus, low hurdles). That said, at the end of the second day, the athletes of the warring nuclear nations circled the track, arm in arm, as the capacity crowd applauded and occasionally wept.

Three months later, the Cuban missile crisis occurred. NAME WITHHELD, our high school's most spirited cheerleader, said this to us on one of those days, and she was completely sincere:

"I'm afraid I won't get the chance to grow up."

We're fairly sure that a tape recoding would have recorded those very words. Three months earlier, we'd watched Bob Hayes win the 100.

Track and field was very big in the California high school world at that point in time. At the 1968 Olympics, four gold medal winners had come out of the California state meet during the years we'd been in high school. 

(The years in question were 1962-1965. In 1968, gold medals in Mexico City went to James Hines in the 100; to Tommie Smith in the 200; to Lee Evans in the 400; and to Bob Seagren in the pole vault. Earl McCullouch would have been favored to make it five, but he'd gone to the NFL.) 

We loved the Olympics back then, to the extent that it was accessible. We don't watch the Olympics today. Over the years, we came to hate the bloated corporatism which came to define the games, along with the increasingly silly way the games were broadcast, at least here in the U.S. 

Also, we've learned something in the years which have passed. We've learned that a whole lot of children, all over the world, don't get a chance to grow up. 

They may die alongside their parents, under bombs or out in the sea. In other circumstances, they may be forced to live in conditions which are an insult to the notion of human dignity.

We've learned about this state of affairs as the years have passed. We've also seen that very few of us—almost no one, in fact—ever commit themselves to doing as much as they possibly can to respond to this state of affairs.

Concerning which, there's this:

In the spring of our senior year in high school, we were suddenly enormously in love. We spoke for hours, every day, to the very wise person by whom we were suddenly overwhelmed. 

From 3-5, we could pretend that we were watching the swimming team work out as we sat there endlessly talking. From 5-6, it was just us and the custodians, plus the occasional tumbleweed.

(We had to be home for dinner at 6; we lived across the street from the school. Her family ate at 9. We hailed from somewhat different cultural frameworks. That was instructive for us.)

We spoke for hours every day, but we can remember only one specific exchange:

We had just learned about Dr. Tom Dooley, the medical missionary who had lost his life in southeast Asia. If you know that people are suffering, you're obligated to address it, we told our new friend one day. We told her that if someone was dying in the street in front of her house, she'd feel obligated to do something about it, and that there was no difference here.

"It just isn't like that," she wisely said. She was wiser and saner than we were, for which we're still grateful today. But in all those hours of conversation, that's the only specific exchange we can recall.

We don't like the bloated monstrosity the Olympics has become. For that reason, we haven't watched any coverage this week.

Others feel differently about these matters, and there's no reason why they shouldn't. Other people are watching the games. Yesterday, thanks to the New York Times, we learned that their conduct is ethically permissible.

We learned that in an op-ed column by an assistant professor. For reasons which go unexplained, she's described in the Times' identity line as "a moral philosopher." 

We have no doubt that the columnist is a thoroughly good, thoroughly decent person. That said, her column appeared beneath this silly headline:

Are You a Bad Person for Watching the Olympics?

That was the headline on the column. In our judgment, the column is a prime example of "phantom erudition," the type most likely to appear in the New York Times.

In our view, the fact that the column was written—much more strikingly, the fact that the column was published—helps us see how limited our human judgment is.

Given the major moral quandaries we're currently facing in this nation, it's hard to believe that a major newspaper would think this question was worth exploring in the erudition-rich way this column did.

That said, the assistant professor undertook that task. In her column, she notes a few of the fairly obvious problems with the way the Olympics now operates, then states her column's reason for being:

Of course, viewers aren’t watching the Games to intentionally endorse a corrupt system or the idea of profit over public health. They’re watching to celebrate our common humanity, to be awed by athletic excellence and to witness the drama of Olympic dreams being dashed or realized. But by opting to watch the Olympics, do we give a tacit thumbs-up to the entire spectacle, ethical problems and all?

At the heart of this worry is the idea that merely by choosing to be entertained by something that involves wrongdoing, we become complicit in it. But just how worried should we be? To answer this question, the idea of complicity needs unpacking.

For the record, some viewers are watching the games because nothing else is on. But let's not linger on such side issues. At issue is an ethical question: 

Readers, have you become "complicit in wrongdoing" by choosing to watch the Olympics? That's the question the New York Times ate valuable space to explore.

Have viewers become complicit in wrongdoing? At this point, the assistant professor says the idea of complicity "needs unpacking." 

Very long story short! Powering ahead, she tells us that Olympic watchers aren't guilty of "participation complicity." She then proceeds to the more difficult questions, wondering whether such viewers may be guilty of "tolerance complicity." 

All in all, the erudition was hard to miss.

In the end, the TV viewer gets a pass. "Just because all complicity is bad does not mean that it is always morally criticizable," the assistant professor says. Believe it or not, this is the way her exegesis ended:

[T]he Games are underway, and for most of the world’s population, there is only one moral decision left to make: To watch or not to watch? If you are one of the many who view the actions of the International Olympic Committee, the television stations and sponsors, and the nations competing as morally wrong, is it ethical for you to tune in?

Olympic athletes offer us an ideal of achievement and determination in the face of adversity. Knowledge that we are always, in some measure, complicit offers us a kind of moral adversity that we overcome not through the pursuit of an impossible moral purity, but through renewed efforts to engage in our deeply flawed world. Choosing to watch the Games, for all their faults, is perfectly compatible with these efforts.

Watch away.

There is only one moral decision to make—whether or not to watch. And yes, we're always complicit to some extent, the assistant professor contends. 

But according to the assistant professor, it's "ethical for you to tune in." All complicity is bad—but that doesn't mean that it's always "morally criticizable."

"Watch away," she cheerfully says as the column ends.

Amazingly, yet not amazingly, editors at the New York Times thought this example of "moral philosophy" was worth publishing. They even published it in yesterday's print editions. 

That doesn't make them bad people! The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but even among the elites of Our Town, human judgment is very limited.

Many children, all over the world, don't get the chance to grow up.  They often die beside their parents. Or they may live in conditions which insult any notion of human dignity.

Also this: Very few of us ever make a full commitment to fully addressing such facts in the ways we live our lives. 

It may be that Dr. Tom Dooley did. (His story turned out to be more complicated than was known at the time.) 

Meanwhile, at the Times, they're puzzling over participation complicity versus the tolerance version of same. In our view, they're offering the phantom erudition which largely defines the intellectual way of life in our own self-impressed town.

It's like this on "cable news" every night. And no, we don't mean over on Fox, where the human shortfall can perhaps, to Our Town's delight, seem to be even worse.

Permission to watch the games has been granted. "Watch away," The Voices have said.

Swimming song: Swimming was also big in the California high school world of that time. 

Donna de Varona, a teenage gold medal winner, was right down the road from us at the Santa Clara Swim Club. From 3 to 5, you could pretend that you were just watching the swim team swimming their endless laps.

In 2005, we attended our fortieth reunion. Due to geographic separation, we'd hardly ever been back.

At one point, we listened as the 13-year-old son of a classmate enthused, in some detail, about the water polo team at Bellarmine High, 30 miles to the south.

What a madeleine moment that was. We remembered being that very same kid, right on those same teenaged grounds!

(In 1964, the Associated Press and United Press International voted de Varona the "most outstanding woman athlete in the world." She was 17 years old at the time—an Olympics record-holder.)


A SIMPLE CONCEPT: The science was his Achilles' heel!

FRIDAY, JULY 30, 2021

Also, Krauthammer's conjecture:  Way back in April 2007, Janet Maslin reviewed Walter Isaacson's book for the New York Times. 

Credit where due! According to Maslin, Isaacson hadn't managed to make the science especially easy.

In question was Isaacson's well-received biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe. In Maslin's view, Isaacson had done a very good job with Einstein's life, but Einstein's universe had perhaps been quite a bit harder.

Maslin cushioned her blow with an "if." But she seemed to make it clear that the science hadn't been especially easy to understand:

Mr. Isaacson deals clearly and comfortably with the scope of Einstein’s life. If his highly readable and informative book has an Achilles’ heel, it’s in the area of science. Mr. Isaacson had the best available help (most notably the physicist Brian Greene’s) in explicating the series of revelations Einstein brought forth in his wonder year, 1905, and the subsequent problems with quantum theory and uncertainty that would bedevil him.

But these sections of the book are succinctly abbreviated. Paradoxically that makes them less accessible than they would have been through longer, more patient explication. Still, the cosmic physics would be heavy sledding in any book chiefly devoted to Einstein’s life and times, and Mr. Isaacson acknowledges that. “O.K., it’s not easy,” he writes, “but that’s why we’re no Einstein and he was.”

If the book had a shortcoming, it lay with the science, she said. In this way, Maslin softened her assessment, which otherwise seemed fairly clear,

Maslin cited Isaacson's joke—the sensible joke from the book's page 4 which we mentioned three weeks ago, in the first of our current reports.

(“O.K., it’s not easy,” Isaacson jokes.  But that’s because we aren't Einstein.)

Maslin cited the role of Brian Greene, the theoretical physicist who played the leading role among Isaacson's dozen or so major science advisers. In Maslin's view, the participation of figures like Greene meant that Isaacson had "the best available help" when it came to reporting the science. 

(Once again, we'll suggest a different possibility. Undeniably brilliant physicists may not always be the best guides if we're trying to determine what will be understandable to the general reader.)

In Maslin's view, the sections of the book which dealt with Einstein's revolutionary discoveries were "succinctly abbreviated," perhaps overly so. She suggested that Isaacson could have done a better job if he'd given the science "longer, more patient explication."

Everything is possible, but we're not inclined to agree. Isaacson does do an excellent job with Einstein's remarkable life—but Einstein's revolutionary universe is extremely hard. Just consider a few of the things Greene himself has said.

In The Fabric of the Cosmos, his 2004 book for general readers, Greene describes the remarkable strangeness of the universe which emerges from Einstein's special theory of relativity (1905). (The special theory is the subject of Isaacson's Chapter Six.)

"The relativity of space and of time is a startling conclusion," Greene writes in his book. "I've known about it for more than twenty-five years, but even so, whenever I quietly sit and think about it, I am amazed."

"Special relativity is not in our bones," Greene wrote in his earlier book for general readers, The Elegant Universe (1999). "Its implications are not a central part of our intuition." 

Concerning Einstein's general theory of relativity, which emerged in 1915, Greene has said that the human brain may not be designed to understand its workings. "What I can do," he said in a PBS interview, "is I can make use of mathematics that describe those extra dimensions, and then I can try to translate what the mathematics tells me into lower dimensional analogies that help me gain a picture of what the math has told me." 

So Greene said to PBS. He was describing a difficult struggle—the struggle to explain Einstein's universe.

By all accounts, Einstein's universe is extremely hard to report, describe, explicate, explain or simplify. Those bits of testimony come from a major theoretical physicist—from someone who actually does understand the complex mathematics behind the "startling" physics.

Could Isaacson have done a better job if he'd spent more time on the science? Everything is possible. But in fairness, Isaacson doesn't seem to skimp in his attempts to explore the terrain of this difficult universe. 

His Chapter Six: Special Relativity, 1905 covers a full 33 pages. He does go on at substantial length, but it seems to us that the thread has been lost in its first three or four pages.

Would a more detailed treatment have helped? This new universe is extremely hard. We know of no reason to think so.

Isaacson is an extremely capable writer and a very smart person. He's a highly experienced mainstream journalist. He's an acclaimed biographer.

Still and all, when he tries to explain special relativity, he starts with a presentation which seems almost Onionesque. With apologies, we'll quote it one more time. Isaacson starts with this:

CHAPTER SIX Special Relativity, 1905

Relativity is a simple concept. It asserts that the fundamental laws of physics are the same whatever your state of motion.

Relativity "asserts that the fundamental laws of physics are the same whatever your state of motion?" 

That formulation strikes us as almost Onionesque. Nor do matters get any better as Isaacson meanders ahead. He's an acclaimed biographer and a very smart person, but his treatment of Einstein's universe strikes us as pretty much incomprehensible pretty much all the way down.

Despite this fact, his book is blurbed by major figures saying the science is clear as a bell. Maslin could see that that wasn't the case, but she seemed to pull her punch.

Isaacson's treatment of special relativity starts in a way which seems almost Onionesque. Things don't get a whole lot clearer as Isaacson proceeds from there.

That said, no one seems to be willing or able to notice or mention this fact. In our view, this state of affairs can be seen as instructive.

DESPITE HIS OUTSTANDING TREATMENT of Einstein's life, did Isaacson fail to make Einstein's universe understandable? 

Inevitably, that's a subjective assessment. We'll offer a road map to such assessment below.

Next week, we'll be moving to a part of Isaacson's Chapter Six which is taken straight from Einstein's 1916 book for general readers, Relativity: The Special and General Theory.

In Isaacson's perfectly sensible framing, the passage in question involves the "eureka moment" in which Einstein "took one of the most elegant imaginative leaps in the history of physics." At issue is "the relativity of simultaneity," a central element of the special theory. Indeed, that's the title of Chapter IX in Einstein's short 1916 book.

Midway through his own Chapter Six, Isaacson discusses the logic of this major leap. His treatment of this eureka moment is taken directly from Einstein's own book. That said, the problem is this:

On its face, this presentation has never made sense. On its face, it didn't make sense in 1916. On its face, it didn't make sense when it appeared  in Isaacson's book, in 2007.

On its face, the presentation still didn't make sense when Nova folded it into a hundredth anniversary program on Einstein in 2015. We'll review that presentation next week—but on its face, it's fairly clear that it has never made sense.

Sometimes, presentations fail to make sense in clear, straightforward ways. That doesn't mean that anyone will notice or mention such a fact, especially if the presentation carries the imprimatur of high academic authority.

Other times, presentations are hopelessly murky and jumbled. It's harder to explain what's wrong with such presentations, even though they may make little or no clear sense.

At such times, how can we say that a presentation isn't understandable? Suppose a reader has read the passage and has said that he does understand?

Let's apply that sensible question to the first four pages of Isaacson's Chapter Six. As we do, we'll formulate a pair of challenges for the careful general reader.

THE START OF ISAACSON'S CHAPTER SIX strikes us as almost Onionesque. We say that because it asserts a claim which seems to be comically obvious.

Relativity "asserts that the fundamental laws of physics are the same whatever your state of motion?" That assertion has struck us as puzzlingly obvious ever since we first encountered it, way back in '08.

Why wouldn't the fundamental laws of physics remain the same in the circumstance described? Why wouldn't those "fundamental laws" remain the same, even if I rose from my chair and walked across the room? 

Isaacson's sentences are perfectly formed as his chapter begins.  There's (almost) no technical language; there isn't any math. It's easy for readers to blow past the oddity of such a presentation and move to paragraph 2.

It's very easy for readers to do that, especially when their book jacket is covered with blurbs saying that the science has been made easy. It maybe easy for general readers to fail to notice that they don't understand.

At such junctures, we can ask them to answer some questions. With respect to Isaacson's first six paragraphs, we might as such questions as these:

1) What fundamental laws of physics is Isaacson referring to here?  

2) How many such laws can you name? How many such laws exist?

3) Why wouldn't these fundamental laws of physics remain in effect? How "fundamental" would such laws be if they changed on so flimsy a basis?

If the reader can't answer such questions, he or she has been put on notice—at this point, he or she may not fully understand what is being said. Meanwhile, as Isaacson's first four pages proceed, it's easy to think of other basic questions which might be hard for the general reader to answer.

By the third page of Chapter Six, Isaacson has moved from his description of this "simple concept" to a somewhat similar statement—to the claim that "there is no better description of relativity" than a certain presentation by Galileo in 1632.

The presentation is quoted at length. On its face, it seems to make easy-to-understand sense. But we would bet that the general reader would have a hard time with such questions as these:

4) In what way is that presentation a brilliant description of relativity? 

5) Indeed, in what way is it a description of relativity at all?

Thirteen years later, we can't exactly answer those questions ourselves. No matter how smoothly Isaacson's language sails along from page to page, we'll guess that other general readers would crash on the shoals of incomprehension when faced with such questions too.

A passage isn't understandable just because it avoids technical language and formulas and features good sentence structure. A presentation is understandable if the general reader can discuss it in certain basic ways. 

This returns us to something Charles Krauthammer said. Way back in the winter of '88, he described the way we sometimes repeat and recite the things experts say, even though we may not know what our recitations mean.

Also, he had said that it couldn't be done! Krauthammer had read, or had tried to read, Stephen Hawking's reportedly easy-to-understand book, A Brief History of Time.  

Like Richard Cohen before him, Krauthammer said he didn't understand the book. He even suggested that, in the case of modern physics, such things could no longer be done:

I understand, and if asked can readily repeat, the current notion of superstring theory that the universe has 10 (or 26) dimensions, all but four of which are curled up into tiny little balls. But what can that possibly mean?

I can also recite Hawking's solution to the age-old question: Did the universe have a beginning, or has it existed through an infinity of time? Hawking proposes a finesse: space-time is finite in extent but has no boundary or edge. Meaning: space-time is like the surface of the earth, which also is finite (197 million square miles) but round and enclosed, so that you can go around forever without reaching a beginning or an end. A universe of no beginning and no end, but no infinity. I understand. But what does it mean?

The Hawking book may be proof that physics has reached the limits of metaphor...Thousands of graduate students understand the equations whose meaning Hawking has set out to communicate. But physics is becoming the province of a small cadre of cognoscenti who occasionally send out emissaries like Hawking to speak to the rest of us in parables.

Inscrutable parables. Compare physics to biology, for example. Biology is very complicated, but in principle it is comprehensible. Give the man on the Clapham omnibus an hour, and he can gain a reasonable grasp of, say, immunology. Thirteen hours of Hawking have convinced me that you can no longer do that with physics. 

Krauthammer had struggled with Hawking's "inscrutable" book. He offered a simple but instructive assessment:

He could "recite" and "repeat" the things he had read in Hawking's book.  But he didn't know what those statements meant, and he didn't think anyone could make modern physics understandable to the general reader.

We're all inclined to read the nice sentences in some approved text, then to repeat what we've read. Depending on the circumstances, we may decide to take a pass on admitting that we don't understand some part of what we've read.

In our current series of reports, we're focusing on books which attempt to make Einstein understandable, even easy. When someone attempts to compose such a book, he's entered the World Series of explanation. Almost surely, these are the hardest possible explanations we can choose to pursue.

As we'll see in the weeks and months ahead, our remarkable failures in these areas may tend to trickle on down. In the end, it doesn't matter if we can't explain or understand Einstein's universe. In other arenas, our inability to explain and understand may matter a very great deal.

That said, our skill sets are quite unimpressive. Routinely, the spirit isn't especially willing, and the flesh is remarkably weak.

In each of our society's warring tribes, our analytical skills are persistently overrun by our passions. Have we been failed by our useless logicians? In the end, that's what we'll claim.

Next week: On its face, this has never made sense


A SIMPLE CONCEPT: There's "no better description of relativity!"

WEDNESDAY, JULY 28, 2021

What Galileo said:  As we noted last week, several parts of Einstein's universe are easy to describe. In that sense, and to that extent, those parts of Einstein's universe are easy to understand.

As we noted last week, Walter Isaacson describes one such part of Einstein's universe at the end of Chapter Six in his 2007 biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe. Below, we show you that passage again:

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."

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.

It's easy to understand what's being said in that passage. Tiny amounts of matter can be converted into enormous amounts of energy. 

The raisin which could fuel New York makes this presentation memorable. It may be hard to understand how any such thing could actually happen. But it's easy to understand what is being said.

That easy-to-understand presentation comes at the very end of Isaacson's Chapter Six. Once again, this is his full chapter title:

CHAPTER SIX Special Relativity, 1905

According to Isaacson, the raisin which could fuel New York emerges from Einstein's special theory of relativity. Chapter Six is devoted to that theory. It ends with a presentation which is easy to understand.

As we noted yesterday, the chapter doesn't start that way; in our view, it starts in a highly murky fashion. Today, we'll see the lack of clarity grow—or at least, so it says here—as Isaacson's presentation continues.

Yesterday, we looked at the first six paragraphs in Isaacson's Chapter Six. The chapter opens with a counterintuitive claim—"Relativity is a simple concept"—then wanders forward from there.

The first six paragraphs of the chapter form a fairly obvious unit. We've struggled to make clear sense of that unit ever since we first encountered Isaacson's book thirteen years ago. 

As noted yesterday, Isaacson starts Chapter Six by saying what relativity "asserts." (At this point, he's speaking about the general concept of relativity, not about Einstein's "special theory.")

"Relativity asserts that the fundamental laws of physics are the same whatever your state of motion," Isaacson says in his opening paragraph. But he fails to explain why anyone should be surprised, or should feel informed in some way, by any such assertion. 

From there, he meanders through a set of somewhat fuzzy claims concerning a rapidly-changing set of topics whose interconnections are poorly explained. Thirteen years into our search, we still can't master this wandering presentation.

At the end of this opening unit, Isaacson signals that he is moving ahead to a new point of focus. As we noted yesterday, the transition from paragraphs 5 and 6 to paragraph 7 reads like this:

The special theory of relativity that Einstein developed in 1905 applies only to this special case (hence the name): a situation in which the observers are moving at a constant velocity relative to one another—uniformly in a straight line at a steady speed—referred to as an “inertial reference system.”

It’s harder to make the more general case that a person who is accelerating or turning or rotating or slamming on the brakes or moving in an arbitrary manner is not in some form of absolute motion, because coffee sloshes and balls roll away in a different manner than for people on a smoothly gliding train, plane, or planet. It would take Einstein a decade more, as we shall see, to come up with what he called a general theory of relativity, which incorporated accelerated motion into a theory of gravity and attempted to apply the concept of relativity to it.

The story of relativity best begins in 1632, when Galileo articulated the principle that the laws of motion and mechanics  (the laws of electromagnetism had not yet been discovered) were the same in all constant-velocity reference frames. ...

There you see paragraphs 5 and 6, plus the first sentence in paragraph 7. At this point, we'll be moving back to the year 1632, when "the story of relativity" can best be said to have gotten its start.

We're moving back to something Galileo said in 1632. In our view, the initial murkiness of this chapter only continues as Isaacson explores this early part of "the story of relativity."

AT THIS POINT IN HIS PRESENTATION, Isaacson transitions to a question Galileo addressed in 1632. Copernicus had advanced a revolutionary idea—the idea that the earth doesn't rest motionless at the center of the universe, with everything else revolving around it. 

Traditionalists made the following claim: if the earth was moving, as Copernicus said, we would be able to feel it. In his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo offered an argument in support of Copernicus’s view.

By modern reckoning, of course, Galileo was right and the traditionalists were wrong. By modern reckoning, the earth is moving at a very high speed around the sun, as are the other planets in the solar system.

As he discusses this historical episode, Isaacson gives a perfectly coherent account of Galileo's response to the traditionalists in support of Copernicus. And sure enough:

 As Isaacson proceeds, it's fairly easy to understand what Galileo is said to have said. 

This new discussion makes fairly clear sense—but does it help the general reader understand what has gone before it in Chapter Six? We would be inclined to say no, but this is the way Isaacson starts this new discussion:

The story of relativity best begins in 1632, when Galileo articulated the principle that the laws of motion and mechanics (the laws of electromagnetism had not yet been discovered) were the same in all constant-velocity reference frames. In his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo wanted to defend Copernicus’s idea that the earth does not rest motionless at the center of the universe with everything else revolving around it. Skeptics contended that if the earth was moving, as Copernicus said, we’d feel it. Galileo refuted this with a brilliantly clear thought experiment about being inside the cabin of a smoothly sailing ship:

If the earth was really moving, we would be able to feel it! According to Isaacson, Galileo refuted this claim with a thought experiment about a smoothly sailing ship.

At this point, we offer a warning. The first part of that paragraph may be challenging for general readers. The notion that the laws of motion and mechanics "are the same in all constant-velocity reference frames" may be about as clear as Venetian mud for such non-specialist readers.

(Possibly adding to the problem: As we noted yesterday, the use of such technical language shifts about in various ways in this chapter's opening pages.)

That said, Isaacson's treatment of Galileo's thought experiment seems fairly easy to follow. Below, you see the way Chapter Six proceeds through paragraphs 8 and 9, with Galileo quoted at length:

The story of relativity best begins in 1632, when Galileo articulated the principle that the laws of motion and mechanics (the laws of electromagnetism had not yet been discovered) were the same in all constant-velocity reference frames. In his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo wanted to defend Copernicus’s idea that the earth does not rest motionless at the center of the universe with everything else revolving around it. Skeptics contended that if the earth was moving, as Copernicus said, we’d feel it. Galileo refuted this with a brilliantly clear thought experiment about being inside the cabin of a smoothly sailing ship:

"Shut yourself up with some friend in the main cabin below decks on some large ship, and have with you there some flies, butterflies, and other small flying animals. Have a large bowl of water with some fish in it; hang up a bottle that empties drop by drop into a wide vessel beneath it. With the ship standing still, observe carefully how the little animals fly with equal speed to all sides of the cabin. The fish swim indifferently in all directions; the drops fall into the vessel beneath; and, in throwing something to your friend, you need throw it no more strongly in one direction than another, the distances being equal; jumping with your feet together, you pass equal spaces in every direction. When you have observed all these things carefully, have the ship proceed with any speed you like, so long as the motion is uniform and not fluctuating this way and that. You will discover not the least change in all the effects named, nor could you tell from any of them whether the ship was moving or standing still."

There is no better description of relativity, or at least of how that principle applies to systems that are moving at a constant velocity relative to each other.

That's the full text of paragraphs 7-9. Question:

Back in 1632, would that presentation by Galileo have convinced the skeptics that their argument was flawed? Maybe yes and maybe no. But we'll guess that today's general reader would find it reasonably easy to follow the presentation, in which Galileo was apparently saying this:

You can be inside a moving ship without having any idea that the ship is moving. Similarly, you can be riding on a fast-moving planet without experiencing any effects of that motion.

So far, so understandable! But while this may help us understand what Galileo said to the skeptics, does it help us understand what "relativity" holds, asserts or maintains? Does it help us understand the "simple concept" described by Isaacson at the start of this chapter?

At this point, Isaacson proceeds to offer a set of full-length paragraphs fleshing out the physics behind Galileo's presentation. To give you a sense of where this goes, the next four grafs say this:

Inside Galileo’s ship, it is easy to have a conversation, because the air that carries the sound waves is moving smoothly along with the people in the chamber. Likewise, if one of Galileo’s passengers dropped a pebble into a bowl of water, the ripples would emanate the same way they would if the bowl were resting on shore; that’s because the water propagating the ripples is moving smoothly along with the bowl and everything else in the chamber.

Sound waves and water waves are easily explained by classical mechanics. They are simply a traveling disturbance in some medium. That is why sound cannot travel through a vacuum. But it can travel through such things as air or water or metal. For example, sound waves move through room temperature air, as a vibrating disturbance that compresses and rarefies the air, at about 770 miles per hour.

Deep inside Galileo’s ship, sound and water waves behave as they do on land, because the air in the chamber and the water in the bowls are moving at the same velocity as the passengers. But now imagine that you go up on deck and look at the waves out in the ocean, or that you measure the speed of the sound waves from the horn of another boat. The speed at which these waves come toward you depends on your motion relative to the medium (the water or air) propagating them.

In other words, the speed at which an ocean wave reaches you will depend on how fast you are moving through the water toward or away from the source of the wave. The speed of a sound wave relative to you will likewise depend on your motion relative to the air that’s propagating the sound wave.

The first three paragraphs help us understand the physics which prevails inside a smoothly moving ship. Presumably, the same principle obtains on our fast-moving planet, which carries its atmosphere along with it as it travels through space.

This is all well and good for those who want to understand this historical dispute. By now, though, we're on the fourth page of Chapter Six, and we still may lack a clear idea of the way this succession of ruminations is meant to illuminate the "simple concept" which appeared at the start of the chapter. 

Does this presentation about Galileo help the general reader explain the puzzling description of relativity which appears at the start of the chapter? We can't really see why it would.

Meanwhile, how about this statement by Isaacson: "There is no better description of relativity" than the quoted passage from Galileo.

Will the general reader be able to explain that ringing endorsement? You'd have to question the general reader, but we'll guess that he or she would have a hard time expounding on that statement.

In what way does Galileo's presentation qualify as a "description of relativity" which can't be surpassed? Indeed, in what way can it be described as a "description of relativity" at all?  We'll guess that many general readers will have a hard time with such basic questions.

Alas, this Chapter Six! The chapter starts with a somewhat peculiar statement concerning what relativity asserts. At this point, four pages in, to what extent would the general reader be able to speak to that basic topic in an intelligent way?

Has relativity emerged as "a simple concept" in the mind of the general reader? Again, consider the contrast with the presentation with which we began today:

The general reader will have no problem understanding the claim that a small amount of matter can be transformed into a huge amount of energy. Similarly, the general reader will probably have little trouble understanding Galileo's defense of Copernicus' revolutionary claim.

The statement about the production of energy is easy to understand. But at this point, can we expect the general reader to be able to explain what relativity has been said to assert? 

The general reader may be able to repeat or recite the words in that opening paragraph. ("Relativity asserts that the fundamental laws of physics are the same whatever your state of motion.") 

The general reader may be able to repeat those words. But how well will the general reader do if he or she is questioned about that somewhat puzzling statement? Even after the passage from Galileo, we'll guess that he or she wouldn't do especially well.

By the point we've reached today, the general reader is on the fourth page of Isaacson's Chapter Six. Isaacson is making a transition to yet another basic topic, to a discussion of the nature of light.

That next discussion may or may not seem to make sense to the general reader. But how well do these brief discussions of various topics form a coherent larger discussion? How well do these short, successive discussions illuminate some major point?

On a periodic basis, we've been reading Isaacson's book for the past thirteen years. We still can't make  clear sense of these opening pages of Chapter Six. We still can't answer those questions. 

Unlike the brief presentation about the raisin which fueled New York, this part of Isaacson's book has always seemed remarkably murky to us. After thirteen years of parsing his text, that impression hasn't changed.

Next week, we'll be moving to a part of Chapter Six which is taken straight out of Einstein's own book for general readers. At issue is an important part of Einstein's special theory of relativity, the subject of Chapter Six.

In Isaacson's words, the passage concerns the "eureka moment" in which Einstein "took one of the most elegant imaginative leaps in the history of physics." Isaacson's presentation concerning that leap comes right out of Einstein's 1916 text—the book whose lucidity was vouched for by Einstein's awestruck teen-aged niece.

On its face, the presentation in question has never seemed to make sense. Indeed, the passage doesn't seem to make sense in a remarkably straightforward way. More than a hundred years later, it seems that no one has noticed.

Next week, we'll look at that fascinating, straightforward part of Isaacson's Chapter Six. For now, we're still struggling with the meandering way the chapter begins as Isaacson attempts to explain what relativity asserts.

Is the general reader likely to understand the opening pages of Chapter Six? Despite the blurbs by major experts on the jacket of Isaacson's book, it seems to us that the answer is no. 

Tomorrow, we'll offer more thoughts on that possible state of affairs. The science was going to be hard, Isaacson says he was told.

Tomorrow (or Friday): What Brian Greene (and Charles Krauthammer) said