Part 3—We keep pounding out those results: People, let's come out and say it:
Your incomparable Daily Howler just keeps banging out those results!
Last Monday, we started a series of reports about an academic and journalistic phenomenon we described as a culture of incoherence, confusion and incomprehension. As we started, we focused on the incoherence we keep finding in the nation's constant stream of Einstein-made-easy books.
Do those books, and concomitant PBS programs, really make Einstein easy? Despite persistent raves from reviewers, we'd say they plainly do not.
In our view, the incoherence of those books and those PBS programs is a fascinating part of our academic and journalistic cultures. We plan to spend large chunks of time in the coming months examining the argle-bargle-based hodgepodge we persistently think we find in those widely-praised best-selling books.
By last weekend, we were already getting results! On Sunday, our favorite blogger, Kevin Drum, cheekily accepted the general relativity challenge.
His post appeared beneath a cocky headline. "Be careful, Uncle Drum," the analysts cried, when they read his banner:
"General Relativity: Not So Hard After All!"
That was the headline on Drum's post, in which he reduced General Relativity to just seven brief points.
You can find Drum's bullet points here, in his Sunday post. "Not so hard!" he cheekily claims, after listing his points.
In fairness to us, we never said that Kevin Drum couldn't make Einstein easy. (Nor did Drum attribute that claim to us.) We said the best-sellers which claim to make Einstein easy have persistently failed, in grandiose fashion.
In some ways, Drum seemed to agree with that general claim in the course of posting his seven points, and in his original Saturday post on this subject. That said, did the analysts' Uncle Drum succeed in making Einstein easy in the course of Sunday's post?
We'd have to say he probably didn't. As laymen, we can't even say with certainty that his seven points are all accurate, or that they're complete.
Why would we balk at Drum's self-assessment, in which he says The General Relativity-Made-Easy challenge actually "isn't so hard?"
Alas! It takes less time to read his points than to read a 400-page book. But lurking in his 126 words are several points we the laymen almost surely won't "understand:"
According to Drum, "gravity isn't a property of mass. It's caused by the geometry of the universe."
In all likelihood, we the laymen will have no idea those last four words mean.
According to Drum, "Einstein's equations predict that time runs slower near objects with high gravitational fields."
The notion that time can run faster or slower is one of the concepts by which we laymen tend to be bollixed when writers start making Einstein easy. For that reason, we're also likely to be puzzled by this point:
"Sometimes an object can have such a strong gravitational field that light can't escape and time stops."
Time stops altogether, full stop? It's natural for laymen to wonder what Einstein, or anyone else, could possibly mean by a statement like that. Drum provides no help.
Returning to Drum's post today, we also find this fiendish update at the end of his post:
"UPDATE: I've modified the third bullet of the relativity list to make it more accurate."
If memory serves, he also eliminated some fascinating language about the relationship between energy and matter.
In our view, the typical layman would have found that fascinating language confusing or puzzling or perhaps just fascinatingly incomplete. Today, that fascinating language is gone, and we're left with a simplified seven points which, in Drum's assessment, constitute "a perfectly adequate lay description of general relativity."
Is that assessment correct? We have no idea! We're the laymen of this piece; as such, we've purchased and read a lot of best-sellers which, we were assured by reviewers, would make Einstein stupefyingly easy.
We've always found these widely-praised books to be masterworks of bafflegab. For that reason, we don't understand special relativity, general relativity or quantum mechanics, or any of the other subjects these books purport to clarify or explain. For these reasons, we can't evaluate the accuracy of Drum's account.
Drum goes on to discuss the extent to which it even makes sense to try to "explain" this branch of science. In our view, his remarks in this area are a bit muddy. That said, they touch on very important points about what it even means to offer "explanations" in physics.
(Was Newton's theory of gravitation really an "explanation?" Or was it just a set of predictions? Drum flirts with essential questions here, although his remarks strike us as muddy.)
Kevin Drum is our favorite blogger. His work on the effects of exposure to lead has been, in our view, the most important body of work we've ever seen from any other "blogger."
(He's also examined this topic as a straight journalist. For his lengthy cover report for Mother Jones, you can just click here. Could someone tell the Maddow Show about the sprawling body of work they're turning into a creepy burlesque?)
That said, has Drum really produced "a perfectly adequate lay description of general relativity?" For the reasons explained, we have no idea. That said, a critic of Drum-the-teacher would say that he is instructing his students to do the following things:
1) Memorize these seven points.That's a bit of an exaggeration. That said, how beloved would Mr. Chips have been if he had instructed the boys as Drum did in this post?
2) Don't ask any questions!
Nothing turns on the average person's knowledge of general relativity or quantum mechanics. Nothing turns on the average person's understanding of the connection between energy and matter, although that person's ability to reason and dream would be vastly enhanced by a competent discussion of that fascinating topic.
Nothing turns on the success of those Einstein-made-easy books. That said, we think our prevailing culture of incoherence is a fascinating phenomenon:
Remember when an emperor's claim made no sense and no one could tell except one little child? Our academic and journalistic cultures often seem to recall the bewitchment of that troubled empire. We plan to spend the coming weeks and months exploring that part of our failing culture—our culture of upper-end incoherence, our culture of pure bafflegab.
Uh-oh! In his initial post on this subject, our own Mr. Chips seemed to say that this bafflegab doesn't matter all that much. In last Saturday's post, what did Drum say about Walter Isaacson's best-selling book?
The analysts moped about all day. Tomorrow, we'll recall what he said.
Tomorrow: "It's close enough for the general reader," the analysts' Uncle Drum said