Part 2—Our tolerance for incomprehension: As we noted yesterday, Professor Greene's 2004 book, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality, went to the New York Times best-seller list.
So had his previous book, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, when it was issued in paperback. So had earlier books of this type, including several massive best-sellers by Professor Hawking.
In part, Professor Hawking's sales were driven by his substantial fame. Also, by the widely-bruited idea that his books would be easy to understand for us, the average shlubs.
That said, did anyone actually understand what Professor Greene wrote in his best-selling books? Did we average shlubs really understand Professor Hawking's books?
You can sign us up as skeptics. To understand our skepticism, consider the featured news report from the front page of last Friday's New York Times.
The report was written by Dennis Overbye (no relation), a long-time science writer for the Times. In 2014, Overbye was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Writing based on what the Boston Globe called "his authoritative illumination of the race by two competing teams of 3,000 scientists and technicians over a seven-year period to discover what physicists call the 'God particle,' " otherwise called the Higgs boson.
Last Friday, Overbye wrote about another major event in the world of physics. His report was 2600 words long. It was placed in the top right-hand corner of the New York Times' front page.
There was a type of history behind this lengthy report. It bore the kind of colorful headlines the Times had famously used in 1919 when another prediction by physicist Albert Einstein had turned out to be right.
That said, did anyone understand last Friday's lengthy report? Underneath a colorful headline, Overbye started like this:
OVERBYE (2/12/16): WITH FAINT CHIRP, SCIENTISTS PROVE EINSTEIN CORRECTDid anyone understand that? We were only three paragraphs into a lengthy report which would run 57 grafs in all. Already, though, weren't we lingering on the edge of a bottomless pit of confusion?
A RIPPLE IN SPACE-TIME
A team of scientists announced on Thursday that they had heard and recorded the sound of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away, a fleeting chirp that fulfilled the last prediction of Einstein's general theory of relativity.
That faint rising tone, physicists say, is the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago. (Listen to it here.) It completes his vision of a universe in which space and time are interwoven and dynamic, able to stretch, shrink and jiggle. And it is a ringing confirmation of the nature of black holes, the bottomless gravitational pits from which not even light can escape, which were the most foreboding (and unwelcome) part of his theory.
More generally, it means that a century of innovation, testing, questioning and plain hard work after Einstein imagined it on paper, scientists have finally tapped into the deepest register of physical reality, where the weirdest and wildest implications of Einstein's universe become manifest.
According to Overbye, physicists now had the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, defined as "the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago." That said, how many readers had any familiarity with the concept of "space-time," as opposed to the more familiar concepts of "space" and "time?"
How many readers knew what it meant to refer to "the fabric of" space-time, let alone knew what it meant to say that this "fabric" had been proven to contain "ripples?"
Tell the truth! Even here, in paragraph 2, haven't most of us crossed into the land of marginal comprehension? And good God! For most of us, didn't our incomprehension deepen when we were told that we live in "a universe in which space and time are interwoven and dynamic?" A world in which space and time are "able to stretch, shrink and jiggle?"
How many readers had any idea what any of those statements might mean? How many readers had any idea what it means to be told that space and time are able to jiggle?
By the way—can space and time jiggle on their own, each in its own separate way, without reference to the other? Or can space and time only jiggle as "space-time," the previously-mentioned conglomerate which very few New York Times readers could discuss, comprehend, picture or imagine in any serious way?
Whatever! By now, we would suggest that most readers were already lost in type of a "bottomless pit," before they even had a chance to wonder what that concept might mean in the current context.
Bottomless pits are known to exist in the realm of magical writing, but are there really "bottomless pits" in outer space? In what way could such pits actually be "bottomless?" How many New York Times readers would have any real idea?
Do people understand what they're reading when they read work of this type? As Overbye continued, the question arose again.
In paragraphs 11 and 12, readers encountered the various statements we highlight below. LIGO is an acronym for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory:
OVERBYE: The discovery is a great triumph for three physicists—Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology, Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ronald Drever, formerly of Caltech and now retired in Scotland—who bet their careers on the dream of measuring the most ineffable of Einstein's notions.Do you know what it means to be told that "the flow of time speeded, then slowed?" For ourselves, we can picture certain things. Does that mean that we actually know what this statement means?
''Until now, we scientists have only seen warped space-time when it's calm,'' Dr. Thorne said in an email. ''It's as though we had only seen the ocean's surface on a calm day but had never seen it roiled in a storm, with crashing waves.''
The black holes that LIGO observed created a storm ''in which the flow of time speeded, then slowed, then speeded,'' he said. ''A storm with space bending this way, then that.''
Beyond that, we all can picture what it means when we're told that various objects "bent this way, then that," perhaps in a very high wind. Do we know what it means to be told that "space" did that? Do we have the slightest idea?
Twelve paragraphs into this lengthy report, we will guess that most Times were far out at sea, caught in some very strong breezes. Soon thereafter, Overbye began providing some basic background about the things Einstein said a hundred years ago.
Our advice: Prepare yourself to understand nothing of what's being said:
OVERBYE: When Einstein announced his theory in 1915, he rewrote the rules for space and time that had prevailed for more than 200 years, since the time of Newton, stipulating a static and fixed framework for the universe. Instead, Einstein said, matter and energy distort the geometry of the universe in the way a heavy sleeper causes a mattress to sag, producing the effect we call gravity.Presumably, every Times reader can picture "the way a heavy sleeper" might "cause a mattress to sag."
A disturbance in the cosmos could cause space-time to stretch, collapse and even jiggle, like a mattress shaking when that sleeper rolls over, producing ripples of gravity: gravitational waves.
Einstein was not quite sure about these waves. In 1916, he told Karl Schwarzschild, the discoverer of black holes, that gravitational waves did not exist, then said they did. In 1936, he and his assistant Nathan Rosen set out to publish a paper debunking the idea before doing the same flip-flop again.
According to the equations physicists have settled on, gravitational waves would compress space in one direction and stretch it in another as they traveled outward.
(Presumably, we're talking about the weight of the sleeper's body, not the depth of his slumber.)
We all can picture that! That doesn't mean we have any idea what it means to be told that "matter and energy distort the geometry of the universe" in much the same way.
We all know what a mattress is. We don't know what "the geometry of the universe" is! For that reason, it's very hard to picture the latter behaving in the manner of the former. Homer would have skipped this simile, knowing it wouldn't help.
We all can imagine a 300-pound sleeper rolling over and making his mattress jiggle. That doesn't mean we have any idea what it means when we're told that "a disturbance in the cosmos," whatever that might be, "could cause space-time to jiggle" in much the same way. Judged by any normal standard, few Times readers had the slightest idea what Overbye's statement might mean.
We've looked at three chunks of the lengthy report which topped the front page of Friday's New York Times. At the point where we've left off, we're twenty paragraphs into a 57-paragraph piece. Very few readers have any idea what Overbye's talking about.
We don't mean to single Overbye out. He's a 71-year-old MIT grad who presumably knows a lot of math and science.
That said, he works in a field where we the humans display a large degree of tolerance for massive incoherence, confusion and incomprehension. Indeed, an entire industry is built around the promulgation of work of this type, in which we average shlubs are told that modern physics has been made so easy-to-understand that even a schoolchild can get it.
In closing, let's state the obvious. It doesn't actually "matter" if Times readers didn't understand Overbye's front-page report. It doesn't exactly matter if readers only think they understand the contents of Greene and Hawking's best-sellers.
Nothing much turns on our tolerance for this type of incomprehension. Our cell phones will still work for us in the morning even if we can't explain why.
That said, large branches of contemporary academics are built upon this type of incomprehension, of which we the people are extremely tolerant. And uh-oh!
In the last century, a big-name "philosopher" seemed to say that it has ever been thus.
Tomorrow: Obedient critics understand every word!
Thursday: Isaacson's nineteen professors