INTRODUCTION TO INCOMPREHENSION: Our top professors weren't able to help!


Part 4—The Isaacson 17:
In the vast majority of situations, Walter Isaacson is a very clear writer.

That's why Isaacson's 2007 best-seller, Einstein: His Life and Universe, gives us a window into the culture of incomprehension which surrounds major parts of academic and journalistic endeavor.

(In hard copy, Isaacson's book entered the New York Times best-seller list at number one. It spent fifteen weeks on the list.)

Isaacson is a major American journalist and author. In the words of the leading authority on his life, "he has been the chairman and CEO of CNN and the managing editor of Time. He has written biographies of Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Henry Kissinger."

He graduated from Harvard in 1978, after which he went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. According to the leading authority, he "became the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute in 2004."

Beyond that, did we mention the fact that, in almost all contexts, Isaacson happens to be a very clear writer?

We mention that fact for a reason. Isaacson's bio of Einstein is very clear, and quite interesting, in the chapters with deal with "Einstein's life." Isaacson presents an interesting theory concerning the way Einstein's rebellious personality informed his transformational scientific work.

He presents his theory very clearly; the work is a pleasure to read. Then again, there are the chapters in which Isaacson explains, or attempts to explain, "Einstein's universe," his revolutionary science.

In our view, the clarity exits the scene at this point. We're thrown back into the culture of incoherence, confusion and incomprehension which we plan to discuss at some length in the exhilarating weeks and months ahead.

The biographical writing is clear as a bell; then we encounter the science. Of a sudden, the writing is clear as mud. For today, we'll offer one tiny example.

Warning to readers! You will be inclined to say that the writing in the excerpt we offer isn't unclear at all. You'll be inclined to think the writing makes perfect sense in the passage in question.

In thinking that, you'll be wrong, oh so wrong. But even this warning may not be enough to keep you from drifting that way.

For today, we're going to skip the early passage in which Isaacson describes "one of the most beautiful theories in all of science, the general theory of relativity" for the first time. He closes that first exposition by good-naturedly saying this:

"Okay, it's not easy, but that's why we're no Einstein and he was."

We'll agree with that assessment; for fuller text, see below. But in that good-natured aside, Isaacson defines his book's basic problem.

Question: Does the science ever get "easy" in the course of this lengthy book? Posing that question a different way, do the scientific chapters in this book ever get comprehensible?

According to the blurbs on the back of the book, the answer would seem to be yes. On the back of our hard-copy dust jacket, six different blurbs appear. They come from four professors, one science writer and the inevitable Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Professor Greene offers the first of the blurbs. Basically, everyone insists that the book is "excellently readable," to quote Professor Holton.

According to Professor Stone, "Isaacson's treatment of Einstein's scientific work" provides "just the right level of detail for the general reader." But readers, it's easy for him to say! He's a physics professor at Yale!

Isaacson is a very clear, engaging writer concerning Einstein's life. In his otherwise capable hands, does the science ever get easy?

We're here to suggest that it doesn't. Consider the start of Chapter Six, "Special Relativity, 1905."

Essentially, the passage we'll post below represents the start of Isaacson's attempt to explain the science. As a connoisseur of such efforts, we love the way he starts, perhaps a bit too much:
ISAACSON (page 107): Relativity is a simple concept. It asserts that the fundamental laws of physics are the same whatever your state of motion.
"Relativity is a simple concept," Isaacson says as he starts this chapter. He then states that concept in a way which doesn't strike us as simple at all.

According to Isaacson, relativity "asserts that the fundamental laws of physics are the same whatever your state of motion." On the surface, that may seem wondrously clear.

As connoisseurs of this sort of thing, we don't think it's clear at all. We'll offer two observations:

First, a relatively minor point: Will general readers have any idea what we're talking about when we cite "the fundamental laws of physics?"

What are these fundamental laws? Do you feel sure that you can name even one? Granted, we're only one sentence into Isaacson's exposition at this point. But just for the record, we're already involved in one possible source of murk, fuzz and confusion.

That's a relatively minor point. A larger question lives here:

Why would anyone imagine or think that the fundamental laws of physics would change in some way depending on his "state of motion?" The general reader probably won't have any idea what these fundamental laws even are. But how fundamental could these laws by if they suddenly "change" in some way when the reader gets out of his chair and walks across the room?

And yes, that seems to be what Isaacson is talking about. As he continues, he fleshes out his description of this "simple concept."

To us, it almost sounds like this fuller passage was written by committee. As we'll show you below, it's possible that it pretty much was. Isaacson's italics:
ISAACSON (pages 107-108): Relativity is a simple concept. It asserts that the fundamental laws of physics are the same whatever your state of motion.

For the special case of observers moving at a constant velocity, this concept is pretty easy to accept. Imagine a man in an armchair at home and a woman in an airplane gliding very smoothly above. Each can pour a cup of coffee, bounce a ball, shine a flashlight, or heat a muffin in a microwave and have the same laws of physics apply. In fact, there is no way to determine which of them is “in motion” and which is “at rest.”

The man in the armchair could consider himself at rest and the plane in motion. And the woman in the plane could consider herself at rest and the earth as gliding past. There is no experiment that can prove who is right.

Indeed, there is no absolute right. All that can be said is that each is moving relative to the other. And of course, both are moving very rapidly relative to other planets, stars, and galaxies.
Isaacson's sentences are short and grammatically correct. At the very least, they resemble lucid writing.

That said, we'd be inclined to regard that passage as a species of bafflegab.

It's possible to read every word and believe that passage is making clear sense. But in our view, the passage isn't making clear sense at all. Indeed, by the time Isaacson writes that one sentence ("Indeed, there is no absolute right.") he barely seems to be speaking English.

As Wittgenstein noted, sometimes with eloquence, it's easy to create conceptual confusion, hard to untangle such webs. In our view, those four paragraphs are easy to read on the surface. But, at least in the way they stand, they make very little clear sense.

In the first two paragraphs, we're told that we're learning a simple concept. We're also told that, in certain types of cases, that simple concept is "easy to accept."

We're then told that a woman gliding along in a jet can bounce a ball or shine a flashlight, just like a man in an easy chair. Again, the writing seems lucid and clear. Still, we have these questions:

Do you have the slightest idea what any of that has to do with "the fundamental laws of physics?" Even now, do you have any idea what those fundamental laws are?

Do you have any idea how those homely examples demonstrate or support the "simple concept" with which we began—the claim that those laws remain the same whatever your state of motion?

Truth? Already, we feel that we're at sea after those first two paragraphs. In paragraph 3, we're suddenly discussing something different—the basic question of what it even means to say that someone is "in motion" or "at rest."

Isaacson's statements here may seem familiar and right. But do you have any idea how we suddenly got to that from our starting point? Do you feel sure that you know what he means when he offers that statement in semi-English: "Indeed, there is no absolute right?"

Why in the world would he say it like that? Already, it seems that he's lost!

Reading that passage, we can choose to glide along smoothly, like the woman in the jet. That said, we'd find it very hard to explain what Isaacson is saying.

We can agree to glide along in the faith that our pilot knows what he's doing. But does he actually know what he's doing? Or is there no absolute right?

A fair-minded person will want to imagine that Isaacson gets any confusion straightened out as his chapter proceeds. We don't think that's the case. But in the weeks and months ahead, we'll examine examples from Isaacson's book, and from other books about abstruse topics—best-selling books which have been hailed by professors and journalists alike as being "excellently readable."

In closing today, we'll make a suggestion. It involves The Gang of 17 Isaacson cites before he starts his book.

As mentioned, Walter Isaacson is a very clear writer. His writing about "Einstein's life" is lucid, clear, intriguing, interesting, sharp. But as with so many others before him, his writing about "Einstein's universe" is incoherent, a jumble, a bit of a tiny large mess.

As he sat in his easy chair, did Isaacson secretly know that? Before he even starts Chapter One, he in effect blurbs his own book, listing an endless array of major figures who made his book more comprehensible and more correct.

We refer to his four full pages of Acknowledgments, a section preceding Chapter One. In that section, Isaacson lists an array of major figures who read the manuscript, especially the scientific passages, making sure that he got everything right.

He cites seventeen different professors, along with five "nonscientific readers" and two teachers of high school physics. He says that quite a few others helped with his text, but for the sake of simplicity, let's leave things at that.

Isaacson doesn't simply list all those names. He devotes a separate paragraph to most of the professors who helped, explaining the service each provided.

Over and over, the physics professors helped him make his text "excellently readable." Beyond that, Isaacson asked the high school physics teachers to "give the book a careful reading to make sure the science was... comprehensible to those whose last physics course was in high school." The five nonscientific readers, several of whom are major names, "made very useful suggestions from a lay perspective on parts or all of the manuscript."

Our view? Out of that effort came bafflegab, a tribute to the difficulty involved in "explaining" modern physics and the inability of us the humans to express ourselves clearly and well.

In the last century, a big-name philosopher discussed the culture of incoherence at substantial length. Next week, we'll spend four days on his work, before returning to the ripples, rips, bends and tears in the fabric of space-time—the topic where none of us seems to have any idea what we're talking about.

Tomorrow: An overview of our plans for future work from this, our new pavilion

Monday through Thursday: Sources of incoherence

For those who would read ahead: The passage shown below comes from Isaacson's Chapter One.

"Okay, it's not easy," Isaacson says. See if you agree:
ISAACSON (pages 3-4): [I]n 1915, [Einstein] wrested from nature his crowning glory, one of the most beautiful theories in all of science, the general theory of relativity. As with the special theory, his thinking had evolved through thought experiments. Imagine being in an enclosed elevator accelerating up through space, he conjectured in one of them. The effects you'd feel would be indistinguishable from the experience of gravity.

Gravity, he figured, was a warping of space and time, and he came up with the equations that describe how the dynamics of this curvature result from the interplay between matter, motion, and energy. It can be described by using another thought experiment. Picture what it would be like to roll a bowling ball onto the two-dimensional surface of a trampoline. Then roll some billiard balls. They move toward the bowling ball not because it exerts some mysterious attraction but because of the way it curves the trampoline fabric. Now imagine this happening in the four-dimensional fabric of space and time. Okay, it's not easy, but that's why we're no Einstein and he was.
Barring Isaacson's closing jest, we'd have to call that passage bafflegab.

No one has the slightest idea what Isaacson means when he refers to "the four-dimensional fabric of space and time." We all can picture that trampoline—but none of us knows how to imagine that "four-dimensional fabric!" Nor does Isaacson give us the tools to do so, or notice that he has failed.

We don't mean to single Isaacson out. This failure dates all the way back to the first appearance of Einstein's work. It's part of a fascinating intellectual culture we'll explore in the months ahead.


  1. POTUS & FLOTUS skip SCOTUS Scalia funeral. The Nothing in Constitution prohibits POTUS to head for the links instead.

    1. And that is relevant to Bob's essay how?

    2. Obama's mercurial decisions relates to whether the cosmos is built on uncertainty or whether it is fundamentally deterministic, with every event linked definitively to a cause.

    3. Scotus Scalia sounds like something that could kill a judge in bed.

    4. Dear Horace Feathers, comrade cicero is a paid troll. It's not in his/her/its commission contract to be on topic.

    5. The Senate is preparing to act in a highly partisan manner by shelving Obama's nominee to replace Scalia. Attending Scalia's funeral would have been a convenient way for the President to demonstrate that he's rising above partisanship. He is missing an opportunity.

    6. And if he had gone, you would have criticized him for showboating and drawing attention away from Antonin.

    7. The Senate is preparing to demonstrate once again that they are incapable of governing when given the power.

    8. The Republican controlled Senate, I should have said.

    9. David in Cal: your concern about how Obama might be perceived is duly noted, as is your concern trolling.

    10. @ 4:25

      While Scalia is deceased, Obama is still alive if not politically. How would the POTUS appearance at funeral be anything other than respectful as his absence couldn't be any thing other than a diss.

    11. @ 6:13 Pm - how was lunch today, comrade?

    12. "How would the POTUS appearance at funeral be anything other than respectful as his absence couldn't be any thing other than a diss."

      Oh, I'm sure you'd find a way to bitch about Obama regardless of what he did. Pattern and practice.

    13. @ 7:35

      Name a conservative who gave Obama static for giving the green light to SEAL TEAM 6 to take out UBL?

    14. @mm
      Obama had the captive audience of the SCOTUS at his SOTU speech and proceeded to chastise them in a venue where they could not do anything but sit silently. But good to know Obama is as petty and callow as you believe Scalia was behaving.

  2. Bafflegab, Bafflegab, & Bafflegab, LLC.February 18, 2016 at 1:22 PM

    Isaacson is a very clear writer....did we mention the fact that, in almost all contexts, Isaacson happens to be a very clear writer?...very clear....He presents his theory very clearly....The biographical writing is clear as a bell....Isaacson is a very clear, engaging writer...As mentioned, Walter Isaacson is a very clear writer.

  3. One law of physics is very clear: It is lead pipe certain you won't see this in the Howler whether you are still or in motion.

    "Newly hired outside engineers have been given a month to find Flint’s underground lead water pipes, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan said Wednesday, saying he wanted replacements to begin promptly but not so quickly that it caused other problems." AP

  4. Pope Francis questions Donald Trump's Christianity

    1. Pope: Trump "Not Christian"

    2. Trump: Pope Remarks "Disgraceful"

    3. Expect Trump to campaign on building a fence around the pontiff and billing Vatican City.

    4. Trump Spox already attacked Pope noting wall exists around entire Vatican City boundary.

    5. Pope loses cool with Trump and Mexican parishioner. Flesh is weak.

    6. "Comrade cicero shows up barking for pennies. Brainless as ever.


      FTFY - NFO

    7. Yet another reason to like Pope Francis.

    8. @6:02

      Your other favorite reason is his stance on abortion, yes?

    9. Troll on for those kopeks, comrade.

    10. "Abortion is not a religious wrong, it's a human wrong." No ethical person who believes in equality of human beings could disagree in the overwhelming majority of cases in which it is committed.

  5. Bravo, Bob! I see our old friend Doris gets a mention. Haven't seen her on TV much since her disgrace. She's apparently been banned from The News Hour just like Juan Cole and Pat Lang, but for different reasons.

    1. Did I tell you she once opined on a debate when she actually watched a baseball game?

  6. Bravo, Bob! I see our old friend Doris gets a mention. Haven't seen her on TV much since her disgrace. She's apparently been banned from The News Hour just like Juan Cole and Pat Lang, but for different reasons.

    1. Did you know she once said something about a debate after she had been watching baseball?

    2. Why was Juan Cole banned?

  7. I think the point to remember is that Bob doesn't quite get relativity.

    1. "Isaacson's 2007 best-seller, Einstein: His Life and Universe, gives us a window into the culture of incomprehension which surrounds major parts of academic and journalistic endeavor."

      The window given is to the limited comprehension of Bob Somerby.

  8. Modern physics can't be dumbed down enough for Bob to understand. It can't be dumbed down enough for me, either. The problem is that various authors pretend that they have successfully dumbed it down. They should say, "These difficult concepts require years of diligent study."

    1. Only Rachel Maddow can be "dumbed down"enough to contantly attract Bob Somerby's undivided constant attention. Or rather attraction. Not comprehension.