Part 3—The science writer's old clothes: By the winter of 88, something unusual had happened.
In the spring of that year, Professor Hawking had published A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, a book which became very famous.
By that summer, the book had gone to number one on the New York Times best-seller list. The book stood at number one on that list for a number of months.
This wasn't hugely unusual. Professor Hawking's book wasn't the first of its kind to achieve wide sales. The "Einstein made comprehensible" niche pre-existed this effort.
Indeed, Einstein had written his own "Einstein made easy" book all the way back in 1916. In theory, physicists had been making Einstein easy for a great number of years.
Professor Hawking's book was a massive ginormous best-seller. That said, the truly unusual occurrence was this:
By the winter of 88, two major journalists had written columns in which they said that they didn't understand Hawking's book! Each professed his incomprehension in the Washington Post.
Richard Cohen went first, but Charles Krauthammer was perhaps more colorful. In early December of 88, he started a column like this:
KRAUTHAMMER (12/2/88): There are two great mysteries in this world. First, how did the universe begin? Second, how does a book that attempts to answer that question...become the No. 1 best seller for 20 weeks in a row? Having now twice read Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time," a smash popularization of modern physics, I am preoccupied with the second question and no closer to an answer for the first than I was when I started.Krauthammer didn't get it! Lacking any sense of decorum or shame, he attested to his own incomprehension, even after two readings of Hawking's book, whose status as a best-seller he also couldn't explain:
KRAUTHAMMER: Incomprehensible in a very interesting way, Hawking's language is simple. The syntax is clear. The exposition is careful, at times even graceful. With the exception of E=mc2, now a staple of subway walls, not a single equation appears in the book. (Hawking was persuaded of the well-known rule of thumb: every equation cuts your sales in half.)Krauthammer said he understood nothing. Breaking every rule in the book, he applied an unusual word, "incomprehensible," to Professor Hawking's writing itself!
If given enough attention, every sentence makes sense. But when you have registered all the sentences, you realize in the end that you understand nothing. It is not Hawking that is beyond comprehension, but modern physics.
Krauthammer writhed in the face of his incomprehension. A second columnist, Richard Cohen, had beaten the scribe to this topic.
Way back in the early summer, Cohen had claimed that he didn't understand the world-famous best-seller either. He started by damning the famous professor who had produced this maddening work. But soon, he challenged another group—the professor's willing enablers.
Cohen cited the legion of critics who had sworn, up and down, that the book was transplendently easy. Breaking every rule of journalistic decorum, he even named some names:
COHEN (6/26/88): Damn you, Stephen Hawking. Damn you and your book, A Brief History of Time, which rests, at this writing, on the best-seller lists and which has been praised as lucid, accessible...A scientific book written for the layman, an important book about the beginnings of the universe, of time and matter and the unified theory that would combine those of quantum mechanics and relativity to explain everything: everything, that is, but how the layman can possibly be expected to understand this book.Playing the role of straight-shooting straight-talker, Kakutani had admitted to finding a few passages hard. "Try impossible," Cohen groused, creating a dispute with the high-ranking Times reviewer we can't hope to settle today.
I read book reviews, and in this case most of them started, as did the one by Jeremy Bernstein in The New Yorker, by saying how easy this book was to read. "Charming and lucid," Bernstein said, although his review was anything but.
Ditto The New York Review of Books. "Hawking's prose is as informal and clear as his topics are profound," wrote Martin Gardner, the author of several books on science. He then outdid Bernstein in proving that the informal and clear could be reduced to sludge. Newsweek weighed in with a profile of Hawking. It noted his use of "imaginary" time, adding that " 'Imaginary' is used here in a technical mathematical sense—meaning the square root of a negative number..." What???
And so it has gone, each review proclaiming that the book made the incomprehensible comprehensible, even though the review itself was incomprehensible. Only one critic I read (Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times) admitted that the book contained "several dense passages...which this reader...found impossible to follow." But even she praised the work, while concluding, "It is hard for the lay reader to grasp all of Mr. Hawking's arguments." Hard? Try impossible.
Each of these columnists wrote in a lightly comical vein. In the process, they drew attention to an intriguing aspect of the culture of incomprehension which surrounds this type of book.
Was Professor Hawking's book "charming and accessible?" Was his prose really "as informal and clear as his topics are profound?"
In the weeks and months ahead, we'll try to answer such questions. For today, though, we'll only say this:
Every "Einstein made easy" book will be reviewed in the manner described by a gang of camp followers. More precisely, the books will be reviewed this way as long as the authors of the books are certified insider figures.
So long as the author is a made person, a gang of enablers will leap into print. They will insist that the book in question is so lucid that even a schoolchild will come away from its pages with a firm understanding of the simple, easy-to-understand topics Einstein and others exposed.
As long as these Einstein-made-easy books are written by establishment figures and published by establishment houses, establishment reviews will swear on a stack of atomic numbers that they make Einstein easy. The books' dust jackets will swarm with blurbs assuring the reader of this.
So it was on the back of Professor Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality, where a collection of blurbs praised the accessibility of his previous easy-to-understand work, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory.
Reviews from six major publications explained how easy-to-understand the earlier book had been. "The Elegant Universe is compulsively readable," New York magazine said in one of the blurbs. "Greene threatens to do for string theory what Stephen Hawking did for black holes."
All major establishment books of this type will be greeted with claims of this type from established reviewers. In the weeks and months ahead, we'll assess the extent to which these claims have been accurate.
Polite reviewers are eager to say that they understood every word. In closing, we should note one other group whose reactions support our journalistic/academic culture of incoherence and incomprehension.
We the people will often insist that we understood every word! In the winter of 88, one such reader scolded Krauthammer in a lengthy letter to the Post which was more than a bit irate.
The Post ran the letter beneath this heading: Who's Afraid of a Little Physics? The letter writer seemed quite sure that she understood Hawking's book:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (12/10/88): Charles Krauthammer's op-ed column of Dec. 2 promotes one of the problems plaguing the education of children today. Mr. Krauthammer's article analyzes Stephen Hawking's popular book, "A Brief History of Time." After reading the book twice, Mr. Krauthammer concludes it is "incomprehensible." I, too, have read Mr. Hawking's book and found it quite understandable. Mr. Hawking has done an excellent job of explaining in clear language how the universe began, Einstein's general theory and other complexities.The professor's best-selling book was written "in clear language." Like the nation's many reviewers, the letter writer found it "quite understandable"—understandable all the way down!
Mr. Krauthammer says he understands "and if asked can readily repeat" what Mr. Hawking writes about string theory or the fact that the universe had a finite beginning yet has no boundaries. He then asks, "But what does it all mean?" In effect, Mr. Krauthammer is saying that physics has become too difficult to understand, so why should anyone try? Many schoolchildren adopt this attitude. If something looks difficult, they decide they will not learn it.
The letter continued from there. "If I, a substitute teacher, can understand, surely someone of Mr. Krauthammer's ability, if he tries, can assimilate what Mr. Hawking's words mean." So the writer said at the end of her screed, which warned about what will happen to the kids of today if Krauthammer's approach takes hold.
In such ways, we the humans affirm our prevailing culture of incoherence, confusion and incomprehension—an intriguing culture which gets its start inside the walls of our loftiest institutions.
Tomorrow—part 4: The Isaacson 19