EINSTEIN MAKES EINSTEIN EASY: Albert Einstein's focus group!

FRIDAY, MARCH 18, 2016

Part 4—Teen takes a look at the excerpts:
In 1916, Albert Einstein wrote a book aimed at the general reader.

It bore a simple, straightforward title: Relativity: The Special and the General Theory.

In 1920, Einstein's book appeared in English. How accessible—indeed, how easy—did Albert Einstein's slender volume make his world-famous concepts?

We'd have to say that Einstein's book didn't make Einstein easy. We'd be inclined to support our claim by perusing some early excerpts.

Einstein wrote quite concisely in his slender volume, which is still in print. His chapters tend to contain few pages. A full page of Einstein's text contains fewer than three hundred words.

With that in mind, a reader will have encountered well under three thousand words when Einstein's Chapter IV arrives on page 11 of standard hard-copy editions.

At that point, a somewhat less-than-easy excerpt appears.

In 1961, Bonanza Books, an offshoot of Crown Publishers, Inc., which the Koch Brothers probably owned, placed this account of Einstein's book on the cover of a new edition of the historic text:


How accurate was that crazy account of Albert Einstein's historic book? We'll suggest that you take a quick look at this excerpt:
As is well known, the fundamental law of the mechanics of Galilei-Newton, which is known as the law of inertia, can be stated thus: A body removed sufficiently far from other bodies continues in a state of rest or of uniform motion in a straight line. This law not only says something about the motion of the bodies, but it also indicates the reference-bodies or systems of co-ordinates, permissible in mechanics, which can be used in mechanical description. The visible fixed stars are bodies for which the law of inertia certainly holds to a high degree of approximation. Now if we use a system of co-ordinates which is rigidly attached to the earth, then, relative to this system, every fixed star describes a circle of immense radius in the course of an astronomical day, a result which is opposed to the statement of the law of inertia. So that if we adhere to this law we must refer these motions only to systems of coordinates relative to which the fixed stars do not move in a circle. A system of co-ordinates of which the state of motion is such that the law of inertia holds relative to it is called a “Galileian system of co-ordinates.” The laws of the mechanics of Galilei-Newton can be regarded as mechanics valid only for a Galileian system of co-ordinates.
That easy excerpt constitutes the entire Chapter IV! The book is still less than three thousand words old when we move to the start of Chapter V, which starts with Einstein saying he wants "to attain the greatest possible clearness."

With speed approaching that of light, we soon encounter this excerpt:
If K is a Galileian co-ordinate system, then every other co-ordinate system K' is a Galileian one, when, in relation to K, it is in a condition of uniform motion of translation. Relative to K' the mechanical laws of Galilei-Newton hold good exactly as they do with respect to K.

We advance a step farther in our generalisation when we express the tenet thus: If, relative to K, K' is a uniformly moving co-ordinate system devoid of rotation, then natural phenomena run their course with respect to K' according to exactly the same general laws as with respect to K. This statement is called the principle of relativity (in the restricted sense).
We're not saying that is "wrong!" We're suggesting it might not seem completely easy, clear or accessible to the "man in the street."

To our eye, that second excerpt seems a tiny bit daunting, and we've barely started the book. But so what? Forty-five years after Einstein published, Bonanza was saying his explanations were so clear that even a chimpanzee could understand them.

It was the early 1960s! On the Today Show, J. Fred Muggs screeched satisfaction with Einstein's easy text.

Blurbs and whispers of this type have persisted to this very day. We'd include Nova's claim, made last November, that they could explain Einstein's work in such a way that it would even be understood by many PBS viewers!

We don't think that Nova made good on that improbable claim. In the process, we'd say the famously brainiac PBS org added to our sprawling and fascinating "culture of incoherence."

We'll discuss Nova's effort in the next week of this series. For today, let's briefly consider Einstein's skill at what he pretty much wasn't:

Let's consider Einstein's skill as a popular writer.

By all accounts, Albert Einstein was one of the human history's great intellectual giants. We'd all be wise if we considered an obvious possibility:

Ignore the efforts of professors and publishers, who may be trying to move some product. In all likelihood, we the regular human beings have no real idea what was going on in Einstein's mind when he began, at age 16, to wonder what you'd see if you rode along beside a beam of light, as the popular writers frame it.

Despite the skill of popular writers at painting such pictures, we regular humans probably have no idea why Einstein started to think about that, if that's what he actually did.

We also have no idea how Maxwell's equations (whatever they are) figured into this rumination, although that's the next place we're typically taken on this magical mystery ride, in which we're asked to pretend that we're riding alongside the mind of someone who was preternaturally gifted.

Presumably, we all assume that Einstein was preternaturally gifted. Let's understand what that doesn't mean:

It doesn't mean that he had superhuman gifts as a popular writer. Einstein's astonishing gifts as a physicist don't necessarily mean that he was unusually skilled as an explainer of the esoteric understandings he had somehow devised or achieved.

Albert Einstein wasn't a popular writer. There's no reason to assume that he'd be preternaturally skilled at explaining special and general relativity to (take your pick):

Any high school graduate (Bonanza Books, inside its 1961 dust jacket);

Any college graduate who knew some calculus (Arthur Gordon Webster, in the 1920 review Bonanza Books doctored to create an encouraging blurb for its 1961 edition of Einstein's book);

Anyone at all (Bonanza Books, on the cover of its 1961 edition);

Anyone who has passed a university matriculation examination (Einstein himself, in the preface to his slender 1916 volume).

Despite his preternatural gifts, there was never any reason to think that Einstein would be able to make Einstein easy. Indeed, he didn't accomplish that task, according to a review which was apparently written by the editors of Scientific American.

"Okay, this book isn't easy," the editors are widely said to have said, apparently in December 2005, although we haven't been able to find a link to their complete text.

"Okay, this book isn't easy—again, in the master's elegant words, it 'lays no small claims on the patience and on the power of abstraction of the reader'—but it is well worth the try."

That's what the editors are widely said to have said. They were commenting on a new Penguin edition of Einstein's historic book.

"The introduction, by science writer Nigel Calder, guides the reader through the work section by section, even giving advice on which sections to skip," the editors are said to have puckishly said, "or at least not to worry about, if you can't 'accompany Einstein through the forest of tricky ideas contained in this slim volume.'"

In our view, many people will have a hard time traveling through that forest. Unfortunately, publishers and academics have often worked to obscure that fact. In the process, they've helped create a comical culture of confusion and incoherence.

Let's establish one final point about Albert Einstein, who wasn't a popular writer. This involves the focus group he used in composing his slender historic book.

When Einstein wrote his slender volume, what made him think a wide range of readers would be able to follow his presentations? Walter Isaacson sketches an answer in his best-selling biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe.

Isaacson has a good sense of humor. He put it to use in the passage in question, in a book which is extremely lucid until it encounters the science.

In this passage from page 232, "Elsa" is Elsa Einstein, Einstein's cousin, who later became his second wife. "Margot" is Elsa's daughter, who was sixteen years old at the time she became Einstein's focus group:
In 1916, [Einstein] began writing again about the quantum. He also wrote a formal exposition of his general theory of relativity, which was far more comprehensive, and slightly more comprehensible, than what he had poured forth in his weekly lectures during his race with Hilbert the previous November.

In addition, he produced an even more understandable version: a book for the lay reader, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, that remains popular to this very day. To make sure that the average person would fathom it, he read every page out loud to Elsa's daughter Margot, pausing frequently to ask whether she indeed got it. "Yes, Albert," she invariably replied, even though (as she confided to others) she found the whole thing totally baffling.
If Isaacson is right, Einstein's focus group was his 16-year-old niece, who didn't want to say she was baffled by the easy-to-understand work found in the excerpts posted above, and in the many which followed as the book became more dense.

Albert Einstein wasn't preternaturally skilled as a popular writer. Still and all, so what?

Isaacson paints a humorous scene, but even as he does, he casually says that Einstein's book was "even more understandable" than previous efforts, and he says the book in question "remains popular to this day."

This reflexive fawning is found throughout the world of Einstein-made-easy books. As professors and writers fawn in this way, often to one another, a humorous dynamic extends beyond Einstein and his niece.

Millions of people become engaged in the courteous, all-too-human practice of refusing to admit, or perhaps even understand, the fact that they don't get it. This creates a comical culture, a culture of high incoherence.

According to Isaacson, Elsa Einstein knew she was baffled. We will advance a guess:

The giants at Nova probably didn't. Our sprawling culture of incoherence tends to keep us from being that sharp.

Coming in what remains of the future: A week on Nova; a week on Einstein's Chapter 9; an introductory week on Wittgenstein...


  1. Which scientist said it, Josef Mengele or progressive darling, Princeton professor and regular contributor to the New York Times and NPR, Peter Singer? Suggest a person may be murdered if no one cares about him, just don't suggest 1 in 4 women aren't raped and you'll do fine at today's worthless universities.

    On his faculty page, Mr. Singer argues: “Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living. That doesn’t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do. It is, but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.

  2. Like Bob Somerby, I've read a lot of these popular accounts of relativity, quantum mechanics ("Schrodinger's Cat," etc.) and string theory by serious scientists. The books on black holes by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose. I even read a lengthy attempt to explain Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. Maybe the generality is that concepts that can only be understood at a rigorous level by understanding the mathematics that were used to prove their validity cannot be reduced to "word symbols," which are a different language. Godel's theorem can be stated very simply and it looks as though it means something. Godel devised an ingenious way, in his actual proof, to restate a verbal paradox in mathematical terms, using numbers raised to extraordinary exponent powers, producing gigantic numbers. It's completely bewildering. Even Einstein, said to be Godel's favorite companion in their declining years at Princeton, struggled to understand Godel's explanation.

    1. Spot on! I wrote this before reading your comment:

      Thanks Bob, I got a couple of chuckles out of reading this.

      If your point is that general and special relativity are incomprehensible to the lay reader, except as presented in allegorical form – which makes the concepts “comprehensible,” though perhaps not in fact correct – I get it.

      The fact that acceleration creates a force exactly the same as the force of gravitational attraction – a phenomenon that can actually be experienced in the “real” world – is completely baffling to me in its implications. Undoubtedly, were I better versed in the language of mathematics, my understanding would be clearer.

      But my brain isn’t wired that way so… I’ll just have to enjoy the allegorical explanations, which I must admit I do, even if they sometimes invoke unexplainable (without mathematics) questions of their own.

  3. Well, I don't see the connection between cicero's comment and the Howler's musings on the press corps or Einstein, but okay.

    1. @Kholmst

      HRC's personal behavior while Secretary of State is related to both the press corps and Einstein's many references to Newton's Third Law: "Every action has an equal and opposite reaction."

  4. Here are some Einstein thoughts. Go to page 294.

  5. I remember hearing about A Brief History of Time in my late teens, and resolving to read it. I finally got around to it when I was maybe 22. I checked it out at the local library, and was excited to get into this legendary layman's explanation of the universe. I got maybe 20 pages in, and I'd read and re-read a bit about black holes and event horizon's 3 or 4 times and decided to take a break. I never ended up picking it back up or checking it out again. These day's I'm with Somerby: I think all those reviews claiming that book is accessible to the layman are likely so much horseshit. I seriously doubt that many readers understood the contents therein.

    1. I seriously understand you and Somerby suffer the same inability to understand science for the "layman."

      I am glad his confessions make you feel comfie in your shared inadequacy.

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  7. How convenient! Your entry last week caused me to begin reading that slender volume. Today I've reached XIV, which looks pretty challenging. But I was pleased to be able to read your excerpt and make perfect sense of it, having worked my way through it this morning.
    Am I some brainiac? A regular Penrose? Not at all. But I do find Einsteins' writing accessible and (so far) within my abilities to understand.
    Don't discourage us! It might require more in the way of focused concentration than we are used to in general (and certainly more than you, Mr. Repetition, require of us here), but he's clear in his explanations so far (given the century of time displacement involved, and the occasional translation problems- such as "rotation" substituted for "revolution").
    It's true, I couldn't make sense of this stuff as a teen, but I'm not sure I'm any smarter now. Just more prepared to listen to the man.

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