MONDAY, MARCH 28, 2016

Prologue–One hundred years of confusion:
In 1905, at age 26, Albert Einstein began a revolution.

Ten years later, in 1915, he presented the work which is now described as the general theory of relativity. For the past hundred years, journalists, professors and science writers have been trying to explain what he discovered, invented or said.

Late last November, Nova launched the latest attempt. The PBS org aired an hour-long program, Inside Einstein's Mind, timed to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the general theory.

To watch the entire program, click here. The program opens like this:
Nova/Inside Einstein's Mind:

NARRATOR: It's a mysterious force that shapes our universe.

It feels familiar, but it's far stranger than anyone ever imagined. And yet, one man's brilliant mind tamed it:


Using simple thought experiments, Albert Einstein made an astonishing discovery:

Time and space are shaped by matter.

PROFESSOR JOHNSON: We get rid of this force of gravity, and instead we have curvature of spacetime.

PROFESSOR LEVIN: Right now, the space around me is being squeezed and stretched.

NARRATOR: He called it "the general theory of relativity." How did one person, working almost entirely alone, change everything we thought we knew about the universe?

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Einstein is toiling as the world seems to be falling apart.

PROFESSOR DIJKGRAAF: He was able, with pure thought, to solve the riddle of the universe.

NARRATOR: Inside Einstein's Mind. Right now, on Nova.
According to the narrator, Einstein "tamed gravity." In the process, he "changed everything we thought we knew about the universe."

Professor Dijkgraaf went that one better. According to him, Einstein "solved the riddle of the universe" with the general theory.

Let's offer a basic conjecture. At this point in the hour-long program, very few PBS viewers could have explained what Nova was talking about.

More specifically, very few viewers could have explained what it means to say that "time and space are shaped by matter," the narrator's nugget statement.

Few viewers could have explained the subsequent statements by two professors. We refer to the statement that Einstein got rid of gravity, replacing it with "curvature of spacetime." Also, to the statement that the space around Professor Levin was "being stretched" as she spoke.

Let's go beyond that. Presumably, few viewers could have explained an apparent contradiction which seems to occur within that introductory passage, which runs one minute and ten seconds.

We refer to the narrator's apparent claim that gravity is a "mysterious force that shapes our universe," as compared to Professor Johnson's subsequent statement, in which he says that Einstein "got rid of this force of gravity."

Whatever! In theory, it doesn't matter if PBS viewers couldn't explain the overview statements made at the start of this program. In theory, the subsequent hour would be devoted to explaining the "astonishing discovery" Einstein made.

Let's be fair! If Einstein's discovery was so primal–if it really did "change everything we thought we knew about the universe"–it may not be surprising if those introductory statements still seem puzzling, even if a hundred years have passed since the discovery in question.

A skunk might wonder why Einstein's discovery would still seem confusing, even after orgs like Nova have had a hundred years to explain it. Such skeptics could perhaps be said to lack a devotion to the journalistic and publishing cons which have been perpetrated down through the years–to the "culture of incoherence" in which our culture swims.

Whatever! It really shouldn't be all that surprising if PBS viewers couldn't explain this program's opening minute. A hundred years later, relativity is still widely understood to be confusing, quite "hard."

In airing this program, Nova and PBS were alleging that they could "dispel the confusion"–that they could elucidate, clarify or explain Einstein's hundred-year-old theory.

Last November, we sat before our TV screen, eager for elucidation. At roughly the eleven-minute mark in the program, we thought we saw one of the worst "non-explanation explanations" we have ever seen.

Starting tomorrow, we'll examine that non-explanation explanation. It involves the man standing on the railway platform and the lady passing by on the (very) fast-moving train.

Next week, we'll look at Chapters 8 and 9 in Einstein's slender volume from 1916, chapters Nova was closely tracking in its non-explanation. How clearly did Einstein explain his revolutionary discoveries?

To examine Einstein's slender volume, click here. According to Walter Isaacson, Einstein felt the book would be understandable for general readers because he read its contents to his teen-aged niece, who (falsely) told her uncle that she understood it.

One hundred years later, Nova became the latest to try. In our view, its effort began to collapse around the ten-minute mark.

Despite that collapse, the narrator continued ahead. You probably know what we're going to say:

It's all part of a hundred-year-old culture of incoherence!

Tomorrow: Let's take a look at the transcript!


  1. Why should members of the general public be able to explain anything about general relativity after watching an hour-long TV show?

    1. For the same reason that Bob Somerby, after failing for two decades as a minor league comedy club performer fancied himself and expert on media coverage and politics.

    2. How do you fail for two decades as a comedy club performer? Failing means you cannot make a living at it. Doing something for two decades means you can obviously make a living sufficient to continue in that job. People who fail don't do something for two decades.

    3. "Oh now wait a minute. Come on. Wait a minute. You mean to tell me you work at something you can't make a living off so you gotta take a job to make enough money to go on working at work you can't live on."
      Ignorant, ill-bred and foolish baseball player played by Lee Marvin in Stanley Kramer's "Ship of Fools".

    4. That concept should be very familiar to a baseball player. Look at all the former baseball players who cannot make a living in baseball but stay close to it by coaching or managing little league or joining the neighborhood softball team while they work at regular jobs.

      Somerby got to do his creative job for decades. That is success, regardless of how much he earned. Artists, dancers, singers, actors, writers, all know how hard that is to accomplish.

    5. I followed comedy throughout its boom era of the 80's. I never heard of Bob Somerby.

    6. Were you on the West Coast perhaps? I found these without much effort using Google.

      From Motley Fool:

      "To close, congratulations to long-time fellow Fool Paul Harris, the popular D.C. metro area disc jockey, whose own efforts at putting together a Comedy Concert for Children's Hospital raised $50,000 last year, and in the one just completed two nights ago, $100,000 (!) this year. That is astounding, for one night. The Fool was proud to be a minor sponsor of Harris's superb event, but really, it was all Paul (and some great comedic talent like Wendy Liebman, Will Durst, Bob Somerby, and the Reduced Shakespeare Company). Fool on. -- David Gardner, December 10, 1997"

      One man show in 1995:

      "Laugh Trick
      Bob Somerby airs his family secrets, bashes Christmas, and debunks breakfast cereals—all in the name of a better America.

      By Michael Dolan • February 17, 1995"

      CSPAN, 2006:

      "September 27, 2006

      Funniest Celebrity in Washington At the 13th annual charity contest politicians, journalists and political activists tried their hand at stand-up comedy. George Stephanopoulos and his wife Ali Wentworth made the ceremonial first joke. Comedian Brett Leake was the special guest and Bob Somerby performed while the judges were consulting. "

      From 1993:

      Seriously, Bob Taking issues with humor lands comic on Larry King Inauguration 1993

      January 20, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Staff Writer

      Bob Somerby is a comedian, a funny guy. He makes people laugh for a living. So when you ask him what he wants to do with his life, this is his answer:

      Policy work -- something in, say, education reform, which is one of his favorite issues. Maybe work for a political candidate. Maybe, he says, "help shape the public debate."

      Laugh -- how could you not? No wonder that at one Washington club he works, the staff calls him "Serious Bob."


      Seems to me Washington DC is the place to be if you are a political comedian and he seems to have been plenty well known there, at least to people organizing charity events and in the clubs.

      I think you guys are beating a dead horse with your insistence that his career in comedy was not genuine. He is in Wikipedia, which is more than you guys probably are (in any capacity).

    7. I did not know Bob was a comedian. Kudos, Bob!


    9. 2006


      Bob is allowed on stage at about 1:50 or so to fill in until the votes are counted in a 2:00 show. He thanks people for three minutes. You will see why he became a full time vanity blogger almost a decade before this timeless appearance.

    10. Bob might have had a nice, little comedy career going in the DC-Baltimore club circuit 20 years ago, but it never went much beyond that.

      He even put together a one-man show, presumably the ticket to an HBO special. But it really didn't run for very long.

      You might ask yourself why, at the height of his comedy success, did he suddenly turn to vanity blogging. But of course, you wouldn't think to ask that if you were a fawning fanboy.

      So allow me to answer. Back in 1998, the Internet was this wonderful new thing. You just opened some sort of presence and the riches would fall your way. There are lots of laid-off journalists who thought they could continue their careers bigger and better than ever with a blog, and without all those bothersome editors reviewing their work.

      Only Somerby found out, as he did with teaching and comedy before, that it takes a heck of a lot of hard work to build up a Web site.

      Heck, he can't even do a fundraiser for his own site because he's too damn lazy to even acknowledge and thank his donors.

      And unwilling to put in the hard work to do anything really well, Bob is closing out his life as a cranky, old man who let life pass him by, and keeps repeating the same obsessions rather than exploring new ways and new material.

  2. Bob, it is a simple truth that no one - not Einstein, or any other physicist - knows what gravity is, or why it operates.

    1. Can Bob explain the seeming fascination he and others have with Judy Garland?

    2. That should be obvious. She was a fascinating person.

    3. Almost 50 years ago on this very day Judy Garlan's TV show was cancelled. Bob seems to wish the same fate on Rachel Maddow.

      Is he trying to get somebody killed himself in some sick effort to prove he is as macho as Chris Matthews?

    4. Rachel needs to be cancelled so that she can redirect her life into something she can be proud of. It is sad to think of the depression she feels when she shills for plutocrat masters and engages in zany antics to avoid thinking about what she might have been.

    5. "She coulda been a contender." Like Bob.

    6. @ 12:02 PM needs to have his/her Bobcomments privileges suspended so he/she can get help to cure his/her concern-troll dysfunction. Do it now. You'll be glad you did.

  3. Today there are more articles at Huffpo about Kasich than about HRC. They continue their practice of putting her picture on articles that are not about her, e.g., "Why we yell at our TVs" coupled with picture of Hillary talking.

    1. Why have you (or Bob for that matter) said nothing about the fact that the media's treatment of Trump "vs." women is the same press culture distortion as the treatment of Gore "vs." truth?

    2. I am concerned they are bringing up Anthony Weiner and Rahm again again in an effort to further embarass Hillary.

    3. Rahm is an embarrassment to Obama, not Clinton. Weiner had nothing to do with Clinton. HIS WIFE is on Clinton's staff, not Weiner. Men seem to believe that wives are just extensions of their husbands, whether they are talking about Hillary or about Huma.

      Kevin Drum talks about Trump's treatment of women this morning. He is right that attitudes are obvious in his small actions (like who he addresses by name, who he interrupts, who he answers) and not just in his awful comments about women who have challenged him in some way.

    4. I agree with @ 11:35. Neither Kasich or Clinton won jack squat last weekend. Why should they get any coverage at all?

    5. "Men seem to believe that wives are just extensions of their husbands"

      Some seem to believe Arianna Huffington is a man?

    6. "Rahm Emanuel first came to prominence as head of the finance committee for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, browbeating ever-increasing amounts of money out of fat cat donors, and following Clinton into the White House as a senior adviser attuned to the wishes and profits of organized wealth. Few pushed harder for NAFTA, a treaty that would cost a million or more working people their livelihood, or for the “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” crime bill which Clinton later admitted was a mistake. After alienating most of Washington with his arrogance and bluster Emanuel left in 1998 and went into investment banking in Chicago, making more than $16 million in less than three years.

      He came back to Washington as a three-term Illinois congressman, chaired the fundraising Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (calling on his Wall Street sources to get in on the gravy by electing so-called New Democrats over New Deal Democrats)

      Emanuel should go — and Hillary Clinton should say so. But while Senator Bernie Sanders, campaigning during the Illinois primary, said he would not seek and would not accept the mayor’s endorsement, with Secretary Clinton it’s business as usual. Emanuel has held fundraisers for her campaign since 2014 so chances are she’ll stay mum, take the money and run."

    7. Again, Hillary is NOT Bill Clinton. She didn't hire Rahm, Obama did.

      Hillary doesn't have to say anything about Rahm. He doesn't work for her. He was elected by the people of Chicago, a state where Hillary does not live.

      Bernie's purity again -- he will be unable to run a national general election campaign without dirtying his hands. Using his purity to attack Hillary during the primary -- in light of this reality -- is dishonest. Of course Hillary accepts more donations. She will need them to defeat Trump. It doesn't mean she likes, endorses, would appoint, has ever hired, or condones anything Rahm has done. It means she wishes to use the money to get elected -- as she should.

      Note that you haven't even said Emmanuel donated to HRC. You said he held fundraisers. That means the money is coming from someone else who is not Rahm. That's a pretty tenuous connection to be saying she should refuse the donations. You don't even know who gave the money.

      You seem to think it is a good thing when you imply Sanders does not engage in "business as usual." When I hear that it means he is not a competent politician. I've had enough of amateurs with good hearts and no idea how to get the job done. Bernie's disdain makes him appear peevish, not noble. I'm sick of it.

    8. "I've had enough of amateurs with good hearts and no idea how to get the job done."

      Why most of can't stand reading your drivel.

    9. https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/how-clintons-email-scandal-took-root/2016/03/27/ee301168-e162-11e5-846c-10191d1fc4ec_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_most-draw4

    10. "Again, Hillary is NOT Bill Clinton."

      We noticed. So did most Democrats last we checked.

    11. Bernie supporters say this stuff with no sense of irony. The NUMBERS support Hillary. Most Democrats are voting for her, not Sanders. It isn't even close.

      Democrats are not the ones trying to stick her with the mistakes of the 1990's. They are accepting her explanations of what she will do differently, what she has learned from those efforts. They like what she is proposing.

      Some also like Bernie, but no one except college kids believes he can win a general election. Not that he'll get the chance to try. He has no "path" to nomination. He will instead stay in and try to drag Hillary down, thereby helping Trump or Cruz or whoever else the Republicans decide to nominate.

      Because Bernie supporters are as lacking in sense as their candidate, they don't understand the damage they are doing by spreading the lies generated by the conservative noise machine against HRC. It is shameful and stupid.

    12. Knottacollie Geeanne.March 28, 2016 at 4:17 PM

      Didn't somebody here link to some recent poll results showing the guy nobody but "college kids" think can win beating Trump by a much wider margin than Clinton?

    13. All they have to do is pair the word "socialist" with "Sanders" in a few ads and his poll numbers will decrease substantially. Trump will make mincemeat out of him because he will not know how to combat Trump's bullying.

      Check out Nate Silver -- he had the best track record in 2008 and is regarded as the most accurate authority on interpreting these polls (better than Bernie's campaign and supporters, who have an obvious bias). He doesn't think Bernie has a chance.

    14. Silver nailed it in 2012 too. Karl Rove, on the other hand, ... [oops].

  4. tdraicer: DH, again, math is the language of physics, and if you can't deal with the math, you have to settle for metaphor. Why you have such a problem with something so obvious I don't know, but going over it again and again isn't going to change it. Learn the math or accept the metaphor. There is no third option.

    1. It is a bit more complicated than that. For one thing, theoretical physicists develop their theories using thought experiments. See Feynman for a description of how important visualization is to understanding physics. You cannot develop ideas using math. The math is to test those ideas, to prove them once the conceptualization has been done.

      It may be that helping people visualize a concept is necessary to understand physics, not simply to make advances in theory. If people cannot understand the visualizations, that means they are not going to do well as physicists -- but why should we be expecting everyone to have that talent? Experiment with the physical world underlies the thought experiments. If someone doesn't engage in physical activity sufficient to produce that intuitive knowledge, why is that a problem? Do we all have to have the same mental strengths? Why cannot people specialize in what they are good at and leave the things they are not good at to others?

    2. Typo: "Experiment with the physical world" should be "Experience with the physical world." Sorry.

  5. It's not clear to me why TDH is so persistent on this topic. I assume that I could not understand the theory of relativity or quantum mechanics or a zillion other things without an awful lot of study, and then still might not grasp it. That there are books or shows that purport to provide easily understandable explanations, when in fact they fail to provide TDH and likely most others with much understanding, is hardly the biggest 'scam' that there is. My question, perhaps a naïve one, is how did matter come into existence. My brain, and I assume those of most others, sees something and assumes it didn't come into existence out of thin air. For example, people come from their parents; furniture comes from wood; trees come from seeds; the earth apparently came from dust that all stuck together a long time ago; they say there was a big bang. But what was before the big bang, and how did that come into being. OK, one explanation is that God made it, but that's not much of an explanation.

    1. Bob is trying to divert attention from his failure to attract anyone but Cicero with his political coverage this election year.

    2. You're here, so that makes two. And I'm here, and AC/MA. I think you may be underestimating Somerby's audience a tad.

    3. We are in the brand, spanking new "Culture of Incoherence" pavilion. Didn't the analysts give you a map on your way in? They are mere docents now, freed from the tear inducing duties of crying on demand for Bob in his many halls of Jettisoned Journalism and Liberal Cultural Meltdown.

  6. I've got it! "We are all spaghetti strands moving through spacetime". Who knew it was so simple?

    1. So why do you worship the FSM and would we fly higher if we let the Linguini Lord lead us, or better yet, heeded the appeal to our better Angel Hair?

  7. Dadgum! Cipherin' is hard work!

  8. Let's offer a basic conjecture. At this point in the hour-long program, very few PBS viewers could have explained what Nova was talking about.

    Similarly, at this point in your series of columns (what are we up to now, four on this subject?) I can't explain the point you propose to make.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Leibniz denounced Newton’s gravitational force as ‘ a scholastick occult quality ’, the harshness of the charge was plain to all the parties: they all agreed that occultism was dead and gone for respectable thinkers. The slander smeared Newton with scholastic metaphysics and the occult philosophy sustained by it through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries –the period of the witch-craze in Europe." -- The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment

    Luckily, we have all since come to *understand* gravity. Perhaps Leibnitz would have benefitted from a Newton Made Easy book.

    1. From the 10/13/2012 Physics Database.com:

      "There is more than one online project that is dedicated to the restoration and publication of Newton’s alchemical works in both original languages and English. The first one is called “Chymistry of Isaac Newton” and it holds about 50 original manuscripts in both Latin and English. The second one’s called “The Newton Project” and it holds a bigger variety of texts including mathematical and scientific works."

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  12. hello i think you may be underestimating Somerby's audience a tad.thank you for comment.
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