EINSTEIN'S OWN WORDS: About that fast train and those two lightning strikes!

MONDAY, APRIL 25, 2016

Prelude—A review of our story so far:
You have to feel sorry for us the people, what with our inquiring minds and our endless desire to learn!

For exactly one hundred years, we've been told that a certain "thought experiment" helped Albert Einstein form his revolutionary special theory of relativity, which he presented to the world in 1905.

We've been reviewing the logic behind that famous thought experiment in our series of reports about "the culture of incoherence." Let's review the basic history, as we've pursued it so far:

In 1905, at age 26, Einstein experienced a "eureka moment," according to biographer Walter Isaacson. Within six weeks, he had sent off "his most famous [scientific] paper," a paper bearing this title:

"On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies."

In that paper, Einstein explained "the great conceptual step" which emerged from that "eureka moment." The paper laid out the revolutionary theory known as the special theory of relativity.

In 1915, Einstein was able to expand on that earlier work. Isaacson describes a complex rumination which resulted in "an exhausting, four-frenzy during which Einstein wrestled with a succession of tensors, equations, corrections and updates that he rushed to the Prussian Academy in a flurry of four Thursday lectures."

According to Isaacson, these efforts "climaxed, with the triumphant revision of Newton's universe, at the end of November 1915."

According to Isaacson, Einstein produced "a set of covariant equations that capped his general theory of relativity" in the last of those four Thursday lectures. As such, the general theory was the "triumphant revision of Newton's universe" to which Isaacson referred.

By now, Einstein was well-known. Beyond that, many people had heard of relativity, but virtually no one understood it.

This led to Einstein's attempt to explain his work in a short book aimed at general readers. This book was called Relativity: The Special Theory and the General Theory. To peruse that book, click here.

In 1916, Einstein's book was published. This is where our current problem starts.

For the past one hundred years, we the people have been told that relativity was made comprehensible in that brief, historic book. In our current series, we've been suggesting that this maybe just isn't exactly the case.


Last November, the PBS series Nova produced an hour-long program, Inside Einstein's Mind. It was timed to mark the hundredth anniversary of general relativity. To watch that program click this.

Around the ten-minute mark in that program, Nova described the "brilliant thought experiment" which lay behind Einstein's production of special relativity in 1905.

The thought experiment which Nova described was taken straight from Chapters 8 and 9 of Einstein's brief book for general readers. It concerned a fast-moving train and a pair of lightning strikes.

Here's the problem: At least as Nova explained it, Einstein's famous thought experiment didn't seem to make sense.

Eight years earlier, Isaacson had explored the same material in his best-selling biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe. In a detailed set of acknowledgments, Isaacson named eighteen ranking physics professors who had reviewed the science in his book. In his chapter on special relativity, he too described the "thought experiment" found in Chapter 8 and 9 of Einstein's brief book.

Once again, we'd have to say that Isaacson's account of that famous thought experiment simply doesn't make sense. In Isaacson book, as on Nova's program, we the people were confronted with a logical fail.

Last November, as we watched in real time, we thought Nova's presentation of that "thought experiment" was one of the most obvious non-explanation explanations we had ever seen. This leaves us the people in the peculiar situation our series has been exploring.

One hundred years later, here we sit! Einstein is widely understood to be one of human history's greatest intellectual giants. In his special and general theory of relativity, he is understood to have transformed our understanding of the universe.

Having said that, how odd! One hundred years after Einstein produced his own book for general readers, academic and journalistic authorities don't seem to be able to explain the "great conceptual breakthrough" which led to special relativity all the way back in 1905.

In 1916, Einstein explained that breakthrough in his own book. But doggone it! One hundred years later, we the people are forced to pretend we understand that breakthrough as we read Isaacson's best-selling book, or as we watch Nova's high-profile PBS program.

In our view, Nova's explanation of Einstein's thought experiment made no apparent sense. Eight years earlier, Isaacson had failed to clarify the same material, despite the help he got from eighteen physics professors.

In their attempts to explain special relativity, Nova and Isaacson worked directly from Chapters 8 and 9 of Einstein's brief, historic book. One hundred years after the book's publication, we'd say they utterly failed in their attempt to explain this historic material.

Thanks to our culture of incoherence, we the people just can't seem to get a break around here! If you watched that Nova program, you saw an explanation of special relativity that basically didn't make sense. If you read Isaacson's best-selling book, you had the same the basic problem.

That said, Nova and Isaacson were working straight from Einstein's own book! For that reason, we'll now review the original material they were trying to explain. We'll look at Einstein's own words about that fast-moving train and those lightning strikes.

How did Einstein explain that material back in 1916? One hundred years later, we'll ask a very basic question:

Was Einstein able to make Einstein easy? When he tried to explain his work to us general readers, how well did Einstein fare?

This week: What Einstein said in his book

Coming next: The later Wittgenstein and the search for coherence


  1. No, Einstein didn't make special relativity easy, but he did make it comprehensible, if you can do a little high-school math.

    I haven't re-read the chapters on general relativity, but, as I recall, they gave an impression of the subject. It requires more advanced mathematics than the special theory, more than he could assume a general reader would know.

    But forget Isaacson and Nova. Read Einstein. If you can, study physics and mathematics seriously.

  2. Deflategate ain't over yet, folks!


    To review, before Bob diverts from Rachel to Einstein to the Brady Bunch:

    "SELMA ON OUR MINDS: Can’t process information at all!

    MONDAY, JANUARY 26, 2015

    Interlude—Deflated footballs meet Selma:"

    Supplemental: This just in from our nation of sheep!

    TUESDAY, JANUARY 27, 2015

    Someone finally clarifies a few basic bone-simple points:"

    For new Howler readers, the Ideal Gas Law Made Easy
    was a Bone Simple Lesson, unlike Einstein's slender book that can't be made easy or bone simple.

  3. The world's slowest narrative train limps into the station. On board is the slowest boy in the class, who can't seem to grasp the dual lightning strike thought experiment. And in his own theory of relativity, it's not his own ignorance that's the problem. It's that everybody else as well can't understand.

    1. Of course everyone can't understand.

      We have been duped by corporate media into believing Maddow is "Our Own Rhodes Scholar." We are dumb, disliked, and of dubious morals. We are as tribal as those we can only be taught to loathe through lies and deception.

      And that is just us liberals. God knows how much conservatives must be not comprehending old Einstein.


    "This week: What Einstein said in his book"


    "BREAKING: Next week, Einstein to speak for himself!

    MONDAY, APRIL 4, 2016"

  5. Enough already. Einstein, he dead; a penny for the old guy.

  6. When you teach, you realize that what you intended to convey and what your students understood can be miles apart. It doesn't have to be the theory of relativity for this to happen. This gap is inherent to communication between people. I'm not sure why Somerby is making such a big fuss about it.

  7. Because -- and ain't this ironic? -- it fits TDH's narrative about the acceptance of the incoherent in current discourse. Unfortunately, the slowest boy on the world's slowest train can't understand that his confusion in this case arises from his own ignorance.

    1. We accept all kinds of incoherence in discourse. It is called linguistic charity. It is part of pragmatics. Without it communication would be impossible. We don't need Wittgenstein here. Hillary Putnam died only a few weeks ago and he did much more to explain how we are able to communicate across chasms of different experience to find shared meaning.

  8. Bob asks:

    >>>Was Einstein able to make Einstein easy? When he tried to explain his work to us general readers, how well did Einstein fare?<<<

    Here's one authority's answer to that question [my emphasis]:

    >>>[Einstein's book was intended,] as far as possible, to give an exact insight into the theory of Relativity to those readers who, from a general scientific and philosophical point of view, are interested in the theory, but who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics. The work presumes a standard of education corresponding to that of a university matriculation examination, and, despite the shortness of the book, a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader.

    The author... spared himself no pains in his endeavour to present the main ideas in the simplest and most intelligible form, and on the whole, in the sequence and connection in which they actually originated. In the interest of clearness, [it appeared to him] inevitable that [he should repeat himself] frequently, without paying the slightest attention to the elegance of the presentation.

    [Einstein] adhered scrupulously to the precept of that brilliant theoretical physicist, L. Boltzmann, according to whom matters of elegance ought to be left to the tailor and to the cobbler. [Einstein made] no pretence of having withheld from the reader difficulties which are inherent to the subject.<<<

    with minor edits from pp. v and vi here [LINK]

  9. The problem here is not ignorance (on your part) or incomprehensibility (on Nova's, or Einstein's) - it's worldview.

    You write, and think, about politics and media. Einstein was a physicist. It's perfectly normal, in your world, for people to disagree about the nature of "political reality". It is intolerable, in Einstein's world, for perfectly rational people in a thought experiment (equipped with perfectly accurate measurement tools) to disagree about the nature of physical reality!

    The way to bring the two worlds together is to extend the thought experiment - Einstein didn't have to do this, the physics was enough - to have a consequence that a non-physicist would find as baffling as Einstein found the "difference of opinion". For instance, if the train is 1000 feet long, the woman is sitting in a seat 450 feet from the front of the train, whizzing by the man on the platform, and the lightning bolts hit the railroad track 950 feet apart (one 475 feet from the man in the direction of the train's motion, one 475 feet in the other direction). In Newton's world, the man sees the "front" lightning bolt miss the train by 25 feet and the "rear" lightning bolt slam into the caboose, 25 feet from the rear of the train. The woman, on the train, sees the front lightning bolt miss the front of the train, and, because of the delay she sees between the lightning strikes, THE REAR LIGHTNING BOLT ALSO MISSES THE REAR OF THE TRAIN. NOW we have a "difference of opinion" that can't be explained even in a non-physicist's world - the rear lightning bolt either DID, or DIDN'T, hit the train, and there would be scorch marks on the paint if it did! In Newton's world, this "difference of fact" is impossible to resolve, which led Einstein to the conclusion that Newton's world is not the real world when we travel near the speed of light!

    (And, as you probably know, the way Einstein resolved this particular case was: the rear lightning bolt MISSES the train, and the man on the platform agrees that is misses, even though he sees the strikes as simultaneous, because he also, counter to all Newtonian physics, "sees" that the train is less than 950 feet long, short enough to fit between the "simultaneous" bolts.)

    1. There is another wrinkle at work here. You discussed incomprehensibility and ignorance. There is also incompetence.

      Einstein thought and wrote about physics. His work was not merely competent it was acknowledged genius.

      Bob thinks and writes about politics and media. His work is, by most measures, arguably incompetent. It is, at best repetitive and derivative. Including this series.

  10. My husband broke up with me last week, i was so frustrated and i could not know what next to do again, i love my husband so much but he was cheating on me with another woman and this makes him broke up with me so that he can be able to get marry to the other lady and this lady i think use witchcraft on my husband to make him hate me and my kids and this was so critical and uncalled-for,I cry all day and night for God to send me a helper to get back my man until i went to NY to see a friend and who was having the same problem with me but she latter got her Husband back and i asked her how she was able to get her husband back and she told me that their was a powerful spell caster in Africa name Dr.Unity that he help with love spell in getting back lost lover back and i decided to contacted the same Dr.Unity and he told me what is needed to be done for me to have my man back and i did it although i doubted it but i did it and the Dr told me that i will get the result after 48hours, and he told me that my husband was going to call me by 9pm in my time and i still doubted his word, to my surprise my husband really called me and told me that he miss me so much, Oh My God i was so happy, and today i am happy with my man again and we are joyfully living together as one good family and i thank the powerful spell caster Dr.Unity of Unityspelltemple@gmail.com , he is so powerful and i decided to share my story on the internet that good spell casters still exist and Dr.Unity is one of the good spell caster who i will always pray to live long to help his children in the time of trouble, if you are there and your lover is turning you down, or you have your husband moved to another woman, do not cry anymore contact the powerful spell caster Dr.Unity on his email: Unityspelltemple@gmail.com .if you have any problem contact Dr.Unity, i give you 100% guarantee that he will help you. Thank you sooooo much!!!