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