RETURNING TOMORROW: The culture of incoherence!

MONDAY, APRIL 11, 2016

Preview—One hundred years later:
Starting tomorrow, we'll return to our ongoing study of the academic/journalistic/publishing phenomenon we've memorably dubbed "the culture of incoherence."

In this week's reports, we'll extend our study of last November's hour-long Nova program, Inside Einstein's Mind. After this week, we'll proceed to several weeks of rumination about the later Wittgenstein, king of the search for coherence.

At that point, we'll return to our perusal of Einstein-made-easy best-sellers and broadcasts. Concerning this week's course of study:

We'll start by reviewing the striking non-explanation explanation which occurs around the ten-minute mark in the Nova broadcast. To watch the whole program, click here.

At that point in its program, Nova is attempting to explain the general theory of relativity, which Einstein adumbrated in 1905, when he was just 26. As Nova explains the situation, it all comes down to "a brilliant thought experiment" which led Einstein to a "mind-blowing" realization.

What occurs in this brilliant experiment? As you may recall, a man is standing on a railway platform. A lady moves by on a fast-moving train.

Then, there are two lightning strikes. According to Nova, a mind-blowing conclusion results:
NARRATOR: In a brilliant thought experiment, [Einstein] questions what "simultaneous" actually means, and sees that the flow of time is different for an observer that is moving versus one that is standing still.

He imagines a man standing on a railway platform. Two bolts of lightning strike on either side of him.

The man is standing exactly halfway between them, and the light from each strike reaches his eyes at exactly the same moment. For him, the two strikes are simultaneous.

Then, Einstein imagines a woman on a fast-moving train traveling at close to the speed of light. What would she see?

As the light travels out from the strikes, the train is moving towards one and away from the other. Light from the front strike reaches her eyes first.

For the woman on the train, time elapses between the two strikes. For the man on the platform, there is no time between the strikes.

This simple thought has mind-blowing significance. Simultaneity, and the flow of time itself, depends on how you're moving.
Based on this thought experiment, Nova says, Einstein reached a mind-blowing realization:

"Simultaneity...depends on how you're moving."

It sounds impressive, but alas! When we watched that part of Nova's broadcast, we thought it offered one of the most obvious non-explanation explanations we had ever seen.

In our last week of reports on this subject, we offered our reason for saying that. This week, we'll make a small tiny minor attempt to be more fair to Nova. Here's how we'll proceed:

Tomorrow, we'll review the basic incoherence at the heart of Nova's presentation, and thus at the heart of its murky claim:

"Simultaneity...depends on how you're moving."

Based on Nova's presentation, that's a very murky statement. This week, though, we'll try to be a bit fair.

We'll note that Nova was working fairly closely from Einstein's own 1916 book, Relativity: The Special and The General Theory, in that part of its hour-long broadcast. After reviewing Nova's presentation, we'll look at what Einstein said, in his own words, in that hundred-year-old book—a book he wrote in the hope that he could explain relativity to non-specialists.

We'll also look at Walter Isaacson's treatment of this topic. In his 2007 best-seller, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Isaacson tried to explain that thought experiment, just as Nova did.

(In his book, Isaacson says this thought experiment contains the great "eureka moment" which led to the "most famous [scientific] paper" of Einstein's entire career. See pages 123-125 for his muddled explanation.)

That thought experiment is described in Chapter 9 of Einstein's own book. One hundred years later, Isaacson and Nova have each tried to explain it.

Note: Because Einstein's chapters are quite short, his account of that thought experiment comes rather early in his book. To peruse the whole book, click here.

Nova has had a hundred years to get clear about Chapters 8 and 9 of Einstein's book. Let's put that another way:

Nova has had a hundred years to notice a very important fact. As with Nova and Isaacson, so too with Einstein himself. His explanation of that thought experiment is murky, clouded, unclear.

Important note:

Albert Einstein didn't gain fame as a writer of popular science. It isn't clear that he had those skills. There's no reason why he should have.

Beyond that, Isaacson tells an amusing story about the way Einstein determined that his book would be understandable to non-specialists. To recall his method, click here.

That method was destined to fail. That story reminds us that Albert Einstein wasn't a popular writer.

Einstein's explanation of his own thought process is murky, cloudy, unclear. That said, you know the way our culture goes. Given a hundred years to notice that fact, our professors and journalists have, inevitably, crafted their typical fail.

We live in an academic/journalistic culture which is devoted to incoherence. One hundred years later, our professors' treatment of Chapter 9 provides a case in point.

Tomorrow: Reviewing Nova's fail

After this week: On to the later Wittgenstein!


  1. The lady may see the forward strike first, or the rear strike first, or she may see them both at the same time. It depends where she is on the track. But wherever she is, when she allows for the time it took the light to get to her, she finds that the forward strike preceded the rear strike.

    When I read Einstein's book many years ago, I thought it was clear. I haven't read it recently, so I won't give an opinion now on its clarity or murk. I haven't watched the Nova show, nor have I read Isaacson.

    Relativity is difficult because it contradicts our instincts. But if you accept that the man and woman both find the same speed of light, high school mathematics gives you the basis of special relativity.

    Suppose she has a flashlight. It seems obvious that its light should move at the same speed as light coming into the train through the window. Doesn't it?

    By the way, Bob made a tiny mistake. The 1905 theory was special, not general, relativity.

    1. You fell for it. Bob was just proving we humans are not up to simple tasks. He didn't say Einstein's theory in 1905 was general relativity. He said "Einstein adumbrated" his general thoery in 1905.

      Just because you don't have as big a vocabulary as Bob doesn't mean you don't care about or emulate certain groups of children in our schools.

    2. Pardon my typo; *theory" not "thoery*

  2. "Special" is just one little word. It is not like he missed two major words, like "quote, unquote" like some experienced journalist who should know better.


    "Republicans Move to Hide the Gender Pay Gap"

    * Unless a certain Cable Star covers it, of course

  4. You need mathematics to understand moderen physics. I know that's bor-ing. But you can't understand modern physics in terms of liddle stories!

    1. At least if you are a liddle brained person you can't. Best stick to political piffle pimped by overpaid celebrities with possible serious mental problems.

  5. Couldn't we slip in at least a partial review of theearlier Wittgenstein, maybe in a weekend Supplemental?

    1. I am curious why the Culture of Incoherence "returns" Tomorrow when it seems to be here today.

    2. Because it will go to sleep tonight.

  6. The slowest kid on the slowest moving train lectures Einstein, Nova and the rest of us on "incoherence." Relativistic effects cannot be detected at very low speeds, and Bob's train is another 24 hours late.

    1. Sure, but "jet aircraft speeds" are very fast compared with the substupidal pace of Bob's choo-choo train of ignorance. As a glutton for punishment, I'll be waiting at the station, but I'm sure the train will be late if not cancelled.

  7. For extra credit, read about the Andromeda paradox.


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  9. Political season not very interesting?
    Afraid of slipping up and biting the hand that feeds?