Part 4—We'd call it a bit of a scam: We've already stated this point several times.
Last November, we watched Nova's latest Einstein-made-easy program, Inside Einstein's Mind. Starting around that program's nine-minute mark, we thought we saw one of the worst non-explanation explanations we had ever seen.
According to Nova, the explanation concerned an important thought experiment—the thought experiment which led Einstein to his special theory of relativity in 1905, when he was just 26.
According to Nova, Einstein's important thought experiment involved a man standing on a railway platform; a woman passing by on a very fast train; and a pair of lightning strikes.
What made Nova's presentation a "non-explanation explanation?" Our answer goes something like this:
Once again, we're forced to show you a chunk of Nova's transcript. Today, our chunk will be quite short.
This is Einstein's thought experiment, as described by Nova. For a more complete chunk of transcript, see Tuesday afternoon's report:
NARRATOR: Einstein imagines a man standing on a railway platform. Two bolts of lightning strike on either side of him.This is what Nova says and suggests:
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.
For the man, the two lightning strikes "are simultaneous," full stop. That is explicitly stated.
Something else is rather plainly suggested. It's suggested that, for the woman on the train, the two lightning strikes aren't simultaneous. As the passage ends, we're given this explanation, which is "mind-blowing," portentous:
"Simultaneity depends on how you're moving."
Rather plainly, we're led to believe that the strikes are simultaneous for the man, but they aren't simultaneous for the woman. We're led to think that this state of affairs exists because the woman is in motion—perhaps in some absolute sense, perhaps in relation to the man.
What makes that explanation so weak? We explained that yesterday.
We simply imagined a second man. This second man is standing way down at the end of the (very long) railway platform. (When Einstein described this thought experiment, he specified that the woman is on "a very long train.")
This second man will experience the two lightning strikes exactly as the woman on the train does. The light from one strike will reach his eyes first, followed by the light from the other strike.
This doesn't happen because he's in motion. He's standing on the railway platform, just like the original man.
Why does the light from one strike reach this man before the light from the other strike? It happens because he's closer to the one lightning strike and farther away from the other.
But then, that also explains the woman's experience of the two lightning strikes. Light from the strikes reaches her sequentially for the exact same reason.
The woman on the fast-moving train is now adjacent to the man at the end of the platform. By the time the light starts reaching her eyes, she too is closer to one lightning strike and farther away from the other.
It's true that the train helped get her there. But here's the simplest explanation for her experience of the two strikes:
She's closer to the one lightning strike. She's farther away from the other.
What point was Nova trying to make with its portentous statement, "Simultaneity depends on how you're moving?"
We have no idea! Truth to tell, neither does anyone else who watched Nova's broadcast that night.
If Nova had any point to make at all, it explained its point very poorly. But then, let's take a quick step back and consider what Nova did in that part of this latest Einstein-made-easy broadcast:
Good God! If you watch the Nova broadcast at this YouTube site, the narrator first mentions Einstein's "brilliant thought experiment" at roughly the 11:45 mark.
The chunk of transcript we've posted above ends at 13:45. As such, Nova has explained this matter in exactly two minutes—at most, in a few hundred words.
As we noted yesterday, we're offered seven mind-blowing conclusions along the way in this chunk of the program—conclusions we can supposedly draw from what we've just seen. In short, we've been given the two-minute Einstein. We're asked to believe that "special relativity" has been explained to us in something like two minutes.
Everything is possible, of course. But consumers, can we talk?
Does it really make sense to think that this first part of Einstein's revolution can be explained to us in something like two minutes? That this miracle can be written, directed and produced by a PBS executive producer who isn't even a specialist in physics?
(His previous credits for PBS includes such works as "Easter Eggs Live," "Operation Maneater" and "The Wonder of Dogs." And yes, he's listed as the writer. Consumers, we're just saying.)
We're not sure it really makes sense to think that this writer can splice together short clips from a string of professors and accomplish that task in a matter of minutes. And by the way:
We've only begun to note the incoherence in this part of Nova's presentation. Let's return to that foundational claim about the man on the platform:
"For him, the two strikes are simultaneous."
"For him, the two strikes are simultaneous?" If you don't mind our saying so, we have no idea what that is supposed to mean. Hoping that we don't lose you here, this why we say that:
With respect to the man on the platform, we're explicitly told that, for him, "the two strikes are simultaneous."
We aren't told the two strikes will seem simultaneous. We aren't told that he's likely to judge the two strikes to be simultaneous.
Instead, we're simply told that they are simultaneous—for him. We're told this in some absolute, unspecified sense.
As part of the deal, it's rather plainly implied that the two strikes aren't simultaneous for the woman on the fast-moving train. What would it mean to say or imply that the two strikes aren't simultaneous "for the woman?"
We have no idea. Here's why:
It's certainly true that the light from the two lightning strikes will reach the woman at separate times. Light from one strike will reach her first, followed by light from the other.
That said, she still might judge the two strikes to be simultaneous, or she may suspend judgment! Consider the way we tend to understand lightning strikes, with their accompanying thunder.
Everyone knows how things work in a bad lightning storm. We see the lightning, then brace ourselves. Seconds later, there it is—the scary clap of thunder.
We see the flash of lightning first, then hear the boom of thunder. But because we tend to know a bit of physics, we tend to understand such events this way:
We don't assume that two separate events took place off in the heavens. We don't assume that an earlier event produced the flash of lightning and that a second, later event produced the clap of thunder.
We tend to think something different. Because we know that light travels faster than sound, we tend to think that one event took place in the heavens, producing the lightning and the thunder.
We tend to think we saw the lightning first because it took the sound of the thunder longer to reach us. In this way, we commonly draw conclusions which may go beyond our naive experience.
The same thing might happen for the lady on the fast train. According to the thought experiment, this lady lives in a high-speed world. She's riding on a train which travels at near the speed of light.
Can we give this fast-moving lady a small bit of love at this point? She probably knows that you can't make assumptions about simultaneity based on when the light reaches you from two lightning strikes.
When light from the one strike reaches her first, she might reason thusly: She might consider the possibility that it reached her first because she's closer to that lightning strike and farther away from the other.
(We reason in a similar way when we talk about light from deep outer space. Because we know it takes a long time for light to reach Earth from deep in space, we often say that we're "seeing events which happened long ago" when the light from such events reaches us. On a personal note, we may have heard that from Don Herbert, TV's Mr. Wizard—and he was addressing third graders at the time!)
The man on the railway platform may be similarly savvy. He won't assume the two strikes were simultaneous just because the light from the strikes reached him at the same time.
Quite correctly, he may imagine a different possibility. He may postulate that one of the lightning strikes happened earlier, but it happened farther away. He's understanding this basic fact:
Light from an earlier, distant strike might reach him at the same time as light from another strike which was more recent, but closer. These are the types of ways we commonly reason about such familiar events.
In a certain simple-minded, naive sense, Nova's transcript is almost accurate. To the man on the platform, it may seem, in a naive way, that the two strikes were simultaneous.
To the lady on the fast-moving train, it may seem that one strike preceded the other—that the two strikes weren't simultaneous.
These players may reach these judgments, but those judgments would be simple-minded, naive. That said, you also have to be simple-minded to think that Nova can make Einstein easy in the space of two minutes.
From its brief account of that thought experiment, Nova drew a set of "mind-blowing" conclusions. We're surprised they didn't bring Arsenio out at this point to say, "Things that may you go ooh."
We listed those statements yesterday. Here they are again:
Mind-blowing statements:In the face of simple questioning, no one who watched that Nova program could explain any of those statements based on Nova's fast-moving script.
1) The flow of time is different for an observer that is moving versus one that is standing still.
2) Simultaneity depends on how you're moving.
3) The flow of time depends on how you're moving.
4) There's no such thing as simultaneity.
5) There's no such as absolute time everywhere throughout the universe.
6) Time is relative.
7) Space as well is relative.
We doubt that the writer of Nova's program could explain those statements either. It's utterly silly to think that those statements were elucidated or explained in Nova's fleeting, drive-by account of special relativity.
Nova gave us the two-minute Einstein, then pretended that his "mind-blowing" ideas had been explained.
In fact, his ideas hadn't been explained. We'd been taken to fantasy camp.
While there, we'd been given a certain type of aesthetic experience. We got to pretend that Einstein's work had been explained by some physics professors, and that we'd understood what they said.
A Nova broadcast is an unusual type of product—an intellectual product. Understand this:
If you were sold a health care product on such an improbable basis, attorneys general would be looking for ways to sue its manufacturer.
"Simultaneity depends on how you're moving?" We don't have the slightest idea what Nova actually meant by that. In all honesty, neither do you!
For a hundred years, publishers and professors have been offering scams of this type. In the next week in our course of study, we'll ask a frightening question about this century-old branch of the culture of incoherence.
Our question will go something like this:
Einstein discussed that same thought experiment in his famous 1916 book, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory.
(To peruse the entire book, click here. See Chapters 8 and 9. The chapters are quite short.)
That book was written for non-specialists. Here's our question, which is scary:
Was Einstein able to make Einstein easy? How good a job did he do?
Coming next: Was Einstein able to make Einstein easy?
After that, it's on to Wittgenstein, king of the search for coherence! Later, we'll return to the murk and the fuzz in our Einstein made easy books.
Concerning the woman in the caboose: Yesterday, we promised you that further thought experiment. Simply put, here it is:
A woman is way back in the caboose of the very long, fast-moving train. She too is moving quite fast.
As the train moves forward, she's directly adjacent to the man on the platform when the light arrives from the lightning strikes.
She is in motion; he is not. In terms of simultaneity, they would experience the two lightning strikes in the exact same way.