THE LATEST ATTEMPT TO EXPLAIN: Nova does Einstein in two hundred words!


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.

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.
This is what Nova says and suggests:

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:
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.
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.

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.


  1. HRC proves she can wag her finger as good as Bill.

    "At a Hillary Clinton rally at SUNY Purchase campus today, the presidential candidate lost her patience with a Greenpeace activist who thanked her for her commitment to climate change then asked her whether she'll reject fossil fuel money moving forward. Pointing her finger at activist Eva Resnick-Day, Clinton claimed she only takes money from people who work for fossil fuel companies and called the accusations lies."

    1. "Wag her finger as good as Bill"?
      Also, thanks for contributing to this discussion of Einstein.

    2. @3:13
      Perhaps you are too young to remember. See Video. WIlliam Jefferson was speaking about the women with the caboose moving too fast.

    3. @ 6:08 PM - your Russian-to-English translations suck.

  2. In his further thought experiment is Bob suggesting the caboose is on the same train with the other woman? If so we believe Bob would have a problem with "Trains Made Easy" as well.

  3. We know Einstein may not be easy. Clearly he did not give up easy. He got to Chapters 8 and 9 in his slender book, despite it being slender and thus not lengthy for a slender tome.

    We mention this because Bob gave up midway through Chapter 7 of his book, which you could call slender.

    Good God! Bob is smarter than Nova but not as persistent as Einstein. That is why if Bob were an attorney general, public television producers as well as charlatan health care product manufacturers would be in a slow moving caboose headed for the hoosegow.

    After that, it's on to Wittgenstein, king of the philosophers Bob tackled in college. Where he roomed with Al Gore. Who went on to exceed the legacy left him as a poltiician only to have the ultimate prize stolen by a 5-4 vote of the Guild.

  4. Most people are probably not gonna think so much about this. I believe the woman and the man are supposed to be in the exact same spot. For simplicity's sake I am going to make the lightning strike 186,000 miles on either side of the man. They both strike at t=0 and both reach his eyes at t= 1 second. The train is moving at one half C (half the speed of light). So at t=0 it is 93,000 miles away from the man. So at t=1 she is at the exact same spot as the man (at least on one axis).

    I think perhaps the paradox comes from the constant speed of light. That is, somehow, even though she is moving away from the flash of light, it STILL, moves at her at the speed of light. Not 1/2 the speed of light, but the speed of light. Therefore, the light from the flash behind her will reach her at t=1/2 instead of the t=1 that a person would expect.

    Makes no sense to me, but the alternative would make the speed of light relative to motion. That is, for a person moving towards a light source at 1/2 C the light would be moving at 3/2 C and the light from behind would be moving at 1/2 C.

    Supposedly it doesn't though (although how the heck does anyone know that? How do you measure it?) That would mean that if you are 186,000 miles away from a flash of light and moving at 1/2 C (good luck with that, although the sun supposedly rotates around the center of the galaxy at 500,000 mph which is 0.0007 C) that it still only takes one second to reach you and not 2 seconds.

    That, if I am even getting it right, seems to be what is being said. A) Is that true? B) How was it tested?

  5. If, for the guy, the two strikes were at the same distance, and he sees them simultaneously, then they were simultaneous.

    If the gal passes the guy just when he sees both strikes, she sees them both at the same time, too. To him, they happened equally long ago and were equally distant. But to her, the forward strike happened longer ago and farther away than the rear strike. She sees them simultaneously, but they weren't simultaneous for her -- the forward strike was earlier and more distant than the rear strike.

    Also to her, the light from the forward strike is blue-shifted, and the light from the rear strike is red-shifted.

  6. >I think perhaps the paradox comes from the constant speed of light. That is, somehow, even though she is moving away from the flash of light, it STILL, moves at her at the speed of light. Not 1/2 the speed of light, but the speed of light.<

    Bingo! Well done, that is the paradox.

    If I am on a train moving at 100 mph and throw a baseball at 50 mph in the direction the train is moving, the baseball will have a velocity of 150 mph. But if I shot a beam of light from the moving train in the direction the train is moving, one would still measure the speed of that light beam as the "c" the speed of light. That was the fundamental assumption Einstein started with, the speed of light is constant, no matter what. Everything else is derived from that assumption.

  7. If the train is moving at one-half the speed of light, and you throw the baseball forward at one-half the speed of light, for someone on the platform, the ball is going not at the speed of light, but at only four-fifths of the speed of light.

  8. Great. The slowest kid on the train tells me what I can and cannot understand.

    Yes, closer events seem to happen sooner than farther events, but we can take account of the distance to calculate when the events happened. You can't change the thought experiment without changing the results. Try to deal with the experiment as it's stated. The facts are simple:

    1. Lightning strikes at the ends of the train car when the man on the platform is adjacent to the woman standing at the midpoint of the moving train car.

    2. The distance the light has to travel is the same for both the man and the woman, namely one-half the length of the train car. That's because the woman is standing at the midpoint of the train car, and the man is standing half a train car's length from the lightening strikes. That what it means for the man and woman to be adjacent.

    3. Both the man and the woman find the same value for the speed of light. That's true for everybody who measures the speed of light, no matter their motion relative to the light source. You can take that as a given experimental result, or you can trust that it's a logical consequence of Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism, which have also been confirmed by experiment.

    4. Because the distances are equal for both the man and the woman, and the speed of light is the same for the man and the woman, they will both calculate that the light from both events takes the same amount of time to reach them.

    5. Because the woman is moving toward the light from the strike at the front of the car and away from the light at the back of the car, she will see light from the front of the car first. But the elapsed time for the light to travel from the front of the car to her is the same as the elapsed time for the light to travel from the back of the car to her. She will have no choice to conclude that the reason she saw the light from the front of the car first is that the lightning strike at the front of the car happened before the strike at the back. For the woman, the strikes aren't simultaneous.

    6. For the man, the strikes are simultaneous. And, I swear that if you post more dumb stuff that man is going to throw himself in front of the next train. So try harder.


    2. That was Uncle Harry going viral! In his defense, Uncle Harry was drunk. And you're not supposed to be sleeping on a NY subway at 3A. Just sayin'

    3. If the flashes from both strikes reach the man at the same time, and if the woman is passing him just then, the flashes also reach her at the same time.

      Let's be more specific. The woman reaches out the window, the man reaches up, their fingertips touch. The flash from the forward strike and the flash from the rear strike reach the man's fingertip just as the woman's fingertip touches it. Then the two flashes reach her fingertip at the same time. These four occurrences:
      1. The forward flash reaches the man's fingertip.
      2. The rear flash reaches the man's fingertip.
      3. The forward flash reaches the woman's fingertip.
      4. The rear flash reaches the woman's fingertip
      are actually one event. They occur at the same time and place, as seen by any observer.

      To the man, the two strikes are at the same distance, therefore they were simultaneous. To the woman, the forward lightning bolt was approaching her, and the rear lightning bolt was receding from her. (She knows that because of the red- and blue-shifts.) For the forward flash and rear flash to have reached her simultaneously, the approaching bolt must have struck before the receding bolt. She can confirm by parallax that the forward, approaching, bolt was farther than the rear, receding bolt.

    4. Sure, if light travels infinitely fast. But it doesn't. If the strikes occur when the fingertips touch, they won't reach either set of fingers until later. When the woman measures her train car, she'll confirm that the light traveled the same distance

    5. Bob Somerby writes:

      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.

      Yes, but in the case of the two men on the platform the first man knows* that the two bolts struck at equal distances from where he was standing. That's what's significant about when the light reached him. Otherwise, all he would know is that the light from two bolts reached him at the same time, without knowing whether they struck the ground simultaneously or, in other words, whether one bolt struck further away from him than the other.

      When comparing notes with the man at the end of the platform the first man would then be able to explain to the second man that the reason he, the man at the end of the platform, saw two flashes with an interval between them is because he was not standing at a point equidistant from where the two bolts struck.

      It was a dark and stormy night. The woman on the train also knows where the bolts struck. One bolt illuminated the engine, the other bolt illuminated the caboose. As she's sitting in the middle of the train's middle car and she knows that the bolt that illuminated the engine struck first. (She's sitting at a window seat that bulges out from the side of the passenger car and when she looks in one direction she can see the side of the engine and when she looks in the other direction she can see the side of the caboose. She was so startled when the first bolt hit the ground and illuminate the engine, she turned away only to then see the second bolt strike and illuminate the caboose. That's how she knows the bolts struck at different times, otherwise she might assume the second one struck further away from her than the first one she saw.)


      * Or at least we, the omniscient outside observers, know that the man on the platform imagined by Einstein was standing equidistant from the two lightning strikes.

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  10. If the woman is passing the man at the moment when he sees both lightening strikes, this statement by Nova is FALSE: "Light from the front strike reaches her eyes first." Light from both strikes reaches her eyes at the same time. Since she's moving towards the front strike and away from the rear strike, that implies that the forward strike occurred earlier and farther away. Even though, for the man, they occurred at equal distances and equally long ago.

    For both of them, the light from the strikes moved at the same speed: 299,792,458 meters per second.

    1. When the light from the strike next to the engine reaches her, she's closer to that strike point than the man is. It is true that the man sees both flashes while standing on the platform before he sees her face illuminated for the first of the two different times it will be illuminated by the two bolts. However, thereafter he does some geometric calculations. The man concludes that, whereas, the light from both bolts reached him where he was standing before some of the light he saw from the bolt which struck next to the engine and then bounced off the the lady's face was light which reached the lady before any light reached him.

      Some of the light from the bolt next to the engine reaches the lady first, other light- having taken a direct path to him- then reaches the man, the light reflected from the lady's face then arrives where the man is, having taken a non direct route from the strike point to the lady first.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Whoops, does it say the woman is in front of the man when the light from the bolts reach the man? I'll have to go back and look, I thought it said the woman was in front of the man (directly due north of the man who is on the south side of the tracks which run east to west) when the bolts strike on the platform next to the ends of the train.

    4. If the woman has not yet reached the platform, light from the rear strike reaches her first. If she's passing the man, light from both strikes reaches her simultaneously. If she's past the platform, light from the forward strike reaches her first. In all three cases, allowing for the time it takes light to reach her, she finds that the forward strike occurred first.

    5. Here's the thought experiment according to Albert Einstein:

      [QUOTE] When we say that the lightning strokes A and B are simultaneous with respect to the embankment, we mean: the rays of light emitted at the places A and B, where the lightning occurs, meet each other at the mid-point M of the length A --> B of the embankment. But the events A and B also correspond to positions A and B on the train. Let M' be the mid-point of the distance A --> B on the travelling train. Just when the flashes of lightning occur, this point M' naturally coincides with the point M, but it moves towards the right in the diagram with the velocity v of the train. [END QUOTE]

      I think there's some confusion because most people think the coordinate system of the person standing on the platform is the true one and that the person on the train is confused as to what is happening.

      Einstein explains [my emphasis]:

      [QUOTE] Events which are simultaneous with reference to the embankment are not simultaneous with respect to the train, and vice versa (relativity of simultaneity). Every reference-body (co-ordinate system) has its own particular time; unless we are told the reference-body to which the statement of time refers, there is no meaning in a statement of the time of an event. [END QUOTE]

      The woman on the train has an as accurate perception of events as the man on the platform has.

  11. This post proves Bob knows how to treat a fast moving lady on a train.

  12. Lightning is striking twice for Trump!

  13. There is simply no way of understanding modern physics without mathematics. In fact, it's impossible to understand most classical physics -- the theory that modern physics builds on, rather than eliminates -- without mathematics. It's theory that's expressed mathematically, not in terms of the little stories so loved by story-loving people the world over. It's not just physics, but so many of the complicated systems that define modern technological societies, that can't be understood, let alone explained, in terms of little bits of infotainment on the teevee! I don't know which is worse -- the public's bovine stupidity or the cynicism that enables smart people to take advantage of it.

    1. And when it came time to require an understanding of Algebra to graduate from high school, someone we all know launched a jihad against it.

    2. Yes, mathematics is essential to physics. Many good people can't learn algebra, thus can't understand special relativity, but they should have the opportunity for a decent life.

      Some people can understand algebra but can't understand differential geometry and tensor analysis. So they can understand special relativity but not general relativity. They, too, should have the opportunity for a decent life.

  14. If the man is not in the middle of the platform, but closer to one end, he'll see the nearer strike earlier, but once he allows for the speed of light, he'll find that they were simultaneous.

    Wherever the woman is on the track, if she's moving in the direction that leads from the rear strike to the forward strike, she'll find that the forward strike precedes the rear strike. That's independent of her position -- it depends only on her velocity. To decide which strike she SEES first, we have to take her position into account as well.

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  16. I think perhaps the paradox comes from the constant speed of light
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