TUESDAY, JUNE 15, 2021
Early morning delight: Today we have stating of confessions.
We're watching very little "cable news" at this point. After decades perched at that post, the pointlessness of the undertaking has finally convinced us to stop.
Within the past week or so, we've passed another milestone. As a general matter, we've stopped watching the first 30-45 minutes of Morning Joe. Instead, we've been retreating to our back deck, at first light—roughly, at 5:30 A.M.—for an early morning tussle with "phantom explanation."
Regarding Morning Joe:
For us, the program's first half-hour became "must see TV" back in 2015. We were amazed by the way Mika and Joe were fawning over the brand new Candidate Trump. We thought their behavior was so strange that we decided to watch the opening segment every morning before heading off to the coffee joint, a place we no longer frequent.
By our lights, Joe and Mika flipped on Trump, rather abruptly, in early 2016. It seemed to us that the flip occurred when the candidate claimed he had no idea who David Duke was, but the lack of transcripts for the program make such impressions hard to research.
Stating the obvious, Joe and Mika turned into aggressive antagonists with respect to their former friend. In the last week or so, we've decided to let this daily activity go, in favor of "first light delight."
We've been starting the day in the cool open air, examining disguised incoherence. Within the past week, we finally returned, after several years' absence, to a favorite puzzling passage of ours—to Walter Isaacson's chapter on Special Relativity, a chapter which starts like that:
CHAPTER SIX / SPECIAL RELATIVITY
Relativity is a simple concept. It asserts that the fundamental laws of physics are the same whatever your state of motion.
That's how the chapter starts, on page 107. It continues for 32 pages. Yes, that's the full first paragraph.
Just as a first observation, did anyone ever actually think that "the fundamental laws of physics" were going to change depending on his or her state of motion? How fundamental would such laws really be, if they were going to change on so flimsy a basis?
Isaacson's highly-regarded biography (Einstein: His Life and Universe) is very clearly written as long as it deals with the basic events of Einstein's life. But when it starts addressing Einstein's contributions to physics, we'd have to say that phantom explanation abounds.
The book is meant for general readers. That said, how many general readers would have any idea what the "basic laws of physics" even are—the basic laws which, we're told, aren't going to change even if the reader gets out of his chair and decides to start walking around?
That is just the initial paragraph of Isaacson's lengthy chapter. It has occurred to us, in these recent mornings, that there may not be a single paragraph in the chapter we actually understand—and yet the flow of apparent explanation just runs smoothly on.
We aren't trying to single Isaacson out. As basic biography, his book is very well written, and no one else has been able to make Einstein's work understandable for the general reader.
That includes Einstein himself, in the "Einstein made easy" book he himself published in 1916. There's little chance that the general reader will be able to understand that book—and yes, it's still in print. Despite his genius as a physicist, Einstein wasn't especially skilled at the task of making Einstein easy.
We're fascinated by the amounts of "phantom explanation" found in our highest places. So too with Stephen Budiansky's recent attempt to explain whatever it is that Kurt Gödel discovered, established or found.
At some point, we expect to turn to these topics for our main effort each day. The later Wittgenstein is waiting to see those explorations, or so leading experts have said.
On the bright side: There's a great deal of humor lurking in these stories. As we noted last week, Budiansky includes this humorous note about Bertrand Russell's attempt to establish the foundations of mathematics, whatever that might turn out to mean:
BUDIANSKY (page 108): In deciding to take on the fourth of the challenges [David] Hilbert had put forward at the Congress of Mathematicians in 1928, Gödel placed himself at the very center of the storm over mathematical foundations, which had broken with a deeply unnerving discovery Bertrand Russell had made at the turn of the century while working on Principia Mathematica.
Russell's idea had been to establish the soundness of mathematics by showing how it could all be reduced to principles of logic so self-evident as to be beyond doubt. Defining even the simplest operations of arithmetic in terms of what Russell called such "primitive" notions, however, was far from an obvious task. Even the notion of what a number is raised immediate problems.
The laboriousness of the methodology and notation was all too evident in the (often remarked) fact that that it took more than seven hundred pages to reach the conclusion, "1 + 1 = 2," a result which Russell and Whitehead described as "occasionally useful."
Russell's "deeply unnerving discovery" emerged from the wrestling match he staged with "the set of all sets not members of themselves." Meanwhile, it took Russell and Whitehead more than seven hundred pages to establish the fact that 1 + 1 = 2! Actually, no—to establish that fact beyond doubt!