FRIDAY, JULY 30, 2021
Also, Krauthammer's conjecture: Way back in April 2007, Janet Maslin reviewed Walter Isaacson's book for the New York Times.
Credit where due! According to Maslin, Isaacson hadn't managed to make the science especially easy.
In question was Isaacson's well-received biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe. In Maslin's view, Isaacson had done a very good job with Einstein's life, but Einstein's universe had perhaps been quite a bit harder.
Maslin cushioned her blow with an "if." But she seemed to make it clear that the science hadn't been especially easy to understand:
Mr. Isaacson deals clearly and comfortably with the scope of Einstein’s life. If his highly readable and informative book has an Achilles’ heel, it’s in the area of science. Mr. Isaacson had the best available help (most notably the physicist Brian Greene’s) in explicating the series of revelations Einstein brought forth in his wonder year, 1905, and the subsequent problems with quantum theory and uncertainty that would bedevil him.
But these sections of the book are succinctly abbreviated. Paradoxically that makes them less accessible than they would have been through longer, more patient explication. Still, the cosmic physics would be heavy sledding in any book chiefly devoted to Einstein’s life and times, and Mr. Isaacson acknowledges that. “O.K., it’s not easy,” he writes, “but that’s why we’re no Einstein and he was.”
If the book had a shortcoming, it lay with the science, she said. In this way, Maslin softened her assessment, which otherwise seemed fairly clear,
Maslin cited Isaacson's joke—the sensible joke from the book's page 4 which we mentioned three weeks ago, in the first of our current reports.
(“O.K., it’s not easy,” Isaacson jokes. But that’s because we aren't Einstein.)
Maslin cited the role of Brian Greene, the theoretical physicist who played the leading role among Isaacson's dozen or so major science advisers. In Maslin's view, the participation of figures like Greene meant that Isaacson had "the best available help" when it came to reporting the science.
(Once again, we'll suggest a different possibility. Undeniably brilliant physicists may not always be the best guides if we're trying to determine what will be understandable to the general reader.)
In Maslin's view, the sections of the book which dealt with Einstein's revolutionary discoveries were "succinctly abbreviated," perhaps overly so. She suggested that Isaacson could have done a better job if he'd given the science "longer, more patient explication."
Everything is possible, but we're not inclined to agree. Isaacson does do an excellent job with Einstein's remarkable life—but Einstein's revolutionary universe is extremely hard. Just consider a few of the things Greene himself has said.
In The Fabric of the Cosmos, his 2004 book for general readers, Greene describes the remarkable strangeness of the universe which emerges from Einstein's special theory of relativity (1905). (The special theory is the subject of Isaacson's Chapter Six.)
"The relativity of space and of time is a startling conclusion," Greene writes in his book. "I've known about it for more than twenty-five years, but even so, whenever I quietly sit and think about it, I am amazed."
"Special relativity is not in our bones," Greene wrote in his earlier book for general readers, The Elegant Universe (1999). "Its implications are not a central part of our intuition."
Concerning Einstein's general theory of relativity, which emerged in 1915, Greene has said that the human brain may not be designed to understand its workings. "What I can do," he said in a PBS interview, "is I can make use of mathematics that describe those extra dimensions, and then I can try to translate what the mathematics tells me into lower dimensional analogies that help me gain a picture of what the math has told me."
So Greene said to PBS. He was describing a difficult struggle—the struggle to explain Einstein's universe.
By all accounts, Einstein's universe is extremely hard to report, describe, explicate, explain or simplify. Those bits of testimony come from a major theoretical physicist—from someone who actually does understand the complex mathematics behind the "startling" physics.
Could Isaacson have done a better job if he'd spent more time on the science? Everything is possible. But in fairness, Isaacson doesn't seem to skimp in his attempts to explore the terrain of this difficult universe.
His Chapter Six: Special Relativity, 1905 covers a full 33 pages. He does go on at substantial length, but it seems to us that the thread has been lost in its first three or four pages.
Would a more detailed treatment have helped? This new universe is extremely hard. We know of no reason to think so.
Isaacson is an extremely capable writer and a very smart person. He's a highly experienced mainstream journalist. He's an acclaimed biographer.
Still and all, when he tries to explain special relativity, he starts with a presentation which seems almost Onionesque. With apologies, we'll quote it one more time. Isaacson starts with this:
CHAPTER SIX Special Relativity, 1905
Relativity is a simple concept. It asserts that the fundamental laws of physics are the same whatever your state of motion.
Relativity "asserts that the fundamental laws of physics are the same whatever your state of motion?"
That formulation strikes us as almost Onionesque. Nor do matters get any better as Isaacson meanders ahead. He's an acclaimed biographer and a very smart person, but his treatment of Einstein's universe strikes us as pretty much incomprehensible pretty much all the way down.
Despite this fact, his book is blurbed by major figures saying the science is clear as a bell. Maslin could see that that wasn't the case, but she seemed to pull her punch.
Isaacson's treatment of special relativity starts in a way which seems almost Onionesque. Things don't get a whole lot clearer as Isaacson proceeds from there.
That said, no one seems to be willing or able to notice or mention this fact. In our view, this state of affairs can be seen as instructive.
DESPITE HIS OUTSTANDING TREATMENT of Einstein's life, did Isaacson fail to make Einstein's universe understandable?
Inevitably, that's a subjective assessment. We'll offer a road map to such assessment below.
Next week, we'll be moving to a part of Isaacson's Chapter Six which is taken straight from Einstein's 1916 book for general readers, Relativity: The Special and General Theory.
In Isaacson's perfectly sensible framing, the passage in question involves the "eureka moment" in which Einstein "took one of the most elegant imaginative leaps in the history of physics." At issue is "the relativity of simultaneity," a central element of the special theory. Indeed, that's the title of Chapter IX in Einstein's short 1916 book.
Midway through his own Chapter Six, Isaacson discusses the logic of this major leap. His treatment of this eureka moment is taken directly from Einstein's own book. That said, the problem is this:
On its face, this presentation has never made sense. On its face, it didn't make sense in 1916. On its face, it didn't make sense when it appeared in Isaacson's book, in 2007.
On its face, the presentation still didn't make sense when Nova folded it into a hundredth anniversary program on Einstein in 2015. We'll review that presentation next week—but on its face, it's fairly clear that it has never made sense.
Sometimes, presentations fail to make sense in clear, straightforward ways. That doesn't mean that anyone will notice or mention such a fact, especially if the presentation carries the imprimatur of high academic authority.
Other times, presentations are hopelessly murky and jumbled. It's harder to explain what's wrong with such presentations, even though they may make little or no clear sense.
At such times, how can we say that a presentation isn't understandable? Suppose a reader has read the passage and has said that he does understand?
Let's apply that sensible question to the first four pages of Isaacson's Chapter Six. As we do, we'll formulate a pair of challenges for the careful general reader.
THE START OF ISAACSON'S CHAPTER SIX strikes us as almost Onionesque. We say that because it asserts a claim which seems to be comically obvious.
Relativity "asserts that the fundamental laws of physics are the same whatever your state of motion?" That assertion has struck us as puzzlingly obvious ever since we first encountered it, way back in '08.
Why wouldn't the fundamental laws of physics remain the same in the circumstance described? Why wouldn't those "fundamental laws" remain the same, even if I rose from my chair and walked across the room?
Isaacson's sentences are perfectly formed as his chapter begins. There's (almost) no technical language; there isn't any math. It's easy for readers to blow past the oddity of such a presentation and move to paragraph 2.
It's very easy for readers to do that, especially when their book jacket is covered with blurbs saying that the science has been made easy. It maybe easy for general readers to fail to notice that they don't understand.
At such junctures, we can ask them to answer some questions. With respect to Isaacson's first six paragraphs, we might as such questions as these:
1) What fundamental laws of physics is Isaacson referring to here?
2) How many such laws can you name? How many such laws exist?
3) Why wouldn't these fundamental laws of physics remain in effect? How "fundamental" would such laws be if they changed on so flimsy a basis?
If the reader can't answer such questions, he or she has been put on notice—at this point, he or she may not fully understand what is being said. Meanwhile, as Isaacson's first four pages proceed, it's easy to think of other basic questions which might be hard for the general reader to answer.
By the third page of Chapter Six, Isaacson has moved from his description of this "simple concept" to a somewhat similar statement—to the claim that "there is no better description of relativity" than a certain presentation by Galileo in 1632.
The presentation is quoted at length. On its face, it seems to make easy-to-understand sense. But we would bet that the general reader would have a hard time with such questions as these:
4) In what way is that presentation a brilliant description of relativity?
5) Indeed, in what way is it a description of relativity at all?
Thirteen years later, we can't exactly answer those questions ourselves. No matter how smoothly Isaacson's language sails along from page to page, we'll guess that other general readers would crash on the shoals of incomprehension when faced with such questions too.
A passage isn't understandable just because it avoids technical language and formulas and features good sentence structure. A presentation is understandable if the general reader can discuss it in certain basic ways.
This returns us to something Charles Krauthammer said. Way back in the winter of '88, he described the way we sometimes repeat and recite the things experts say, even though we may not know what our recitations mean.
Also, he had said that it couldn't be done! Krauthammer had read, or had tried to read, Stephen Hawking's reportedly easy-to-understand book, A Brief History of Time.
Like Richard Cohen before him, Krauthammer said he didn't understand the book. He even suggested that, in the case of modern physics, such things could no longer be done:
I understand, and if asked can readily repeat, the current notion of superstring theory that the universe has 10 (or 26) dimensions, all but four of which are curled up into tiny little balls. But what can that possibly mean?
I can also recite Hawking's solution to the age-old question: Did the universe have a beginning, or has it existed through an infinity of time? Hawking proposes a finesse: space-time is finite in extent but has no boundary or edge. Meaning: space-time is like the surface of the earth, which also is finite (197 million square miles) but round and enclosed, so that you can go around forever without reaching a beginning or an end. A universe of no beginning and no end, but no infinity. I understand. But what does it mean?
The Hawking book may be proof that physics has reached the limits of metaphor...Thousands of graduate students understand the equations whose meaning Hawking has set out to communicate. But physics is becoming the province of a small cadre of cognoscenti who occasionally send out emissaries like Hawking to speak to the rest of us in parables.
Inscrutable parables. Compare physics to biology, for example. Biology is very complicated, but in principle it is comprehensible. Give the man on the Clapham omnibus an hour, and he can gain a reasonable grasp of, say, immunology. Thirteen hours of Hawking have convinced me that you can no longer do that with physics.
Krauthammer had struggled with Hawking's "inscrutable" book. He offered a simple but instructive assessment:
He could "recite" and "repeat" the things he had read in Hawking's book. But he didn't know what those statements meant, and he didn't think anyone could make modern physics understandable to the general reader.
We're all inclined to read the nice sentences in some approved text, then to repeat what we've read. Depending on the circumstances, we may decide to take a pass on admitting that we don't understand some part of what we've read.
In our current series of reports, we're focusing on books which attempt to make Einstein understandable, even easy. When someone attempts to compose such a book, he's entered the World Series of explanation. Almost surely, these are the hardest possible explanations we can choose to pursue.
As we'll see in the weeks and months ahead, our remarkable failures in these areas may tend to trickle on down. In the end, it doesn't matter if we can't explain or understand Einstein's universe. In other arenas, our inability to explain and understand may matter a very great deal.
That said, our skill sets are quite unimpressive. Routinely, the spirit isn't especially willing, and the flesh is remarkably weak.
In each of our society's warring tribes, our analytical skills are persistently overrun by our passions. Have we been failed by our useless logicians? In the end, that's what we'll claim.
Next week: On its face, this has never made sense