WEDNESDAY, JULY 14, 2021
The teenaged niece's dilemma: Making Einstein easy—comprehensible—isn't an easy task.
It wasn't an easy task even for Einstein himself! Consider the book he wrote for general readers all the way back in 1916, as his worldwide fame had begun taking form.
Einstein devised his special theory of relativity in his "miracle year"—1905—when he was just 26. In Walter Isaacson's 2007 biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Isaacson describes what happened next:
A decade after that, in 1915, he wrested from nature his crowning glory, one of the most beautiful theories in all of science, the general theory of relativity. As with the special theory, his thinking had evolved through thought experiments.
As Isaacson explains, Einstein's fame had begun to take hold at this point. A publisher approached him with what was, at least in theory, an excellent idea:
Einstein should write an account of relativity which would make his revolutionary ideas and discoveries accessible to general readers. So the publisher sensibly said.
The book was published in German in 1916. It appeared in English in 1920. It remains in print today.
That said, was Einstein able to make Einstein easy in this historic book? Was he able to explain relativity in a way the general reader would be able to understand?
In our view, that didn't happen. As part of his story of Einstein's "life," Isaacson explains the process by which the book was written:
[In 1916], he produced an even more understandable version [of his work]—a book for the lay reader, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, that remains popular to this day. To make sure that the average person would fathom it, he read every page out loud to Elsa [Einstein]'s daughter, Margot, pausing frequently to ask whether she indeed got it. "Yes, Albert," she invariably replied, even though (as she confided to others) she found the whole thing totally baffling.
Elsa Einstein was Einstein's cousin (and later, his second wife). At that time, Margot Einstein was his 16-year-old niece.
According to Isaacson's account, Margot Einstein was too much in awe of her famous uncle to tell him she didn't understand the passages he was reading aloud from his (well-intentioned) book.
And yet, according to Isaacson's account, this is the way Einstein decided that the average person would be able to understand the book, which remains in print to this day. From this, we can draw a simple conclusion:
Einstein was one of human history's great intellectual giants. That doesn't mean that he was blessed with special skills when it came to making his work "understandable"—when it came to explaining things to us non-specialist shlubs.
The book which Einstein read aloud is still in print today. It's adorned with blurbs, supplied by the publisher, about how accessible it will be for the general reader.
In the weeks to come, we'll look at one key part of the book—at an explanation which, just on its face, doesn't seem to make sense.
In the passage to which we refer, Einstein explains—or seems to explain; or attempts to explain—a basic concept commonly referred to as "the relativity of simultaneity."
In Isaacson's telling, the concept came to Einstein in the spring of 1905, on "a beautiful day in Bern." In Isaacson's telling, Einstein, "while talking with a friend, took one of the most elegant imaginative leaps in the history of physics."
(We have no doubt that he did.)
Isaacson describes this as a "eureka moment"—as the moment when "the key insight" which would lay at the heart of Einstein's "most famous [scientific] paper" suddenly came to this brilliant theoretical physicist.
This was Einstein's "key insight!" In his biography of Einstein, in his chapter on special relativity, Isaacson reproduces the way Einstein explained this matter "in a 1916 book written to explain this to nonscientists."
Plainly, he's referring to the way Einstein explained this key insight in Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, the general interest book which remains in print to this day.
As Isaacson describes the content of Einstein "eureka moment," he carefully tracks the explanation offered in Einstein's own book. In 2015, so did Nova, as part of a PBS hundred-year retrospective.
Isaacson tracks the explanation offered in Einstein's own book. But does the explanation make sense?
Did it make sense in Einstein's book? Does it make sense in Isaacson's? Did it make sense when Einstein read the passage aloud to his niece—when Margot Einstein told her uncle that yes, she did understand?
We'll examine that explanation at a later point in our ruminations. For today, let's say this:
We're not suggesting that something was "wrong" with Einstein's "key insight." We're not suggesting that something is wrong in the engaging, highly literate way Isaacson lays out these basic stories—basic stories from Einstein's astonishing life.
Regarding Einstein's universe, we're asking a different question. We're asking if anyone, Einstein included, has ever found a way to explain or describe that realm in a way which is accessible to the average person.
Has anyone ever made Einstein easy? Beyond that, we offer a second question:
To what extent are book reviewers and general readers able to see, or just to say, that no, we don't understand?
At one time, that was Margot's dilemma. Even today, is it ours?
Back in 1988, one reviewer after another said that Stephen Hawking's best-selling book was lucid, accessible, comprehensible, even easy to read. In his "miracle column" in the Washington Post, Richard Cohen said, in the face of this onslaught, that he didn't understand.
Five months later, the Post's Charles Krauthammer reported the same incomprehension. The columnists suggested that modern physics has reached a point where it simply can't be explained to the average reader.
Nineteen years after that, Isaacson's book appeared—and we strongly recommend it. It's a well-crafted, highly literate account of Einstein's remarkable life.
Concerning Einstein's universe, we'd call the book very murky. And yet, the book is filled with blurbs in which scholars and critics assert how clearly and lucidly Isaacson has managed to lay out the science.
Tomorrow, we'll return to one of Isaacson's first explanations—to his page 3 explanation involving the trampoline and the bowling ball.
This metaphor is widely employed when writers explain—or seem to explain; or attempt to explain—Einstein's theory concerning the "warping" or "curvature" of the "fabric" of something called "spacetime."
Isaacson turned to this metaphor very early in his book. Wisely, though, as we noted in Monday's report, he decided to throw in his joke:
"Okay, it's not easy," he admits on page 4. At that point, he throws in his joke.
The trampoline / bowling ball metaphor is quite widely employed—but does anyone understand it? Sure, we can repeat or recite the words. But do we know what the words mean?
When reviewers and scholars all say that they do understand, are we humans perhaps engaged in a very old human practice?
Are we humans, here in the West, "seeing ourselves from afar?"
Tomorrow: Back to Isaacson's joke