MONDAY, JULY 12, 2021
Cohen's column, Isaacson's joke: A story has to start somewhere. We'll start ours in two different places.
We'll start our story with Richard Cohen's miracle column in the Washington Post. But also, we'll start our story with Walter Isaacson's fully appropriate joke.
Cohen was a high-profile columnist for the Post for more than forty years. The "miracle column" to which we refer appeared on June 26, 1988—relatively early in his tenure.
In the column, Cohen discussed attempts to explain the fruits of Albert Einstein's "miracle year" (1905) and of his subsequent career.
Stephen Hawking had written and published a giant best-seller—a book which purported to make Einstein's work understandable for the general reader. Cohen did something extremely unusual in his miracle column:
In his column, he made it clear that he didn't understand.
Cohen started, not with a joke, but with a joking tone. He railed at Hawking for having written such an incomprehensible easy-to-understand book:
Damn you, Stephen Hawking. Damn you and your book, A Brief History of Time, which rests, at this writing, on the best-seller lists and which has been praised as lucid, accessible, containing only one equation (Einstein's E = mc2). A scientific book written for the layman, an important book about the beginnings of the universe, of time and matter and the unified theory that would combine those of quantum mechanics and relativity to explain everything: everything, that is, but how the layman can possibly be expected to understand this book.
Right from the jump, Cohen was saying he didn't understand the lucid, accessible book. His frustration was obvious throughout. As he continued, he described one source of his frustration.
"As kids, my friends and I used to go down to the beach at night," Cohen wrote. (Judging from Cohen's basic biography, this may have been out in Far Rockaway.)
"We would lie on our backs and look up at the stars and wonder—wonder about space and about nothingness."
"I still wonder," Cohen wrote; he said that was why he'd leaped at the chance to read Hawking's book. But also, he said that he'd read a bunch of reviews, and this is what they'd said:
[M]ost of them started, as did the one by Jeremy Bernstein in The New Yorker, by saying how easy this book was to read. "Charming and lucid," Bernstein said, although his review was anything but.
Ditto The New York Review of Books. "Hawking's prose is as informal and clear as his topics are profound," wrote Martin Gardner, the author of several books on science. He then outdid Bernstein in proving that the informal and clear could be reduced to sludge. Newsweek weighed in with a profile of Hawking. It noted his use of "imaginary" time, adding that " 'Imaginary' is used here in a technical mathematical sense—meaning the square root of a negative number . . ." What???
And so it has gone, each review proclaiming that the book made the incomprehensible comprehensible, even though the review itself was incomprehensible.
According to Cohen, the reviews all said the book was easy. But the reviews themselves were extremely hard—indeed, they were incomprehensible!
According to Cohen, he had seen only one review which touched upon the difficulty of Hawking's widely-praised book. Even there, he seemed to say, the critic may have been fudging a bit:
Only one critic I read (Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times) admitted that the book contained "several dense passages . . . which this reader . . . found impossible to follow." But even she praised the work, while concluding, "It is hard for the lay reader to grasp all of Mr. Hawking's arguments." Hard? Try impossible.
According to the frustrated Cohen, Kakutani had been willing to admit that "several" parts of the book will be "hard for the lay reader to grasp." Cohen took things to the edge of the event horizon, subbing the word "impossible" in for the reviewer's "hard."
Cohen was aggressively rejecting conventional wisdom about a very high-profile book by a very high-profile writer. Especially concerning books which claim to make Einstein's work accessible—books which are said to be easy-to-read—this was a very rare stance, and would still be so today.
Cohen went on to make some sound observations about the state of modern physics. Five months later, in early December, another Post columnist, Charles Krauthammer, published a similar column, describing his own inability to understand Hawking's allegedly easy book.
In their columns, Cohen and Krauthammer made sound points about the difficulty involved in any attempt to understand modern physics. But before we consider some of those points, let's consider Walter Isaacson's joke.
Isaacson's joke comes right at the start of his widely-praised 2007 biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe. By the time the book appeared, Isaacson had turned from a career as a highly capable, high-ranking mainstream journalist to a career as a highly capable, widely-praised biographer.
As with Hawking's earlier book, so too here. When Isaacson's biography of Einstein appeared, a long string of major figures praised it for the way it made Einstein's work accessible to general readers.
The blurbs were numerous and unanimous. To his credit, Isaacson may have been less sure.
In the first few pages of his well-crafted book, Isaacson offered a thumbnail overview of Einstein's work.
He wasn't yet making a major effort to explain what Einstein had discovered; those efforts would come later, in several stand-alone chapters. Already, though, Isaacson threw in a joke, perhaps suggesting the nature of the problem at hand.
Einstein had produced his "miracle year" in 1905, when he was just 26, Isaacson wrote. In that year, Einstein had introduced his "special theory of relativity."
Einstein's explorations had continued, and so did Isaacson's overview. Starting on page 3, Isaacson described Einstein's next great finding—the general theory.
Isaacson described Einstein's crowning achievement. As he did, he threw in a joke:
[I]n 1915, he wrested from nature his crowning glory, one of the most beautiful theories in all of science, the general theory of relativity...
Gravity, he figured, was a warping of space and time, and he came up with the equations that describe how the dynamics of this curvature result from the interplay between matter, motion, and energy. It can be described by using another thought experiment. Picture what it would be like to roll a bowling ball onto the two-dimensional surface of a trampoline. Then roll some billiard balls. They move toward the bowling ball not because it exerts some mysterious attraction but because of the way it curves the trampoline fabric. Now imagine this happening in the four-dimensional fabric of space and time. Okay, it's not easy, but that's why we're no Einstein and he was.
The joking remark appeared on page 4. You can read Isaacson's entire first chapter here.
According to Einstein, gravity was "a warping of space and time," Isaacson wrote. Gravity was a "curvature" of those entities.
Isaacson then presented the "billiard balls on the trampoline" metaphor to explain what this meant. This metaphor is constantly used to "explain" Einstein's concept—and that's where his joke came in:
"Okay, it's not easy," Isaacson said. That's because "we're no Einstein and he was," the writer correctly said.
We'll score that comment as a joke, and as a very good one. Also, we'll score it as a vindication of Cohen's miracle column.
Isaacson proceeded to offer a superb, clearly rendered account of Einstein's remarkable life. But when it came to describing Einstein's "universe"—when it came to describing Einstein's theories and findings—we'd have to say that Isaacson's book, like Hawking's before it, is much less lucid than the blurbs and the reviews might have said.
We don't know if Cohen and/or Krauthammer ever read Isaacson's highly praised biography. But if they did, we'll guess they would have echoed their earlier judgments concerning Hawking's book.
The reviews and the blurbs had widely said that Isaacson made Einstein easy. We'll join with the spirit of Cohen's column—perhaps with the spirit of Isaacson's joke—to say that those uniform sanguine claims are (perhaps instructively) wrong.
At this point, we'll advance our own thumbnail assessment of those uniform sanguine claims, claims which are routinely made about such high-profile books:
They point they way to Horwich's thesis—and onward to Wittgenstein's muddle.
Tomorrow: Cohen's observations
For the record: With this entry, we're introducing a new frame of reference—a new point of emphasis—for this site. (Or at least, so we hope.)
At some point, we'll explain these changes as the week proceeds, or at least so we expect.