HAS NEVER MADE SENSE: Einstein offered a key explanation!


On its face, it has never made sense: We hold in our hands a copy of Albert Einstein's 1916 book, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory.

Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity in 1905, when he was just 26. Ten years later, he produced his general theory.

Oner year after that, in 1916, Einstein published the aforementioned rather short book. The  book was intended to explain relativity to non-specialists—to the general reader. 

Einstein's 1916 book remains in print to this day. The edition we hold was published by Bonanza Books / Crown Publishers in 1961, though it was purchased much later.

Our copy of Einstein's book is an instructive artifact. On its cover, beneath the title of the book but above the name of its author, the publisher offered a fanciful claim:


That claim appears in bold, and all caps. On the front flap of the dust jacket, the claim is slightly scaled back:

It has long been a popular misconception that only a handful of people in the world can understand Einstein's theory of Relativity. Here is a book, however, by the originator of the theory himself explaining the theory in simple words that anyone with the equivalent of a high school education can understand.

By now, the reader will need a high school education, or its equivalent, to understand the "simple words" of the historic book. 

Below that slightly adjusted claim, the dust jacket of our book offers excerpts from two reviews of the easy-to-understand book. As it turns out, the excerpts were a bit selective, but the dust jacket reads like this:

Some Book Reviews

"The book is intended to give an exact insight into the theory to those who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics. In the opinion of this reviewer, in this attempt he has been eminently successful." —The New York Times

"Written in an unpretentious, straightforward style. The trend of his exposition can be followed in the main by any attentive reader." —New York Post

As it turns out, these excerpts tend to misrepresent the overall tone of the reviews from which they were drawn. Also, the first excerpt was attributed to the New York Times, though that's not where the review in question appeared. 

(For a fuller discussion of those excerpts, you can just click here.)

Publishers have tried to sell Einstein's book in such ways ever since it was published. This practice has continued into the present day.

(In our view, the practice has spread to PBS. In our view, PBS has routinely tended to overstate the ease with which its programs about Einstein, and about modern physics more generally, could be understood by  "those who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics." More on that in the weeks ahead.)

Einstein's claims about his book were more circumspect. At the start of his short preface, he said his book "presumes a standard of education corresponding to that of a university matriculation examination, and, despite the shortness of the book, a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader."

For the record, a university matriculation examination is an entrance exam—an entrance exam for the more demanding universities of Einstein's day. 

"I make no pretense of having withheld from the reader difficulties which are inherent to the subject," Einstein said at the end of his preface. In the years which have followed, publishers have tended to make this book sound a good deal easier than it actually is.

In his historic book, Einstein did not present “a clear explanation [of relativity] that anyone can understand.” Nor did he claim to have done such a thing, though he said that he had done the best he could. 

That said:

In the week which follows, we won’t be trying to evaluate the general accessibility of Einstein’s historic text. Instead, we’ll be looking at one presentation from the book—a key presentation which is being repeated right to the present day.

This key presentation is being repeated even though, on its face, it has never seemed to make sense. On its face, it didn't make sense when Einstein offered it, nor does it do so today.

The presentation started with Einstein himself, back in 1916. In 2007, it was accurately repeated, in all particulars, by Walter Isaacson in his well-received biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe.

Eight years later, Nova produced a program for PBS, Inside Einstein's Mind, commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Einstein's general theory. The presentation was accurately repeated there as well. 

On its face, it still didn't seem to make sense.

The presentation of which we speak is offered by Einstein in Chapter IX of his historic book. It comprises the whole of that very short chapter, which is found on pages 24-26 of the rather short book.

The chapter carries this title: The Relativity of Simultaneity; you can read the whole chapter here. The presentation is one of Einstein’s most widely cited—and, at least on its face, it has never seemed to make sense, even though it’s intended to explain one of relativity’s most fundamental principles.

Did Einstein stumble at this point as he tried to make his work intelligible to general readers? Einstein is universally acclaimed as one of history's most brilliant theoretical physicists. There's no obvious reason to assume that he was an infallible popular writer as well.

Did Einstein stumble at this point? Writing as non-experts, we’re not sure how to score it.

That said, the presentation, on its face, has never seemed to make sense—but it has been repeated again and again, and no one has seemed to notice. So it can go as our journalistic and academic elites conduct our society's intellectual work on the highest levels.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at Isaacson’s succinct presentation of this important aspect of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. According to Isaacson, we’re talking about the “eureka moment” in 1905 in which Einstein "took one of the most elegant imaginative leaps in the history of physics."

Isaacson offers a short, essentially accurate account of Einstein's presentation from his Chapter IX. So did Nova, in its 2015 commemorative program.

On the down side, Isaacson didn’t seem to notice the fact that Einstein's presentation has never seemed to make sense. Nova didn't notice that either. So these matters have gone through the years. So they'll continue to go in the future.

More than a hundred years have passed; this puzzle remains unnoticed. When it comes to efforts to make Einstein easy, the salesmanship is often effusive:

The analytical skills, and the cogency, are often instructively weak.

Tomorrow: Isaacson’s (accurate) account


  1. This bill is long overdue: https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/565875-protecting-the-future-of-journalism-with-the-journalist

    Somerby has engaged in a continual verbal assault on journalists here at this blog but, to my knowledge, he has never urged violence against them, as Trump and his supporters have done. The behavior on the right among Trump and his supporters has been to make death threats and engage in harassment of people doing the work of our democracy, ranging from threats and attacks on journalists, to poll and election workers, to public health officials and most recently, Nancy Pelosi (who Kevin McCarthy supposedly joked about hitting with a gavel). It included an attack on our Capitol as legislators attempted to certify the last election, and threats of violence have continued after that, up to the present.

    It is time to take a stand against politically motivated violence. Whether aimed at Asians or at BLM officials or at those requiring masks at the supermarket, such violence should be condemned and it should have no place in our society. And that includes violence against those who are attempting to provide information as journalists.

    Somerby's work here doesn't help improve the climate of hate directed toward those who report the news. He need not stop his criticism, but can certainly watch the tone he uses in his "essays" against primarily female journalists and writers about race, his special targets here. His retreat to talking about Einstein cannot excuse the vitriol he has spewed about journalists as recently as last month.

    1. "...who Kevin McCarthy supposedly joked about hitting with a gavel)"

      You can tell it's a Right-wing joke, because it isn't the least bit funny.

    2. The cruelty is always the point with them.

  2. “ Einstein cannot excuse the vitriol he has spewed about journalists as recently as last month.”

    Yeah, I miss that too.

    1. And you missed my point, which is that such vitriol was a bad thing, that never should have happened.

      In line with the old Dan Hicks song, how can we miss you Cecelia, if you won't go away?

    2. Well, it was a subtle point and subtly made.

    3. If you actually knew anything, you wouldn't write the stupid things you do.

  3. We get it. Somerby doesn't understand Einstein's work, no matter who explains it. Does that mean no one else understands it? I don't think so. And if some others can understand it, I do not believe that the blurbs or reviews are incorrect. Further, Somerby never explains what he finds confusing, or what he thinks is misrepresented in those blurbs, or what is wrong with the explanations. He just whines about being promised something he thinks was not delivered, as if he were a passive vessel to be filled with understanding without any effort on his part.

    Meeting a subject that poses difficulties of understanding is a good experience for a prospective teacher. It can elicit empathy that is important to helping children who have difficulty understanding material. In Somerby's case, it doesn't appear to have resulted in any increased empathy. Instead of providing an opportunity to struggle, of the type that helps maintain brain functioning in elderly people, Somerby is busily passing around blame to all who promised to make learning EASY, as if mental exercise were not as grueling as physical exercise. As Rita Rudner used to say about aerobics "...with no unpleasant bending at the waist...", Somerby seems to think learning can happen without any unpleasant thinking, no mental effort. And if it does not, surely Einstein is to blame, or Isaacson (who is a biographer not a physicist) or their reviewers (who did nothing but read an recommend a book).

    This is what entitlement looks like. Who ever told Somerby that going to Harvard meant never having to think again?

  4. I read Chapter IX again. I still find it clear and correct. I wonder what Bob's objection is.

    Note that Einstein said, in effect, you have to know high-school mathematics and physics to understand relativity, and that the reader has to work at it. Some other authors, or publishers, may say that anyone can easily understand it, but Einstein himself never made that claim.

    1. It seems TDH has made his point, over and over again already (and it's not a particularly significant point). And he says he is going to keep discussing the issue for possibly years to come. Seems to me like an irrational, fetishistic obsession.

  5. When you go back to discussing the press Bob, I'll read your blog again.

  6. Digby says:

    "That’s how the right rolls. And has rolled for a long time. The trolling, the nasty, juvenile name-calling, the demeaning of all civil discourse — ask Newt Gingrich about all that."

    Cecelia is the right's poster child.

  7. I highly recommend David Frum's summary of the Trump attempt to overthrow a lawful election, and the complicity of the Republican Party:


    1. Recognize Cecelia in this description? I do. She is an archetype:

      "The post-Trump right has a style as distinctive as its authoritarian substance: trolling, ironic, evasive. It expresses itself in rhetorical questions, in false alternatives, in sleights of phrase, in mocking deflections. It does not openly declare its intentions, in part because it does not dare to—and in part because it itself does not yet fully know. Those of us who have walked away from this betrayal of our earlier beliefs can discern the resemblance to the fascism of the last century. But those heading toward the new destination do not see so clearly, distracted as they are by the wisecracks that they are tweeting as they trudge."

    2. It's sad but true, Cecilia makes more sense than most (not all) of the commentators here, and that's the case even though half the time I can't figure out what she's talking about.

    3. Yes, it is sad that you think so.

  8. Anonymouse 4:16pm, well, let me share my intentions with you. I had no idea that they couldn’t be seen from a mile away.

    My intention is to read this blog, enjoy it, and to learn what I am able from the very smart and insightful Bob Somerby.

    My intention is to defend Somerby when astoundingly absurd and tone-deaf Anonymices attack him for not being their monkey on a rope.

    Not because he needs it, he doesn’t read this crap. I do it because it’s the right thing to do.

    Now you know.

    1. You don't know what a "monkey on a rope" is. It could be this: https://activityworkshop.net/puzzlesgames/monkey/index.html

      Or it could be "a safety rope secured to a sailor's waist (as when he is working over the ship's side)" which makes no sense in your context.

      Inability to use American references and slang is a giveaway for Eastern European trolls.

      Somerby is neither smart nor insightful. For one thing, he cannot understand Einstein, even when made easy. For another, the term "insight" often refers to understanding of one's own motives, and Somerby has absolutely none of that.

      The intentions referred to above are about the goals of conservatives, the right, not any individual. You would never admit that Trump's goals are to sell out America to the Russians for personal gain, for example. And what are conservative intentions when they encourage resistance to covid vaccine?

      Somerby has never been attacked for being anything on a rope, and you know it. His intentions are far from clear, but yours, as you defend his conservative talking points, are obvious, at least from the standpoint of understanding whose side you are on. But you have not addressed the intentions of the right at all. And what you are doing here makes as little sense as you do, except that Somerby attracts people who agree with his attacks on journalists, liberals, women and black writers, professors, and others with expertise (Einstein, for example).

      You need to go away now.

    2. Anonymouse 7:22pm, you don’t have to read anything I write here.

      Why do it? It makes you even angrier and more paranoid. I understand why you want to read Somerby, but you don’t have to read regular posters here. That’s up to you.

    3. Go away, nasty troll. You don't belong here. You have no standing to ask others why they find you annoying when you never contribute anything to discussion and always have to have the last word in any mud slinging (which you typically start). Fuck off.

    4. Now be sure to read and get angry over this post from someone who has “no standing “ on a blog comment board, nutcase.

    5. What part of fuck off do you not understand?

    6. “..he doesn’t read this crap.” Is that conjecture or based upon some intimate knowledge of the activities of Somerby? That is an interesting road to travel from a variety of perspectives. Let’s say you’re Somerby. And I am not saying you are, mind you. You put out a blog post to a collection of people whose opinions on the matter are of such little interest to you that you don’t read their responses. This suggests that you are a narcissistic dweeb. Even opinion columnists for the reviled NYT read and respond to their readers’ comments: they respectfully engage in dialogue. Or maybe you did check in at one time, but found the experience so distasteful as to have stopped doing so long ago. You continue churning out verbiage knowing that your audience is antagonistic, like setting up a series of political rallies for an
      audience you know to be consistently hostile and vocal. In which case you choose to avoid any dialogue with them. You have a large plexiglass shield and noise cancelling ear buds. You wonder what is wrong with these people: they show up at your rallies only to heckle you and throw things. Then there comes a moment of introspection. A very short and immediately forgettable one. The angry mob, for their part, wish that they could attend a rally held by some complete loser like Tucker Carlson. You’re the easiest rally to attend and give their opinions to publicly, not so much to you- because you’re not listening- but to others who might stumble upon the rally not knowing it’s history. You are a surrogate target, Pence stumping for Trump. You, on the other hand, have a job to do. Which is to dole out this nonsense to these ungrateful assholes on a regular basis, taking special care not to sample their responses, lest that activity make your job all the more unpalatable. You’ll leave that task to Cecelia, who knows you quite well apparently, avoiding the troublesome Mao who is good for nothing. Your motivation in all this can be speculated upon by Cecelia, who is taking a lot of the heat directed at you, bless their heart.

    7. Unamused, who is taking “heat” at this joint? Somerby? People who defend him?

      He started a blog years ago that has very likely morphed beyond the commentary that he puts out into the ether (I’m so glad he does!) to a personal following via an email cohort.

      The only task he leaves to the larger public is to read his stuff and to consider it.

      Any wrangling anyone does with his blogboard critics is by choice, because such animus towards him should be countered, and it’s amusing to do it.

    8. That Cecelia loves Somerby tells you all you need to know about Somerby's content and whether he is a Trumptard.

    9. How in the world can anyone claim that Somerby is a Trump supporter?

  9. AC/MC, just like Bob with Einstein!

  10. Anonymouse 4:03pm, please. When you’re not calling Bob a racist, sexist, and abettor of violence, you’re painting-balling your every contrarian with those epithets.

    You don’t do civil discourse. That’s not your purpose here.

  11. 'The presentation is one of Einstein’s most widely cited—and, at least on its face, it has never seemed to make sense,'

    It makes perfect sense to someone who understands basic HS physics and math and has some basic intellectual wherewithal, a group which does not include people who claim to be liberal, but are actually Trumptards (such as Somerby)

  12. There is some irony in you complaining about being labeled for what you are when you are the troll here. You have arguably never contributed to a substantive discussion here. It is just sniping.

  13. "On the down side, Isaacson didn’t seem to notice the fact that Einstein's presentation has never seemed to make sense. Nova didn't notice that either. "

    We are supposed to believe that people like Einstein and Isaacson are wrong but Somerby is right? Those involved in creating Nova are wrong but Somerby is right? All while Somerby cannot explain what is "analytically weak" about Einstein's presentation? That isn't going to fly. Somerby's own reputation for cogency isn't sufficiently strong to support that complaint. And that is all he has offered us here.

    But it is good enough for Cecelia and AC/MA, presumably because they don't understand Einstein either, so it must be Einstein's fault. This is no doubt how Trump and Gaetz and Boebert protect their egos too, from the many things in life that whiz over their heads.

    1. Anonymouse, why drag me into your criticism of Somerby because I’m not wringing my hands over his take on a particular book genre?

      Somerby doesn’t think that it’s Einstein’s fault that the subject is so complex, he thinks that it’s worth noting that the subject is immensely complex to the vast majority of people “who are not Einstein”.

      If you weren’t an Anonymouse demanding that everyone here join in gigging him for this I would chalk it up to your perhaps being an unusually smart person.

      However, we both know that if Somerby was defending and hyping these types of books instead of being annoyed at some of the pretensions around them, you’d declare him a fraud and an intellectual poseur for that.

    2. You insert yourself into other people's comments without saying anything relevant.

      Several people here have said that they understood the explanation that Somerby cannot conceive of anyone understanding. As I pointed out previously, Somerby seems to think that if he cannot understand the explanation then no one can. He is wrong about that. It isn't a matter of any "vast majority" of people reading the book, since the majority of people in this country read less than one book per year and a book about Einstein's theory will have very few readers to begin with. They are a self-selected audience of people who are highly likely to understand the explanation because they wouldn't buy such a book without a strong interest in the topic.

      You think Somerby is clever and wise, but that is because you yourself are an idiot.

      I used to find Somerby interesting but he changed into a Trumptard somewhere along the line. Others caught on faster than I did, but I am not wrong in my criticisms of him. And no, I am not merely being oppositional. The man offends me, then compounds that by insisting that he is liberal when he is not (no matter what he might once have been). He is a fraud because he tells lies here. And he is an intellectual poseur because he tries to drop names and misuse song lyrics and other people's ideas to give his lies credibility. And I find that offensive too.

      That you cannot see this is your problem, but there is no reason for a conservative to come here and annoy other commenters on a supposedly liberal blog. That is majorly uncivil and you need to leave, now.

  14. I’ve contributed to many discussions here and been called everything but a serial killer for it. What I don’t do is engage in partisan squabbles with people who make trite blanket indictments against their political contrarians and what I do is to defend an engaging and interesting blogger against a gang of ideological militants.

    Stop reading me.

  15. Yes, it’s a “supposedly a liberal blog” when you’re commenting to someone who has openly declared their conservatism, but it’s a faux liberal blog otherwise.

    If you have outpaced Somerby in your leftism (as Kevin Drum elucidated) aren’t I more suitable for this blog than you?

    You’re the angry troll who sounds like a jilted lover sweetheart. I couldn’t care less about your being here, but you’re the odd man out.

    1. The commenters and most of the readers here take education issues seriously. Some work in the field. Others here remember when Somerby used to write about actual campaign coverage and liberal issues. At some point Somerby changed. This blog is still listed on the blogrolls at several liberal sites. Wikipedia describes Somerby as liberal. He is clearly not, but he has been playing a game of undermining liberal candidates and the press while echoing conservative talking points while telling us all to listen to The Other (conservatives and Trump supporters).

      You have not engaged this argument at all. You are here only to further your own interests. Somerby is not smart and he is not honest.

      Attempting to sexualize me is a diversion, some of the deflection Digby mentioned. And it is an insult to men who consider being female a curse. Women don't use that insult on each other, so perhaps Somerby isn't the only one pretending to be something he is not.

      No one cares what you think about me. You are an irritant and you disrupt discussion. You need to leave now. You have an ugly habit of always needing the last word. Just go quietly. No one wants you here, not even the other trolls.

    2. You’re the “other trolls”

      How compelling is it to be told by an Anonymouse that other people named “Anonymous” don’t want you here?

      How many is that? Three?

      And two of them, referencing the authority of Digby from Hullabaloo, are Digby at Hullabaloo?

    3. Mao, David in Cal, these are the other trolls.

      Digby has won awards.

    4. https://digbysblog.net/

    5. I saw the quoted material from Digby. I’m not surprised that she wins awards and that Bob does not.

      The fact that Bob is not winning awards and that you have award-winning Digby to read isn’t enough for you, you want a complete and undeviating Digby world.

      So we’re at an impasse here. You can’t get no satisfaction. Quit reading me.

    6. Quit commenting here.

    7. Cecelia. I love your work. Please keep commenting!

  16. As I said, you are embarrassing yourself.

  17. What's the deal with all the Bob haters here? It comes off like a paid effort, and the comments about him are really nutty.


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