HAS NEVER MADE SENSE: Isaacson recounts what Einstein wrote!


On its face, it never made sense: Walter Isaacson is a highly experienced journalist and an acclaimed biographer. Unsurprisingly, he's also a very good teller of stories.

In Chapter Six of his biography of Albert Einstein, he describes a "eureka moment"—the "eureka moment" in which Einstein "took one of the most elegant imaginative leaps in the history of physics." 

Isaacson's chapter deals with Einstein's special theory of relativity, which Einstein formulated in 1905, when he was just 26. The eureka moment occurred in early May of that year, on  a beautiful spring day in Bern, as Einstein was walking and talking with Michele Besso, "the brilliant but unfocused engineer" who was his best friend.

By all accounts, Isaacson is describing a key moment in the history of physics—indeed, in the intellectual history of the twentieth century. What "key insight" had suddenly come to Einstein that day? Isaacson starts his account like this:

Only five weeks elapsed between that eureka moment and the day that Einstein sent off his most famous paper, "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies." It contained no citations of other literature, no mention of anyone else's work, and no acknowledgments except for the charming one in the last sentence [to Besso]...

So what was the insight that struck him while talking to Besso? “An analysis of the concept of time was my solution,” Einstein said. “Time cannot be absolutely defined, and there is an inseparable relation between time and signal velocity.”

More specifically, the key insight was that two events that appear to be simultaneous to one observer will not appear to be simultaneous to another observer who is moving rapidly. And there is no way to declare that one of the observers is really correct. In other words, there is no way to declare that the two events are truly simultaneous.

In Isaacson's paraphrase, Einstein's key insight was this:

Two events that appear to be simultaneous to one observer will not appear to be simultaneous to another observer who is moving rapidly. And since there is no way to say that one or the other observer is right, there is no way to declare that the two events are truly simultaneous.

There's no way to declare that two events are truly simultaneous! Remember, this is Isaacson's paraphrase of Einstein's "key insight"—but as we'll see tomorrow, it's a perfectly reasonable account of what Einstein actually said in the source upon which Isaacson is relying.

There's no way to declare that two events are simultaneous! This principle is generally known as "the relativity of simultaneity." According to Isaacson (and many others), it's the key insight—the eureka moment—which suddenly came to Einstein on that spring day in Bern.

Within five weeks, Einstein had sent off his most famous scientific paper, On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies. In Isaacson's words, it was that key insight which lay at the heart of "one of the most elegant imaginative leaps in the history of physics." 

As far as we know, no one disagrees with Isaacson's general portrait of this historic event. The problem arises when Isaacson further explains Einstein's "key insight"—though, in fairness to Isaacson, he's working directly from Einstein's own work when he offers his account of this important matter.

On what is Isaacson relying? As he continues, Isaacson doesn't quote from Einstein's work in the famous technical paper he sent off in June of 1905. Instead, he sensibly turns to a different source as he tries to explain Einstein's key insight.

Sensibly, Isaacson turns to the account Einstein offered in Chapter IX of Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, the book he wrote for general readers in 1916. (For the text of that book, click here.)

As he continues, Isaacson presents Einstein's account of the relativity of simultaneity—but he explains it the way Einstein did in that 1916 book, the one Einstein wrote for non-specialists. That said, there is a problem here::

Unfortunately, the account Einstein offered in that book has, at least on its face, never quite seemed to make sense.

Isaacson offers a reasonably faithful rendering of the explanation Einstein presented in Chapter IX of his book. This is what Isaacson writes as he continues from the passage posted above:

Einstein later explained this concept using a thought experiment involving moving trains. Suppose lightning bolts strike the train track’s embankment at two distant places, A and B. If we declare that they struck simultaneously, what does that mean?

Einstein realized that we need an operational definition, one we can actually apply, and that would require taking into account the speed of light. His answer was that we would define the two strikes as simultaneous if we were standing exactly halfway between them and the light from each reached us at the exact same time.

But now let us imagine how the event looks to a train passenger who is moving rapidly along the track. In a 1916 book written to explain this to nonscientists, he used the following drawing, in which the long train is the line on the top.

"Einstein later explained this concept using a thought experiment involving moving trains?" As becomes clear two paragraphs later, Isaacson is referring to the explanation Einstein offered in his 1916 book.

At this point in his exposition, Isaacson reproduces the drawing Einstein used in that book. The drawing appears in Chapter IX, The Relativity of Simultaneity, in Einstein's extremely brief historic text. 

That chapter is only three pages long. You can see the entire chapter, and the drawing Einstein employed, by just clicking here. The rudimentary drawing does purport to show a railroad train and two distant lightning strikes.

From here, Isaacson proceeds to explain this important concept involved in this matter almost exactly as Einstein did. He faithfully describes the thought experiment Einstein employed—a thought experiment involving that fast-moving train and that pair of lightning strikes.

As he proceeds, Isaacson is faithful to Einstein presentation. There's only one problem:

On its face, Einstein's presentation didn't seem to make sense. On its face, it didn't seem to make sense back in 1916, and it still doesn't today. 

Tomorrow, we'll consider the presentation Einstein offered in his 1916 book. Isaacson worked directly from that presentation in his deeply-researched 2007 book. Eight years later, Nova followed suit, in an hour-long PBS program, Inside Einstein's Mind.

Tomorrow, we'll look at what Einstein said in his presentation. Quite reasonably, Isaacson thought that Einstein was saying this:

The key insight was that two events that appear to be simultaneous to one observer will not appear to be simultaneous to another observer who is moving rapidly. 

It's reasonable to think that Einstein was saying that—that he was offering that account of his key insight. That's what Einstein appears to be saying in his 1916 book.

There's only one problem with the explanation Isaacson (and Nova) derived from Einstein's presentation. On its face, their explanation of this key principle had never seemed to make sense.

On its face, Einstein's presentation for general readers didn't seem to make sense in 1916. It still didn't make make sense in 2007, or in 2015, but neither Isaacson nor Nova seemed to notice this fact.

By now, more than a hundred years have passed since Einstein published his 1916 book. On its face, the presentation he made in Chapter IX of his book still doesn't seem to make sense. 

It's one of the most important moments in the history of physics—in the intellectual history of the twentieth century. But more than a hundred years later, on the highest levels, no one seems to have noticed that Einstein's account of this historic moment didn't quite seem to make sense.

Two events which appear to be simultaneous to one observer will not appear to be simultaneous to another observer who is moving rapidly?

In most cases, though not in all, that will surely be true. But that will also be true for most observers who aren't moving rapidly—indeed, for most observers who aren't moving at all!

Isaacson accepted Einstein's presentation at face value. Eight years later, Nova followed suit.

On its face, that presentation had never made sense! Tomorrow, we'll journey back in time to 1916 to see what Einstein wrote.

Tomorrow: On its face, this didn't make sense

Thursday or Friday: As seen on PBS


  1. He seems to enjoy writing the same pointless article over and over again.

  2. Seems Bob let his his subscription to "Right-wing Grievance of the Day" newsletter expire.

    1. Right-wingers don’t have grievances with the details of creation.

      Any delicious heresy involving that is yours to rend garments over.

    2. Conservatives didn't crucify Jesus for helping the poor. They crucified him because he's black.

    3. @11:06 is pointing out that Somerby appears to be focusing exclusively on Einstein and not writing about current events covered by Fox News (etc). He or she said nothing at all about creation or heresy or anything else in your comment. Can't you ever respond to the actual content of someone's comment?

    4. The obvious answer (question) is can Anonymouse 11:06pm respond for him/herself?

      Who would know one way or the other?

    5. To the amoral dumpster fire at 5:15,
      11:05 here.
      If you were serious, you're mistaken. If you were just trolling, once again, go fuck yourself.

  3. "On its face, the presentation he made in Chapter IX of his book still doesn't seem to make sense. "

    Somerby says that Einstein never did make sense and he still doesn't. To whom? Somerby never says that. Presumably, Einstein doesn't make sense to Somerby. Somerby thinks Einstein shouldn't have made sense to Isaacson, Nova and others who have read his books and articles. That doesn't seem to be the case. Einstein's work makes sense to other physicists, or he wouldn't have received the acknowledgements he has, gotten famous, spurred additional work, been hired at Princeton, been published, etc. Einstein's work doesn't stand on its own -- it has been vetted by other experts in his field, tested by subsequent researchers, written about by Hawking.

    All of this is insufficient reassurance to Somerby that Einstein's work makes sense to others. Somerby continues to insist that Einstein makes no sense.

    Why? What is Somerby's motive in attempting to discredit (by assertion, not proof or evidence) a major physicist? Once again, Somerby is trying to tear down human knowledge. For what purpose? He never says, but it appears to be simple nihilism. It could be in order to allow the gap in knowledge to be filled by pseudoscience, religion or opportunistic conmen, such as Trump and his minions. Somerby is attacking all of knowledge, including Fauci, so that hydroxychloroquinine can be sold to the unwary and human civilization can twiddle its thumbs while our planet burns and no one does a thing about it, because science is dead. Perhaps Somerby is himself suicidal and thinks we should take down the entire planet with him, starting with Einstein, who is arguably the most well-known scientist of modern history. Or maybe it just amuses Somerby to jerk others around while he jerks himself off (with words of course).

    Gloucon, if the article is pointless, where does Somerby's enjoyment come from?

  4. "On its face, that presentation had never made sense!"

    On its face? Science is not about what can be seen superficially (which is what "on its face" means). It is about the development of different ways of seeing beyond what can be observed by intelligent humans simply by looking. Every time there is an advance in observation and measurement, there is an advance in our understanding of ourselves and our world and even our universe. Look at the changes the Hubble telescope has brought to cosmology. Look at the changes in understanding of how neurons work that occurred when dyes were developed to allow us to view the parts of the neuron under a microscope. Look at the changes in our understanding of how the brain works brought about by magnetic resonance imaging.

    But Somerby thinks Einstein's work should be accessible "on its face" without any assistance from mathematics or other ideas in physics. Why would anyone think this?

    The early Greek philosophers considered the world on its face because they had no other tools. They developed some math and logic, but were limited by things like having no concept of infinity, no way to resolve paradoxes. And much was opaque to them by simple observation. They got some things right and many things wrong, as Newton made clear when he used empirical study (experiments) to test their ideas and thereby revolutionized physics. Natural philosophy became science because better ways of studying the world than using logic and observation (even introspection), were developed.

    The problem here is that Somerby apparently never took a class outside his philosophy major and stopped trying to understand the world when he left college. Even now, he keeps rereading his college textbooks, as if nothing has happened in the 50 years since he graduated (assuming he did graduate). His career became teaching young children and mocking adults, something that can be done without understanding Einstein or much else (judging by this blog). Now he wants to reduce the totality of experience to his own limited imagination. Fortunately, there are other people writing books and developing shows such as Nova who do understand our world better than Somerby. And I doubt whether anyone cares whether Somerby can follow Einstein's work or not.

    But if you take Somerby's attitude and generalize it to a larger group of people, you will wind up with know-nothingism akin to what Christians believe (who are limited to a 6000 year history by their Bible) or Republicans (who are limited by their politics to whatever Trump believes). And you really don't want to live with that worldview.

    1. Christians haven’t countered Einstein, but if you’re going strictly by a creation story without any specifics, you need to include Muslims as dummies too.

    2. Missed the point, as usual.

    3. There are Christians who attempt to reconcile the Bible and Christian teachings with science:


      But they themselves also say:

      "Many Christians today still don’t accept the findings of modern science, and that affects everything from caring for God’s creation to getting vaccinated. Many are also departing or rejecting the faith over the perceived science and faith conflict."

      Cecelia pretends to speak for "Christians" as a group without saying which ones, but @11:33 referred specifically to those who limit human time to 6000+ years.

      As for Muslims, Pew Research says:

      "For example, many Muslims expressed the view that Islam and science are basically compatible, while, at the same time, acknowledging some areas of friction – such as the theory of evolution conflicting with religious beliefs about the origins and development of human life on Earth. Evolution also has been a point of discord between religion and science in the West."


      But Cecelia isn't seriously discussing this topic. This is more of her drive-by sniping. Note that @11:33 never called Muslims or Christians "dummies." That is her addition to our dialog.

  5. Never stop believing that fighting for what's right is worth it. Hillary Rodham Clinton

    (Hillary supporters are capable of parsing double negatives.)

    Never take medical advice from a man who looked directly at a solar eclipse. Hillary Rodham Clinton

    I would have read my damn briefs, Barbra, that's for sure.
    Hillary Rodham Clinton

    The only person who actually had an election stolen from her has moved on and continued to do good in this world, unlike that former guy who continues to whine about losing his throne, tried to destroy our democracy, and will soon go to jail for his crimes, if there is any justice in the world.

    Meanwhile, stop the presses! Somerby cannot understand Einstein!!!!

    1. Hillary should replace Andrew Cuomo in NY.

    2. anon 2:13, there is about as much proof that Clinton had the election "stolen" from her as there is that this is what happened with Trump. Both bogus claims. The difference with Clinton is that she didn't go all fascist strong man like Trump has. And Gore is the one who would really have an argument that the election was "stolen" from him.

  6. While Somerby wastes our time complaining about Einstein, events like this are still happening, demonstrating that racism is alive and well (from Rawstory):

    "A Michigan real estate agent is accusing his local police department of racism after he was detained and handcuffed by officers at a home he was trying to sell, Newsweek reports.

    Eric Brown, who is Black, was showing the property on August 1 when police showed up and ordered Brown, and two others (including Brown's 15-year-old son) to come outside with their hands up. All three were then placed in handcuffs.

    "They keep their guns drawn on us until all of us were in cuffs," Roy Thorne, who was detained and handcuffed, said. "So, that was a little traumatizing I guess because under the current climate of things, you just don't know what's going to happen."

    When Brown explained to police that he was a realtor and showed them his credentials, officers immediately removed the handcuffs and told him they received a call about a potential break-in at the home. As Newsweek points out, police previously responded to a burglary at the same home on July 24.

    "The level of the response and the aggressiveness of the response was definitely a take back, it really threw me back," Brown said, adding that he thinks the result would have been different if the three of them were white."

    1. Apples and oranges.
      Until we charge, prosecute, and imprison police officers who commit crime, this isn't an apt comparison.

  7. Judging by these comments, we could have worse trolls than Cecelia: