IN SEARCH OF CERTAIN SKILLS: Back out of all this now too much for us...


Brian Greene v. Wittgenstein, with a whole lot we all can learn: Much as a beam of light, speeding its way toward our watery planet, may be bent off its course by a disturbance in the trampoline-reminiscent, yet four-dimensional, fabric of spacetime, so we've been distracted this week from our principal mission.

We've been distracted by the immediate tragedies, and the never-ending follies, surrounding us right here in the everyday world:

By the onset of climate disaster. By the onset of death and subjugation in Afghanistan.

By the profit-fueled tribalism overtaking our nation's ability to function as a nation. By the love of tribal loathing bred deep in our human bones. By our love of simplified story in support of the themes we prefer!

We've been distracted by these tragedies, but also by the difficulty of the task we've been self-assigned. Consider the relative ease surrounding last week's task:

Last week, we were discussing The Worst Explanation Ever Given--a key explanation offered as part of the Nova / PBS program, Inside Einstein's Mind, which aired in November 2015.

When that PBS program first aired, we marveled at what a bad explanation that key explanation was. In part through use of an illustration largely taken from Einstein himself, Nova's narrator plainly suggested that two people in relative motion will always reach different judgments concerning the simultaneity of two events.

Walter Isaacson appeared as a guest commentator on the PBS program. Eight years earlier, in his sweeping biography of Einstein, he had cited the same illustration from Einstein. Concerning those judgments of simultaneity, he had said that Einstein's "key insight" was 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. 

Eight years later, Nova presented that same idea, though in verbally simplified form.

In the specific example used by Isaacson and then by Nova, that sweeping claim bore out. A particular pair of lightning strikes would have "appeared to be simultaneous" to a particular man standing on a railway platform. But they wouldn't have "appeared to be simultaneous" to a particular woman moving rapidly past him on a very long train.

In that one proffered case, Isaacson's pronouncement would have been right. But as might have been obvious to anyone watching the Nova program, any such general principle or declaration would, in fact, quickly break down.

Uh-oh! To some other woman seated farther back on the rapidly-moving train, the lightning strikes would have "appeared to be simultaneous"—and this second woman was traveling just as rapidly as the original woman was.

Meanwhile, to an array of additional men standing else on that long railway platform, the two lightning strikes would have not have appeared to be simultaneous. The strikes would have appeared to be simultaneous to the one man who was standing on the platform, but not to an array of others—and none of these various men would be in motion at all. 

None of the men would be moving at all—but they would not have agreed on this question of simultaneity! The additional men would all agree with the original woman on the fast-moving train.

Back in 2015 and 2016, we gathered our youthful analysts around us. We taught them to marvel at how bad an explanation can be, even on a major PBS program!

It's the Worst Explanation Ever Made! You can still see the explanation unfold, just by clicking here.

On its face, Nova's explanation had failed. We thinks of the mournful Dylan lyric from the great song, Tears of Rage. A father's daughter has turned him away. In this lyric, the father responds:

I want you to know that while we watched you discover
That no one would be true
I myself was among the ones who thought
It was just a childish thing to do.

We hated teaching our youthful analysts that they should doubt everything they hear, even from the highest journalistic / academic sources. But that's a lesson we started to learn a long time ago, and it holds water even today.

This brings us to the question of Brian Greene, a highly accomplished theoretical physicist—and a writer of books and PBS shows designed for the non-specialist. Greene understands the physics and the math—but how well does he understand the possible pitfalls lurking within the various pathways of the English language?

The question seems rude, but it frequently needs to be asked. Today, we make a type of confession, accompanied by a preface.

Our preface goes like this:

Walter Isaacson is a very smart person, a deeply experienced journalist, and an acclaimed biographer. According to his acknowledgements, his explanations of Einstein's science were reviewed and critiqued by at least a dozen major physicists, starting with Greene himself.

Also this:

PBS is widely viewed as the upper end of American TV journalism. Nova is widely regarded as residing on the high end of PBS programming, and of general science broadcasting in general.

Nova's reputation puts it at the top of the heap—and not only that! Its 2015 broadcast featured remarks and commentary by these major physicists:

Clifford Johnson, University of Southern California
Janna Levin, Columbia
David Kaiser, MIT
Robbert Dikjraaf, Institute for Advanced Study
Sean Carroll, Cal Tech
Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge
Eleanor Knox, King's College London

The PBS program featured those seven and at least several more. As noted, the program also featured remarks by Isaacson, who isn't an academic but who was consulted, while writing his earlier book, by an array of major physicists.

Concerning Nova's failed explanation:

The writer's credit for Inside Einstein's Mind goes to Jamie Lochhead, who isn't an academic. The program's credits also cite one "scientific advisor," one "senior science editor," and one person credited with "research."

Those physicists all appeared on air, but they may have played minimal roles—or no role at all—in assembling the broadcast's script. 

Still, Nova is regarded as highly reliable, and its cast featured that array of major academics. And yet, on its face, its presentation concerning simultaneity seems to make no sense. The same is true of Isaacson's earlier presentation, in a book which was widely reviewed and was favorably blurbed for its alleged clarity.

Our point is this:

As with Dylan's fictional daughter, so too here. During a time of generational upheaval, that fictional daughter had come to feel that "no one would be true." We'd suggest that you consider a related possibility. Turning the tables of Dylan's fictional father, we'll suggest you consider this:

You shouldn't assume that you're receiving coherent work, even when the work has been blessed or written or performed by the highest academic authorities in the some particular field. Even when work is coming from the highest ranks of academic authority, you can't assume the work is correct, or even that it makes sense.

Within our blue tribe, people will often be strongly inclined to defer to academic authority. We suggest that you discard that impulse. Beyond that, we offer this:

Brian Greene is widely regarded as a source of information about theoretical physics for the general reader / non-specialist. We assume that he is a brilliant physicist—but, regarding his popular work, we'd offer this advice:

Trust but verify.

In our view, there's a lot of learn from extended discussion of Greene's work for the general reader in the notoriously difficult realm of modern theoretical physics. Again and again, we'll suggest that the notoriously difficult work of the later Wittgenstein comes into play at this point.

Is making Einstein easy hard? Just try making Wittgenstein easy! Ironically, this apostle of upper-end clarity was  never able to make the point of his own work especially clear.

That said, there's a great deal for all to gain as we bring Greene and Wittgenstein together. Tomorrow, we'll visit the analysts' Uncle Drum in an attempt to clarify our own objectives.

After that, we'll try to explain these challenging points as we stumble ahead.

Tomorrow: Their uncle's perspective, but also our own

Inside Einstein's Mind: To review the program's transcript, you can just click here. To watch videotape of the failed explanation, you can just click this.

Also this:

Stop assuming that the professors simply have to be right! As Isaacson's explains again and again in his excellent treatment of Einstein's life, Einstein got to be who he was because he abandoned that approach at a very early point!


  1. "By the onset of death and subjugation in Afghanistan."

    Somerby is distracted by death in Afghanistan but he apparently doesn't give a damn about issues closer to home, and he certainly doesn't care about what will be happening to women under the Taliban, as he made clear in an earlier essay.

    Somerby cares about drawning refugees in the Mediterranean but he doesn't care about kids getting covid in the USA, judging by his obsession with Einstein to the exclusion of almost everything else.

    These are crocodile tears, cried over issues far from our shores. Somerby's deep distress over Afghanistan is likely a means of reproaching Biden (even though it was Trump who ordered all US troops everywhere immediately withdrawn, including those supporting NATO).

    When did Somerby shed a tear over unnecessary covid deaths? When did he reproach Trump for the kids separated from their families in immigration camps? When has Somerby called for masks and vaccination? But now, all of a sudden, he cares about Afghanistan? I don't buy it.

  2. "Eight years later, Nova presented that same idea, though in verbally simplified form." And then Somerby calls this the worst explanation ever.

    When you simplify a complex idea, you introduce inaccuracies because you leave out words and facts needed for preciseness. But if you present an idea in its complexity, it will be more difficult to grasp for those who are underprepared to understand it. Including Somerby.

    This is no one's fault. It is the way complexity and simplicity work. It has nothing to do with "skills."

  3. "By the onset of climate disaster. By the onset of death and subjugation in Afghanistan."

    May we suggest a solution, dear Bob? Here it goes:

    Step 1: Virtuous extremely-low-carbon-footprint Talibs are elected, en-masse, into the US government.
    Step 2: Virtuous extremely-low-carbon-footprint Talibs enforce their virtuous extremely-low-carbon-footprint lifestyle in the US of A.
    Step 3: Earth is saved!!! Hooray!

    What do you think, dear Bob?

    1. ma0 ma0 * ,!, ,!,

    2. Good luck.
      You can't even get people to wear a mask during a global airborne pandemic because it inconveniences them.

  4. Somerby borrows a few lines from Tears of Rage (The Band) and twists them to suit his own purposes, as usual.

    Here is a different interpretation of those lyrics:

    "Am I the ONLY ONE that thinks this song is an Allegory/Metaphor -- about America; And that the "Daughter" is actually the Statue of Liberty; (i.e Our symbol of Freedom, and what America is supposed to represent)...
    AND, that the "Father" in the song, is actually referring to the "Founding Fathers", and how they envisioned the country/Their "Daughter" to turn out....?"

    The daughter in the lyric was born on Independence Day. Is that immaterial? None of the rest of the song fits Somerby's belief that a father should teach a daughter to distrust everything. That is one of his more idiotic notions, among many idiocies.

  5. "You shouldn't assume that you're receiving coherent work, even when the work has been blessed or written or performed by the highest academic authorities in the some particular field."

    Somerby has provided no evidence that this work is incoherent, beyond his own assertion. Skepticism as habitual disbelief, even in the face of evidence, is anti-science.

  6. Somerby keeps referring to Wittgenstein, but he never tells us what Wittgenstein said or how it applies to this situation. It is as if he is waving Wittgenstein around as a talisman to dispel whatever he disagrees with.


    Mass media propaganda distraction and deflection is the top skill worth trillions to the corporate class. It keeps the people from focusing on the vicious class war they are waging against them. It explains the entirety of corporate media content.

    We live in a country based not on reason but on the primitive might-makes-right thuggery of a kleptocratic corporate-based class that we foolishly allow to brutalize people and plunder the biosphere unhindered.

    1. AKA the supply chain, employers, manufacturers and businesses that have given the US one of the most robust economies in the world.

      Let's change all of that so we can experience the famines, shortages and poor quality of life present in the third world! Who's with me?

    2. Who's with you to give Americans the quality of life present in the third world?

      I'm going to go out on a limb (sarcasm) and say Republicans.

    3. Life expectancy has been declining for years. For the non-rich, compared to most wealthy countries, it's a shit-hole country.

  8. Events APPEARING simultaneous depends on the observer's position. Events BEING simultaneous depends on the observer's velocity. That distinction cannot be made easy. It takes a little background and a little work. But it remains counter-intuitive.

    Suppose star S1 is 10 light-years away and star S2 is 20 light-years away. Astronomers see a flare on S1, and at the same time they see a flare on S2. They know those flares were not simultaneous; the flare on S2 happened ten years before the flare on S1.

    If, instead, the flare on S2 had been seen ten years after the flare on S1, then the astronomers would have known that the two flares were simultaneous.

    Einstein didn't define events that APPEAR simultaneous. He carefully defined events that ARE simultaneous: the light-rays from the two events meet at the point midway between the two places where the events occur.

    Walter Isaacson and Bob Somerby don't understand this; Brian Greene does. Whether Greene explains it well, I do not know.

  9. Hey look - more "both sides":

    "Obama Administration Hid the Truth About War's End"

    What are the idiotic Rude Pundit and sub-mental Lawyers Guns and Money blogs going to say about this!!??

    Oh ... they didn't even mention it. I forgot they just talk about one side being horrible. The warmongering liar Obama gets a pass.

    This is how they play you. Just as the plutocrats planned it.

    1. Hey look - more "both sides":

      Self-dealing Senator Rand Paul broke the law.
      "Lock him up!", indeed.