THURSDAY, AUGUST 12, 2021
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.
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
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!