MONDAY, AUGUST 9, 2021
Or so it says in the Times: Did Albert Einstein really define a revolutionary principle known as "the relativity of simultaneity?"
(That's the term Einstein used in his 1916 book for general readers.)
Did he come up with "a simple thought" in this general area—a simple thought which had "mind-blowing significance?"
(We're quoting the 2015 Nova/PBS program, Inside Einstein's Mind—and yes, that's the term Nova used.)
Did Einstein's "key insight" in this area really produce "one of the most elegant imaginative leaps in the history of physics?"
(We're quoting Walter Isaacson's 2007 biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe.)
Did Einstein really accomplish those things? At this point, we're prepared to answer those questions in two different ways:
On the one hand, we're prepared to assume that Einstein actually did produce such achievements. We're prepared to assume that his work on "the relativity of simultaneity" really did play a transformative role in the history of physics.
On the other hand, though, there's this:
We feel quite sure that neither Isaacson, nor the writers of the Nova broadcast, were able to explain what that mind-blowing insight actually was in their discussions of this part of the special theory of relativity. Simply put, their explanations of "the relativity of simultaneity" made absolutely no sense—and nobody seemed to notice.
We can't tell whether Einstein managed to explain this matter clearly himself, in his 1916 book aimed at general readers. It seems possible to us that he didn't accomplish that task in his somewhat more technical effort, but we aren't really equipped to make that assessment.
We're prepared to assume that Einstein actually did come up with a mind-blowing insight in this particular area. But if that insight does exist, we know that Isaacson and the Nova writers lacked the cogency to explain what the insight was.
One last time, we'll review Isaacson's account of Einstein's "key insight" to show you why we say that, or maybe we'll just link you to last Friday's account. After that, we'll define our goal for the reports we'll be producing this week.
Spoiler alert! All week long, we'll be heading off in search of certain skills. But before we further define that search, consider a book review which appeared in yesterday's New York Times.
CARLO ROVELLI IS AN ITALIAN theoretical physicist. He knows more math and physics than all the kids in your high school trigonometry class combined!
He seems to be no slouch! In 2019, Foreign Policy magazine included Rovelli in its "10th annual special edition of Global Thinkers"—a list of the planet's one hundred most influential thinkers—though it seems that Foreign Policy included him for a perceived special skill:
"Rovelli’s professional colleagues rarely prioritize writing for lay readers," the magazine said in its profile, "but the Italian theoretical physicist has done just that."
Rovelli has indeed written several books about modern physics aimed at general readers. How skillful is he at the task of making contemporary physics accessible to non-specialists?
We can't exactly answer that question. We own his 2018 book, The Order of Time, but we haven't studied his work.
Yesterday, in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, we saw a review of Rovelli's latest book for non-specialists. That new book is called Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution.
Has Rovelli made quantum physics easy in this latest book? We don't have the slightest idea. But near the start of his review, accurately or otherwise, Anil Ananthaswamy advanced a familiar type of claim about the refreshing book:
For many decades now, the mysteries of our quantum underworld have at times been confused with the other conundrum that confronts us, the nature of consciousness. But in “Helgoland,” the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli tackles both the quantum realm and the ways it helps us make sense of the mind with refreshing clarity and without hand-wavy mystery-mongering.
Ananthaswamy, a science journalist, has also written at least one book about modern physics for the general reader. We've struggled with that book too!
Yesterday, in his review of Rovelli's book, Ananthaswamy said the book has been composed "with refreshing clarity." Given the fact that everything's possible, he could even be right!
That said, many such claims have been advanced over the many long years. In our experience, few of these claims have ever paid off. Still, it remains a familiar norm:
Writers claim to make modern physics accessible to general readers. Reviewers then proceed to declare that they've succeeded at the task—and we marks may purchase and even read the books, quite possibly failing to notice the many logical gaps.
(Describing this two-step in the style of the Soviet-era joke: They pretend to explain modern physics and we pretend to get it!)
Ananthaswamy may be right when he says that Rovelli's book displays refreshing clarity. "Rovelli’s writing, translated from Italian by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell, is simultaneously assured and humble," he adds at a later point.
Ananthaswamy may be right! But please consider this second assessment from later in his review:
“Helgoland” is poetic and spare. Readers unfamiliar with quantum physics may struggle to get its full import.
The book is written with refreshing clarity, but readers may struggle to get it!
Physics Today once published a somewhat similar review of Einstein's 1916 book. We'll reprint that reviewer's tongue-in-cheek assessment before the week is through.
THE CLAIM THAT CERTAIN WRITERS can make Einstein (and modern physics) easy has become a standard part of our journalistic and publishing worlds.
In his sweeping biography of Einstein, Isaacson tried to make Einstein's revolutionary theories accessible to non-specialists. By all accounts, this is am unusually difficult task.
PBS routinely presents hour-long programs, even multi-part series, which implicitly claim to do the same thing. PBS may tend to promote these programs which hellzapoppin' claims about the "thrill ride" you'll be taken on—"beyond the limits of your wildest imagination!"—as you take in the mind-blowing work. (Narrator's introduction, Part 1.)
As a general matter, the spirit has proven to be willing, but the skills have been notably weak. We refer to the types of analytical skills we'll be in search of this week.
Was Isaacson able to explain Einstein's "key insight" in the realm of simultaneity? Was Nova able to do it?
In our view, it's plain that they lacked the types of skills which would have produced such an outcome. We can only suggest that you go back and review last Friday's report—but back in 2007, Isaacson's account of Einstein's "key skill" made zero sense on its face.
Eight years later, in 2015, Nova's treatment of this matter was even worse.
Einstein first developed this material in 1905. More than a hundred years had passed, but these presentations, on their face, made absolutely no sense.
Even more amazingly, each presentation had been composed with the help of major theoretical physicists—highly accomplished physicists who lack certain types of skills.
WHAT IS THE KEY INSIGHT WHICH lies behind "the relativity of simultaneity?" After years of reviewing this type of material, we still can't tell you that. Nor is that our objective.
In the weeks and months which follow, we won't be trying to explain Einstein's theories of relativity. That isn't our primary goal. We're focused on something else.
Our primary goal will be something different. We'll be trying to document the widespread absence of a certain set of skills.
We're heading out to clean the pasture spring, in search of certain skills! The skills we seek are skills of cogency and clarity—the kinds of skills which might conceivably make it possible for someone to make Einstein easy.
By all accounts, explaining Einstein's universe is extremely hard. If it's possible at all, explaining that world to general readers would call for a certain set of skills.
It would call for certain basic skills in the realm of cogency / clarity. These skills are widely lacking in our culture, even at the very top of the academic, journalistic and publishing piles.
For decades, we've been fascinated by the absence of these skills in such lofty realms. Here's a bit of background:
Long ago and far away, the later Wittgenstein explored the remarkable absence of these skills in the highest realms of academic discourse. He was very hot in the late 1960s, when we were introduced to his later work as an undergraduate.
His work was maddeningly jumbled, but it was also very useful. By now, the academy has chosen to throw his work away, or so Professor Horwich has said.
(We'll only say this: It shows!)
In the weeks and months ahead, we'll be documenting the absence of these basic clarity / cogency skills. In the absence of these skills, one writer after another inaccurately claims to have made Einstein (or Gödel) easy.
Major professors step up to swear that their colleagues have succeeded at these tasks. We've long been amazed by the absence of basic clarity skills as these claims are advanced.
In the next few days, we'll offer a few examples from books which claim to make Einstein easy. After that, it's on to Gödel, and to a pair of Gödel-made-easy books.
We're heading out to clean the pasture spring in search of basic clarity skills! Time after time, again and again, at the very highest levels, the gods and goddesses of our discourse lack these delicate skills.
Wittgenstein's work didn't make a dent. Others seem blissfully unaware of the fascinating high-level problem which, for that reason, persists.
Tomorrow: Is that the way things actually are, or is that the way they appear?