FRIDAY, AUGUST 13, 2021
But also, so little time: "Trust but verify," a renowned logician once said.
When it comes to the work of the upper-end press corps, we agree with every word. Except for the part about trust!
It's easy to be misled or misinformed by the things you may encounter in the upper-end press. For starters, everyone makes mistakes, and we all have limited skills.
For those reasons, you can be misinformed or misled even by people working in total good faith at the top of our upper-end press corps.
Yes, this can actually happen! Consider the way Ira Flatow opened one episode of the long-running NPR program, Science Friday, back when it was still a part of the now-defunct Talk of the Nation.
This takes us back eight years in time. As he started the day's program, Flatow quoted Albert Einstein:
FLATOW (5/17/13): This is Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow.
To most of us, time is real. You've run out of time; you don't have time, what time is it? But not to most physicists. Albert Einstein once wrote: "People like us who believe in physics know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."
Time, in other words, he said, is an illusion.
Flatow was introducing a 21-minute segment which you can listen to here. At the program's web site, the segment is summarized thusly:
Generations of physicists have claimed that time is an illusion. But not all agree. In his book Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe, theoretical physicist Lee Smolin argues that time exists—and he says time is key to understanding the evolution of the universe.
Smolin was going to argue that time does exist, whatever that might turn out to mean!
Flatow had opened the program with a quotation from Einstein—with something Einstein "wrote." It's a quotation which is frequently cited—a quotation in which Einstein says, according to Flatow's paraphrase, that time is an illusion.
On this day, Smolin was prepared to argue that time does exist. Regarding Flatow's introduction, that quotation from Einstein may have been a bit misleading.
The statement in question isn't something Einstein "wrote" in a formal science paper. Nor is it drawn from spoken remarks at a physics forum.
That isn't where that spicy statement by Einstein comes from! As Dan Falk explained in this report for Quanta Magazine, Einstein's statement is drawn from a letter of condolence he wrote in 1955, when he himself had just a few weeks to live.
Einstein had just learned that his lifelong friend and colleague, Michele Besso, had passed away, in Geneva, at the age of 81. He wrote a letter of condolence to Besso's family, in which he offered this:
Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
That frequently-quoted statement by Einstein is drawn from that letter of condolence. Walter Isaacson describes the same letter in his sweeping 2007 biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe (see page 540).
Whatever Einstein may have discovered, proven or come to believe about the workings of time, it's silly to think that we can discover it in that letter. For another account of the letter to Besso's family, you can just click here.
What were Einstein's developed views on the workings of time? We'll assume that it's a challenging task to explain that matter to non-specialists. That said, it doesn't strike us as sound practice to open a major NPR program in the way Flatow did that day, though we'll assume that he was working in good faith.
At any rate, so it frequently tends to go, even at the very top of our mainstream media. There may be a tendency to create added excitement concerning the topic at hand for the day—and, as we have noted above, nobody's judgment is perfect.
What were Einstein's developed views about the workings of space and time? For people who write about Einstein's universe, this constitutes a major area of concern.
It's generally agreed that Einstein's special theory of relativity revolutionized understanding of the workings of space and time—and it's generally agreed that it's a challenging task to make the universe Einstein discovered understandable for general readers.
(For those "who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics," to use the gentle language Einstein employed in the preface to his 1916 book for general readers.)
To what extent have writers been able to make Einstein's universe understandable for general readers? While we're at it, to what extent have popular writers been able to make Gödel easy?
We expect to pursue such questions in the weeks and months ahead. But we disagree with our colleague Drum's recent account of the nature of our interest.
Recently, Drum took the Make Einstein Easy Challenge, as he has done in the past. Headline included, he started his post like this:
Here’s the theory of relativity in 500 words
Bob Somerby keeps asking for an understandable explanation of the theory of relativity. In this post, I shall try to oblige him in less than 500 words. Note, however, that I am taking an, um, nontraditional approach.
Drum continued from there. However accurate his account may be, we can't say that it passes our "understandable to the general reader" test, though that's neither here nor there.
More to the point, we'll say this:
We'd like to see an understandable account of the special and general theory. But we're mainly interested in exploring the ways in which pre-existing attempts at this task may have failed.
When someone sets out to make Einstein understandable, he or she has signed up for the World Series of explanation. By all accounts, the universe which Einstein revealed can be extremely hard to explain—unless we're looking for standard bromides we can simply repeat and recite.
We've been a consumer of Einstein-made-easy fare dating at least to Stephen Hawking in 1991. For decades, we've been fascinated by the various ways these attempts at explication seem to fallen short, even to have failed.
The analysts like the fact that their Uncle Drum is inclined to try to explain relativity. We think it's an admirable instinct too.
Indeed, within just the past week, we've engaged in high-level exchanges with Drum about what seems to be his ongoing work in this area. We've even proposed that we barnstorm the nation together, in a slightly updated version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
These forums would start in smaller venues, though they'd almost surely become arena events before long. Drum would focus on attempts to describe and explain the universe that Einstein discovered. We would focus on the various ways earlier attempts at this task have fallen short of the mark, or perhaps have massively failed.
Starting with Hawking himself, some hugely qualified physicists have tried to explain Einstein's universe. In our view, they've frequently lacked the cogency / clarity / coherency skills which were pursued in the admittedly murky work of the later Wittgenstein.
We've often been struck by the various ways our physicists have failed at this second-order task. At times, we've marveled at their lack of basic cogency skills.
We blame this on the nation's logicians. Starting Monday, we'll try to explain. For today, we close with this:
That famous quotation on Science Friday came from a letter of condolence! There are a million ways to get misled, even when the work is coming from the very top of our upper-end press corps. Very little is perfect out there. Let's try to keep that in mind.
How does Wittgenstein figure in this? So many ways to improve our clarity skills, but also so little time!
Starting Monday: Rated top book of the century!