MONDAY, MAY 30, 2022
Don from Salinas, but Einstein and Isaacson too: On Sunday morning, we did it again.
Discarding the "complacencies of the peignoir" of which Stevens so gracefully wrote; eschewing his heroine's "late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair;" we watched the first hour of C-Span's Washington Journal, its hour-long "viewer calls" segment.
C-Span inflicts this instruction on the world every day of the week. With Jesse in the anchor chair, the focus on Sunday was this:
American "exceptionalism" and mass shootings. Why does this seem to be happening in the U.S. again and again?
By C-Span standards, Jesse's question was a bit snarky this day. Still and all, we watched the whole hour—and, at 7:51 A.M., a California caller said this:
DON FROM SALINAS (5/29/22): Blaming the weapon a monster uses, instead of blaming the monster, is childlike and simplistic. Do you know what really contributed the most to them children dying in Uvalde? Do you think it was the gun he was carrying? No, it was the open doors that he walked through, that he went in through an open door from the outside. He went in through an open door into the classroom. If the outside door had been locked, he could have had any kind of a gun and he couldn't have done anything.
JESSE: You don't think he'd have been able to shoot his way in through the door?
DON: What, do you think it's a movie?
Guns don't kill people—open doors do! So Don from Salinas now said.
Viewed in the narrowest possible context, Don's analysis wasn't necessarily "false." Imaginably, if just that one outside door had been locked, these killings might never have happened.
That said, "motivated reasoning" is a very powerful impulse within our human species. More generally, our capacities in this general area are extremely limited.
Our capacities are limited all the way down. But also all the way up!
As humans, we're strongly inclined to think that breakdowns in reasoning occur among those in the other tribe. Also, we're inclined to believe that breakdowns in reasoning occur among the "poorly educated."
On Sunday morning, with that in mind, we revisited our of our favorite recent books. In his well-received biography of Albert Einstein, Walter Isaacson described the reasoning behind "the relativity of simultaneity," one of Einstein's "key insights."
Sure enough, there it was! It's one of our favorite, most logically bungled recent major texts. Because what follows doesn't make sense, it's also highly instructive:
ISAACSON (pages 122-124): ...[Einstein] skipped any greeting and immediately declared, "Thank you. I've completely solved the problem."
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...
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.
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:
Suppose that at the exact instant (from the viewpoint of the person on the embankment) when lightning strikes at points A and B, there is a passenger at the midpoint of the train, Mt, just passing the observer who is at the midpoint alongside the tracks, M. If the train was motionless relative to the embankment, the passenger inside would see the lightning flashes simultaneously, just as the observer on the embankment would.
But if the train is moving to the right relative to the embankment, the observer inside will be rushing closer toward place B while the light signals are traveling. Thus he will be positioned slightly to the right by the time the light arrives; as a result, he will see the light from the strike at place B before he will see the light from the strike at place A. So he will assert that lightning hit at B before it did so at A, and the strikes were not simultaneous.
“We thus arrive at the important result: Events that are simultaneous with reference to the embankment are not simultaneous with respect to the train,” said Einstein. The principle of relativity says that there is no way to decree that the embankment is “at rest” and the train “in motion.” We can say only that they are in motion relative to each other. So there is no “real” or “right” answer. There is no way to say that any two events are “absolutely” or “really” simultaneous.
This is a simple insight, but also a radical one. It means that there is no absolute time. Instead, all moving reference frames have their own relative time. Although Einstein refrained from saying that this leap was as truly “revolutionary” as the one he made about light quanta, it did in fact transform science. "This was a change in the very foundation of physics, an unexpected and very radical change that required all the courage of a young and revolutionary genius," noted Werner Heisenberg, who later contributed to a similar feat with his principle of quantum uncertainty.
Isaacson, who's very bright, built a career as a major mainstream journalist. He's now a major biographer.
That said, that passage makes absolutely no sense—and when Einstein wrote his 1916 book to explain relativity to general readers, his own explanation of this topic made no apparent sense.
In part, this was due to the fact that Einstein had selected his awestruck teenaged niece to serve, in effect, as his editor. According to Isaacson's book, she told him she understood every word, though she was actually baffled by her famous uncle's various presentations.
The anthropological point is this:
One major figure after another—one respected news org after another—has presented that explanation of the relativity of simultaneity without noticing the fact that it doesn't make sense.
Einstein explained it that way in 1916. Our journalists and our academics still follow suit.
On Friday morning, we'll walk you through Isaacson's illogical text once again. But as with Don from Salinas, so too here:
A variant of "motivated reasoning" may have held Isaacson in its grip as he composed that passage from his well-received book.
Back in 1916, Einstein had explained this key insight a certain way in his general interest book. On that basis, Isacson may have assumed that the presentation simply had to make sense.
Deference to academic authority may have held Isaacson in its grip. But so did a certain basic shortfall:
We humans just aren't "the rational animal," and we never were. This brings us back to Uvalde, and to Buffalo shortly before it.
Our own assessment of our nation's prospects is gloomy at this time. Based on what we're told by experts, it seems to us that our nation's systems, such as they were, may have fallen apart in a way which can't be repaired.
In part for that reason, fourth-graders are dead in Uvalde. Meanwhile, alas! As humans, our reasoning ability is extremely limited, even among our mainstream elites—and our instinct for loathing and blaming Others is massive, ginormous, immense.
Sadly, no! You can't assume that our major journalists, pundits and professors will be able to light us the way past our current breakdowns. Especially within our corporate "news orgs," their abilities are quite limited, and they tend to be highly motivated tribal players.
What follows this week will be a set of snapshots concerning us the people, our instincts and our abilities. Spoiler alert as we begin:
We can see no obvious way out of our tribalized mess.
Tomorrow: Two snapshots of gun culture
Also, coming Friday: Once again, Isaacson's text