MONDAY, AUGUST 29, 2022
Can anyone explain it? We start today with a question:
Even at this rather late date—at this particular point in time—how widespread is Albert Einstein's name recognition?
That is to say, how many people could recognize Einstein's name? How many people could give a basic account of who or what he was?
("Major league shortstop" would be judged incorrect. "Famous physicist" would be accepted.)
Even today, we'll guess that many people would recognize Einstein's name. As to what he discovered or learned, we'll guess you'd get two basic answers:
We'll guess that a lot of people would connect Einstein to the "theory of relativity," whatever the heck that is. Also, we'll guess that many people would link him to a famous equation:
E = mc2.
We'll guess that people who recognize Einstein's name would link him to that famous theory, or to that famous equation. Having floated that suggestion, we'll pose a different type of question:
To what extent could those people explain, describe or summarize the theory of relativity? Also, to what extent could such people describe or explain that famous formula: E = mc2?
Albert Einstein is still well-known, but how well could non-specialists— people who aren't famous physicists—explain or describe his work? For the record, the leading authority on Einstein starts its account as shown:
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) was a German-born theoretical physicist, widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest and most influential physicists of all time. Einstein is best known for developing the theory of relativity, but he also made important contributions to the development of the theory of quantum mechanics.
Relativity and quantum mechanics are together the two pillars of modern physics. His mass–energy equivalence formula E = mc2, which arises from relativity theory, has been dubbed "the world's most famous equation." His work is also known for its influence on the philosophy of science.
He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics "for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect," a pivotal step in the development of quantum theory. His intellectual achievements and originality resulted in "Einstein" becoming synonymous with "genius."
Sure enough! According to the leading authority, Albert Einstein was "a theoretical physicist."
According to that leading authority, he's best known "for developing the theory of relativity." Also, he came up with "the world's most famous equation:"
E = mc2.
We'll guess that many people would state such facts about Einstein, even at this late date. But how well could non-specialists describe or explain that famous theory? How well could such people describe or explain that equation?
How well could people perform such tasks? Almost surely, things would get a great deal murkier when people were asked to do that.
For our money, the famous equation is easier to discuss than the famous theory. We humans have seen the equation at work in the world. The larger theory strikes us as quite hard.
Does it matter if regular people can't explain such matters? Basically no, it doesn't. That said, we often gain a window on the world—on the world of human cognition—when leading academics and journalists attempt to explain such matters.
Again and again and again and again, such explanations are rife with incoherence—and other academics and journalists rarely seem to notice. This opens a window onto a much larger world—the world of explanation.
We humans are fairly good at building things. (So are beavers, wasps and ants, but rather plainly, we're better.)
We've also created advanced technologies, and those technologies work. All the way back in 1969, we'd already somehow built a spaceship which was able to go to the moon.
We've made it from the earth to the moon! But when it comes to more mundane analytical tasks, we routinely have a very hard time getting from here to there.
All in all, we lack the tools which produce clear explanation. At the highest academic and journalistic levels, this widely ignored but basic fact has been proven again and again.
Could you explain what Einstein did? Putting it a different way, has anyone been able to do that?
Tomorrow: That famous equation, out in the world
This afternoon: Journalistic attempts to count those (top secret) documents
Probably later this week: True story! Brian Greene, in The Fabric of the Cosmos (page 29):
"Is there such a thing as empty space?"
Do we all "know what he (must have) meant," as with those trees which "appear to be moving?"
People like Greene know tons of physics. But in the course of devising their explanations, they routinely craft groaners like that!
(Deferring to presumed authority, your lizard will say that it must make sense. As the later Wittgenstein helps us see, your lizard is frequently wrong in such matters.)