EXPLANATION: What did Einstein discover or learn?


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.)


  1. "But how well could non-specialists describe or explain that famous theory? How well could such people describe or explain that equation?"

    Theories and equations are a tool of WHITE SUPREMACY, dear Bob. And so is, of course, Albert Einstein. Did you, dear Bob, miss the memo?

    All you need to know is your brain-dead liberal tribe's latest talking points. And all the rest is a tool of WHITE SUPREMACY. Get on with the program, dear.

    1. Logic is also a tool of WHITE SUPREMACY. And punctuality.

    2. Do you not recognize a difference between calling something a part of the culture of the white majority or white establishment, as opposed to advancing the doctrine of white supremacy?

    3. The most radical white supremacists didn’t like Einstein, because he was Jewish.

    4. Are you hinting that white supremacy is why Somerby thinks Einstein is a fraud?

    5. Mao, calm down, fer Chrissakes.

  2. "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."

    There is a contradiction here. If it doesn't matter whether people can explain theoretical physics coherently, then how can this be an indicator of either the world of cognition or the world of explanation in general?

    It would be possible to criticize cognition and/or explanation if you asked people to explain something that is truly well understood by everyone, something that matters to everyone. If explanation failed in that case, you might call it revealing of cognition or some other earthshaking human capacity. But this is an esoteric piece of knowledge with no relevance to most people, excerpted from the larger context of physics knowledge (from the high end of that knowledge base) and presented to laymen without proper preparation.

    Most high school kids do not take physics unless they are applying to one of the top universities with a prerequisite in sciences. Even then, they forget what they learned if they major in anything other than science. You could ask almost any person on the street to explain f=ma and they couldn't do it. That's because it takes some background to understand physics, not because people are deficient in their explanation skills or worse, can't think straight. But the same problem exists in other fields with esoteric knowledge too. What is an octave in music? Explain that! Why was the Common Era created? Does Somerby know? Can the average person (half of whom read below 6th grade level) explain anything they haven't read about or encountered in their practical lives?

    Is Somerby gloating or complaining when he returns to this subject repeatedly? And why doesn't he discuss it from his background as an educator instead of just presenting the same trade book excerpts and making dumb snipes at the authors? What specific aspect of cognition does Somerby think is deficient in others (or is he just getting too old to grasp Einstein)? Can Somerby say anything that would make this a productive discussion? I don't think so.

  3. "Tomorrow: That famous equation, out in the world

    This afternoon: Journalistic attempts to count those (top secret) documents"

    Somerby goes to great lengths to convince us that no one can explain anything, much less Einstein's accomplishments. Then he juxtaposes Trump's stolen documents, as if the unwillingness of the archives to tell anyone how many of them are missing equates to journalistic malfeasance. Does Somerby mean to imply that Einstein's work has been redacted because it is top secret too? If not, then what is the point of comparing a failure of understanding with lack of access to a specific count on classified material (in a situation where not even one classified document is required for culpability if documents were improperly handled)?

    Journalists are not reporting different numbers because they don't know how to think good, or because they are incapable of explaining competently. They are counting different things and talking about different situations in time. If Somerby finds such differences troubling, he should take up a different field where numbers are not used to measure anything, such as... well maybe he should just retire.

    I am picturing Somerby trying to do a word problem in elementary school. Johnny had 6 apples when he woke up in the morning, but then he gave one to Chrissy and now he has 3, what happened to the other 2 missing apples? Did he eat any? Did he leave on on the bus? And what about his oranges and the plum he stole from Mark? Can't anyone get their fruit straight? What is the matter with these textbook authors today?

    1. He's attempting to explain that journalists are typing many words about the latest Trump witch hunt while saying nothing of meaning. Sometimes, although not in the case of the latest Democrat abuse of power involving Trump, there is meaning but a failure to communicate it or a failure on the part of the reader to understand, as your confusion demonstrates.

    2. But is this true? The detail Somerby has fixated on has little meaning, but much of what journalists have written has a great deal of meaning.

      I am not confused about what journalists have said about Trump's documents. I am confused about why Somerby keeps refusing to engage with explanations of physics while continuing to read such books.

      Also, I am confused about why Somerby thinks there is any equivalence between explanatory books about phsyics and journalism, aside from they both use words to communicate. Current events has little to do with physics.

      I do notice that you are calling this concern about Trump's mishandling of classified documents a "witch hunt," which suggests you do not understand the gravity of what Trump did by exposing national secrets to our nation's enemies. Further, it classifies you among The Others who Somerby continually defends in their ignorance, because no liberals describe any investigation of Trump as a witch hunt. That is what was done to Hillary, not Trump (who has committed myriad crimes for which he has not been held accountable).

      Why is it always conservatives (or trolls) who defend Somerby from criticism here? If Somerby were actually a liberal person saying liberal things, wouldn't you expect that liberals would defend him?

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Your logic has rendered a slew of people into conservatives. There’s Glenn Greenwald, Alan Dershowitz, Andrew Sullivan, Matt Taibbi, Barbi Weiss, Matt Yglesias, Naomi Wolfe.

      Substack is a bastion of liberal heretics to your thinking.

      No one thinks of never-Trumpers as being anything other than neo-cons and green eyeshade conservatives who’ll wisely stay silent when Chuck Todd defends grade school discussions of transgenderism.

      They’re no different from the corporate techies that readily embrace wokeness and use cancel culture as a bargaining chip to placate socialists. They’re certainly not the stuff of TikTok liberaldom and no one accuses them of that.

      On the other hand, all it takes for your fellows to be utter turncoats is to level criticism at the whole of society- because that includes YOU.

      For that, Somerby and his readers must be punished in multi-paragraphed screeds with argumentation that labels Somerby illogical for suggesting that our culture is inarticulate from the cellar to the lofty dome. Why? Because everyone knows one of those parts of the house is low and the other part is high.

      What a house! No spaces effecting all the other spaces in between.

      Your cruelty to sentient beings knows no bounds…

    5. Andrew Sullivan has never been a Democrat, much less a liberal.

    6. "On the other hand, all it takes for your fellows to be utter turncoats is to level criticism at the whole of society- because that includes YOU."

      No, all it takes is for them to parrot conservative memes and support Republican talking points.

      Just because you are inarticulate (or Somerby) doesn't make our whole culture that way. People who go to college learn to recognize what is inarticulate and what is not. Somerby failed that course. You too, except I'm not sure whether you ever took it.

      For example: "No spaces effecting all the other spaces in between."

      The word should be affecting, not effecting (which means something else).

      Is my calling Somerby inarticulate (not that I did) more cruel than him calling Einstein a fraud? Einstein is not only a long-dead physicist, but he is a symbol of intelligence. If Somerby topples Einstein's image, where does that leave the whole concept that we have thought leaders who make important contributions in many disciplines, smart people who have thought smart thoughts?

      Somerby is the person trying to level us all to his same pitiful ignorance, so that Trump can have his dumbocracy. And you are his helper, apparently. And so if that list of idiots you cite at substack.

    7. Shorter Cecelia: all those “liberals” turned “conservative” really means something fundamental and serious. But all those Republicans who turned against Trump? Just a bunch of stooges.

      And for the record, Sullivan, Greenwald, and Weiss were never liberals, and it isn’t clear that they are “conservatives”, since by that you seem to mean Trump worshipers. Wolf has become a conspiracy theorist.

      Plus, it’s not likely going to matter to the 81,000,000 people who voted for Biden whether Alan Dershowitz considers himself a liberal, or a conservative. We do have his word that he only received a massage at the Epstein place from an old wrinkled woman. Scout’s honor!

    8. "the gravity of what Trump did by exposing national secrets to our nation's enemies"

      This sounds insane to normal, intelligent, discerning people.

      The more generous possibility is "deeply ignorant and gullible."

    9. Ivan, you are the troll. And you are trying to defend liberals from criticism. And your idea that a person who criticizes liberals is not liberal because of the criticism is stupid. If a Lakers fan criticizes the Laker's coaching or the Laker's broadcasters it doesn't mean they're not a Lakers fan anymore. Really Bob is more liberal than you are as he is not afraid to address sacred cows in order to improve liberalism whereas you stupidly demonize any type of self-reflection that could lead to improvement and strength. So go to hell with your idiotic poorly reasoned blather.

    10. Ivan Pisov, Somerby has not called Einstein a fraud.

      When it come to TDH , you are a hanging judge and jury who relentlessly attempts to turn a broad and arguable stance into a personally targeted capital crime.

    11. mh, yeah, I think there’s plenty of MAGA stooges too.

      You’d call them something more indicative of the devil, but then you cant tolerate a liberal blogger saying it’s tore up from the floor up on his blogboard.

    12. In previous posts, Somerby said (quoting someone else, I forget who) that if someone cannot explain their ideas to laymen, then they don't understand them themselves. Then he obstinately refused to understand even the fairly simple things Einstein said in his book. Supposedly that makes Einstein himself a fraud because he doesn't understand the ideas he set out to explain, since Somerby didn't get it.

      Aside from being an incredibly silly argument, because of Somerby's bad faith as a reader, it is clear that many other laymen understood Einstein's explanation just fine. And the criterion wasn't that ALL readers must understand, even those with disabilities or who cannot read at all, or who were being wilfully stubborn in not understanding it.

      But, yes, Somerby wrote about this at length, and yes, he did call Einstein a fraud.

      But notice how your language deteriorates into violence, accusing me of wanting to hang people and talking of capital crimes. This is called projection. In all the BLM rallies across the country, there was not one gallows erected by protesters. Who brought gallows to their march? Trump supporters.

      For the record, I haven't objected to criticism of liberals, but I have objected to Somerby calling himself a liberal when he is not one.

      I also object to the way you come here and take up space, derailing discussion with your troll comments and making everything about you. When was the last time you said anything about politics here?

    13. It wasn’t a silly argument on Somerby’s part and as usual you’re off to races in taking it to extremes. Just as you do with my comments.

      As always, you make a simplistic account of someone’s remarks and then go to knocking down your straw man.

      You ignore the often repeated complaint that the books written on Einstein (and one by him) or on Wittgenstein‘s logical positivism are billed as being elucidative to novices.
      Instead, you’re off on a tear as to it being perfectly natural that such literature would require years of study before it was of use to anyone.

      Instead of telling me to shut up and listen, why don’t you try reading the blog instead of scanning for something you can turn into hay.

    14. This isn’t even remotely what was said.

    15. After promising to count the documents this afternoon, Somerby switches to stats. What are the chances Somerby will discuss what he teases on any given day? Slim.

    16. I don't understand how anyone could be surprised by the childish temper tantrum Republicans threw on 1/6/2021, just because black peoples votes counted in the 2020 Presidential election.

  4. “Could you explain what Einstein did? Putting it a different way, has anyone been able to do that?”

    TDH commenters over the years have attempted to do this, but Somerby never listens.

    Why doesn’t Somerby ask if anyone can explain what Isaac Newton did?

    Has anyone been able to explain what gravity is?

    Speaking of “Deferring to presumed authority”, Somerby has presumably never verified for himself that the earth spins on its axis, or that it orbits the sun. Has he verified that the air surrounding him consists of invisible atoms and molecules of gases? And yet, we all defer to authority in these matters.

    Why is Einstein a special case? Somerby comes close to saying Einstein is full of crap, because he has reviewed Einstein’s own “relativity made simple” and found it wanting.

    One surmises that Newtonian physics was something Somerby studied and absorbed from grade school into high school, but not Einstein. Therefore Einstein doesn’t fit into Somerby’s settled world view.

    Einstein’s theories made predictions about observed phenomena that have been verified by experimentation. One has to ask whose lizard is resisting the truth here.

  5. "People like Greene know tons of physics. But in the course of devising their explanations, they routinely craft groaners like that!"

    The things Greene apparently writes (I haven't read his book and don't plan to) are not "groaners" to those who understand them. Many of us DO know what he means when he asks whether space is empty or not. Those with some historical knowledge of physics even understand that previous theorists filled space with unseen matter, such as the ether theory about space, or phlogiston, just as early theorists of mind invented hydraulic systems for communicating messages between senses and brain, before neurons were seen under a microscope. Many everyday people think something comes out of our eyes when we see an object in front of us (like those pictures of superman's x-ray vision in comics).

    If he had ever made a connection, Somerby might have been accused of trying to illustrate what it feels like when you don't understand something that everyone else gets. He might be demonstrating how young black kids feel when trying to read and struggling, while others can read without difficulty. But Somerby never makes that connection. He also doesn't EVER seem to get better, because his goal is to criticize the explainer, not to understand anything.

    If Somerby were actually interested in how kids learn, or how adults understand differently, he might have read a book or two about psychology or cognitive science. That he has never tried to talk about thought and explanation in modern terms is highly revealing of his motives. He wants to suggest that journalists are making shit up or not explaining clearly, because they are slugs who don't do their jobs properly, instead of understanding why he, Somerby, cannot understand what others claims to get.

    It is almost as if Somerby were conflating his professors at Harvard (where he learned he was not the smartest kid in the room at all) with journalists and tasking the latter with educating the world and failing, just as his professors failed him at Harvard. And then Teach for America taught him that the problem is always with the schools and teachers and not with limited life experiences or learning disabilities or hunger or asthma or poor nutrition. Because Somerby never actually discusses how people learn or how schools work here, the way someone interested in education would do. He just beats up on blacks, women, youngish persons in journalism jobs right out of college, gay people, women, liberals who won't listen to The Others (but not the others themselves), people who know things he doesn't know, such as physicists and Godel, women, and journalists who attack God-fearing Republicans such as Roy Moore, and did I say women? All under the guise of punishing the press for beating up on Al Gore for his suits.

    Today he hints that Einstein was a fraud. Do you believe that? I don't. And I don't believe much else that Somerby says either, especially when he pretends to be liberal.

  6. Einstein was an important musicologist, known in particular for his research on Mozart.


    1. Albert was a physicist, although he did play the violin and loved Mozert.

    2. Your fatuous argument depends on an esoteric distinction, irrelevant in the daily lives of real people. To the specialist, Alfred isn’t the same as Albert, but to their friends, they’re both Al.

    3. Their friends probably don't have to look them up on wikipedia to tell them apart.

    4. They actually met once, and they decided they weren’t closely related. Not everyone is relative!

    5. You worked very hard to set up that punchline. Kudos!

    6. In the words of Burr, more listening less talking, Cecelia

    7. By all means, post all you wish, Ivan Pisov.

    8. Nope. That’s a statement on her penchant for telling people to stay quiet.

    9. Again, nothing to say.

    10. Cecelia,
      I too noticed 5:03 trying to silence you forever.

    11. Anonymouse 9:33am, I noticed the anonymouse invariably took the time to respond.

  7. Culture war? A philosopher has explained it:


    1. A paper with no references, according to the journal. That means it is pulled from the authors ass.

  8. Einstein represents intellectual brilliance to people of an older age group (Somerby's age) because he was a refugee of Hitler's Germany who settled at Princeton along with other brilliant scholars, and was in the news a lot as part of the post-war publicity of cold-war science efforts. We may have heard of Stephen Hawking as much for his achievements despite having ALS, as we do because of his physics accomplishments. But most scientists fly under the radar and most do not waste their time trying to explain their work to laymen as public figures, the way Einstein did (after he was no longer making brilliant discoveries).

    It seems to gall Somerby whenever the press or a biographer calls someone brilliant, just as it galls me when Cecelia calls Somerby brilliant, when he manifestly is not. But Somerby doesn't have the chops to disprove the brilliance of men who have been acclaimed for important intellectual work, so he attacks lesser symbols of smartness in our culture -- those who disseminate information on cable news, and those who are interviewed as experts in some field. Again, he does not have the chops to pull them down a peg, so he fixates on trivia, some of which is not even mistaken, trying to imply that their work is equally trivial and that they are not figures who should be put up as public models of expertise.

    You have to go to a top university such as Harvard in order to come up against intellectual competition that is truly humbling. I imagine Somerby was called smart during his childhood and formed a narcissistic grandiose image of his own intelligence that didn't stand up to the demands of a rigorous university. He may have had to work hard for the first time at school, and found out that even his hard work produced average grades, or perhaps he didn't try, afraid to test himself against a real challenge. So he blames Harvard and places like it for producing frauds like himself, assuming everyone had the same experience at their top schools and came out the other end disappointed, as Somerby clearly did.

    Then, avoiding the draft and fleeing competition that might confirm his suspicions about not being the smartest guy on earth, he sought a career teaching young black children, who would seemingly never challenge his view of himself, but who also didn't confirm his identity as a highly effective teacher, being unable to benefit from his explanations. Lately he seems to be blaming the kids for that, not himself, while he goes about blaming writers for his own failure to understand complex ideas and simpler ones that everyone else understands fine, just not Somerby.

    And who is the champion of people with wounded egos, who dislike it when the rest of society calls them stupid or mocks them with incomprehensible ideas? Trump. So it seems like a natural thing that Somerby would drift into Trump's circle, because it makes a dull person seem smarter when they get to own the libs by proxy and "win" and direct their anger toward the same people who have been laughing at them for their failures, at school and culturally, ever since the cold war made learning patriotic. So today we have the age of anti-learning and anti-intellectualism, and our heroes are Lauren Boebert who got her GED after she declared for office.

    1. “It seems to gall Somerby whenever the press or a biographer calls someone brilliant, just as it galls me when Cecelia calls Somerby brilliant, when he manifestly is not.”

      Somerby is no Einstein, but he is brilliant. Brilliant.

      It is the case that I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to have met people even MORE brilliant than Somerby!

      I don’t think I’ve met anyone or have seen anyone on the internet who has garnered critics who are as personally obsessive towards him as some anonymices here.

      The most vehement Trump hater doesn’t give you the oooey-gooey uneasiness that you’re dealing with a batshit crazy ex-wife who should be under a restraining order.

      No, this comment board is a Shirley Jackson novel and you are one scary bitch.

    2. This is just trolling, boring ad hominem from a neurotic loser.

    3. Where to start...

      First, hold up a mirror, Cecelia.
      Second, Somerby has never been married because he has mother issues (based on his one-man show which talked about that explicitly), and because he doesn't like women much. Women tend to sense that in a man.
      Third, trying to diagnose someone's mental health online is a loser's game when Somerby does it, and it isn't any better when you try.
      Fourth, calling a woman a bitch isn't nice, but when has civility ever been a Republican strength?
      Fifth, if Somerby is so brilliant, why did he have to repeat so many courses in summer school at Harvard (by his own admission)? A truly brilliant person can get a gentleman's C in any course without studying.
      Sixth, obsessiveness is manifest in Somerby's own preoccupations with Al Gore and Rachel Maddow. Why wouldn't it appeal to other obsessives, such as yourself. There is no reason for you to stick around where you are told explicitly that you don't belong, except your own obsessive needs to provoke ire. Some day you might ask a shrink why you seek out abuse on a liberal blog when you might elicit admiration on a conservative blog. But you don't have to tell us why -- we don't care.
      Seventh, if you don't feel anything ooey gooey about gun-toting crazies, there is something wrong with you. On my worst day, I've never threatened violence or read a Shirley Jackson novel (thank God).

    4. Anonymouse1:30pm, if this post troubles you, for your own sensibilities, refrain from reading Ivan’s comments on Somerby’s psyche.

    5. It's OK for Somerby to call Einstein a fraud, but not OK for Ivan to call Somerby a fraud?

    6. Somerby didn't call Einstein a fraud, Ivan/anonymous/loser/child. That's more trolling.

    7. This is an accusation that is a confession. It is Ivan that is the fraud.

    8. Ivan Pisov, you might not have experienced Shirley Jackson, but she very likely experienced someone like you.

      Only the characters Shirley drew from that acquaintance would have realized they had just posted an obsessive and histrionic screed that proved my point.

    9. See 2:04 above where Ivan talks about Somerby calling Einstein a fraud.

      Cecelia, your argument is circular and you are just calling names now. If you have something substantive about Einstein or politics to actually say, say it and stop attacking other commenters.

    10. Cecelia comments as Anonymous whenever she feels like it then scolds others about it.

    11. Nope. I never intentionally post anonymously and you’d catch it immediately if I ever bothered to try.

    12. I’m apologize to posters here in general for using the b-word. It was childish.

  9. There is another Albert Einstein born in 1947. Better known as Albert Brooks. What about him?

  10. We can all agree that Mao is a fraud.