Tall trees, but also The Elegant Universe!


Short trip with a lifelong friend: Even after all these years, we still score it as a bizarrely flawed, and therefore as a fascinating, paragraph.

The paragraph comes from Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory (1999). In 2003, the book became a three-part PBS series. 

Early in the book, before he gets to ultimate theories, Greene offers an overview of Einstein's work on relativity. Oddly, he offers this: 

GREENE (page 25): Common experience highlights certain ways in which experiences by such individuals differ. Trees alongside a highway, for example, appear to be moving from the viewpoint of a driver but appear stationary to a hitch-hiker sitting on a guard rail. Similarly, the dashboard of the automobile does not appear to be moving from the viewpoint of the driver (one hopes!), but like the rest of the car, it does appear to be moving from the viewpoint of the hitchhiker. These are such small and intuitive properties of how the world works that we hardly take note of them.

Special relativity, however, proclaims that the differences in observation between two such individuals are more subtle and profound...

Say what? Do trees alongside a highway really "appear to be moving from the viewpoint of a driver?"

Presumably, we all know what Greene apparently means. Presumably, he means something like this:

As the driver motors along, a clump of trees is ahead of him along the roadway.  Moments later, as the car moves along, the same clump of trees is behind him.

Presumably, that's what Greene is referring to. But what an odd way to say it!

No driver would ever describe that state of affairs in the way Greene does. If the driver's 6-year-old child said, "Daddy, the trees appear to be moving!" the driver would wonder if something was wrong with his child, even at six years old!

Brian Greene knows a ton of physics. That said, the later Wittgenstein attempted to demonstrate the ways we humans are strongly inclined to get tangled in forms of language.

Wittgenstein had a very hard time explaining what he was talking about. But Greene's extremely peculiar construction fits into the cast.

We were off campus for three days this week. We had driven north with NAME WITHHELD to visit a mutual friend for reasons we won't disclose.

As for ourselves, we hadn't struggled with The Elegant Universe for at least several years. We decided to take it along, to see how it scans at this point.

The book still seems to scan poorly. Brian Greene knows a boatload of physics, but virtually no one, Greene included, is able to explain modern physics in a way general readers can grasp.

You can say every word of the book to yourself as you read The Elegant Universe. But almost surely, you won't understand what is being said.

Our trip took us to New York State. Quoting the late Kate McGarrigle:

And the trees grow high in New York State
They shine like gold in autumn

Never had the blues from whence I came
But in New York state I caught 'em.

The trees do grow high in New York State. That said, none of the trees alongside the highway "appeared to be moving" as we motored along.

Brian Greene knows tons of physics, but very little of his book strikes us as coherent. We humans are strongly inclined to get tangled in forms of language, and thereby to get led astray. In our view, so it goes for Danielle Paquette in today's Washington Post.

We may look at Paquette's use of the term "free speech" tomorrow. All in all, though, the other situation is, in the end, more important.


  1. " That said, the later Wittgenstein attempted to demonstrate the ways we humans are strongly inclined to get tangled in forms of language."

    We all know what Greene meant when he said the trees appear to be moving, so he has successfully communicated, because we all have a shared experience that is referred to by his words.

    No one would think their child disordered for saying something similar, as Somerby asserts. We would think the child "childish" in the sense of learning about the world and learning to use language in a shared way. Children's statements that appear mistaken are generally regarded as charming and cute.

    Somerby's mistake is assuming that language must be precise to be useful. Later reference philosophers addressed Wittgenstein's concerns in their own writings, which Somerby appears to have never encountered, despite reading 20 year old trade books on physics.

    Listeners allow speakers a great deal of leeway, actively constructing meaning, not doing a simple translation in their heads from words to ideas. This allows us to appreciate forms such as poetry, in which words are far from literal and there is meaning beyond the surface. Greene's words might be considered normal in a poetic expression.

    We also actively construct our physical environment by monitoring the location of physical body in space, in relation to the objects arounds us, in order to interpret the meaning in visual images. It is how we know whether we are moving or the image on the retina of the trees is moving, and we combine such images with knowledge gained in other ways to KNOW that the trees are rooted and thus cannot be moving, and thus we are experiencing an illusion and not reality. The problem is that this happens outside of conscious awareness, thus we are not aware of the way we construct reality, so Somerby can propose idiotic interpretations and think they make sense, because he doesn't know how his own brain works. If he read a book on cognitive science occasionally and left Einstein alone, he might make fewer idiotic assertions in this blog.

    1. Roots don't keep a tree from moving; they make it share the movement of the earth.

    2. All movement is in relation to something else, if only one's prior state.

  2. Math is a form of language. In it, the physics are clearly described.

  3. "Brian Greene knows tons of physics, but very little of his book strikes us as coherent."

    What must it be like to go through one's life never finding anything sufficiently coherent?

  4. "We humans are strongly inclined to get tangled in forms of language, and thereby to get led astray. In our view, so it goes for Danielle Paquette in today's Washington Post."

    So, we spend a day now thinking of Danielle Paquette as someone who gets tangled in language, without Somerby ever presenting one shred of evidence of her difficulties. We are just supposed to take his word that she has some unnamed deficiency. And this constitutes a smear. It is akin to saying "Trump is a jerk, I'll tell you why tomorrow."

    And, of course, Somerby's next target (assuming he ever gets around to discussing her work) is female and "youngish". I was hoping Somerby might rethink his M.O. during his visit to the Hudson Valley, but apparently same old, same old garbage here.

    1. We would get more "tangled" in language if we didn't use it flexibly, to convey an overall meaning or gist, not in the precise manner Somerby expects. Wittgenstein was likely on the autism spectrum himself, which may explain why Somerby finds him so compelling.


      "There are theories that whatever makes the Asperger brain function differently - and the current theory is that the right and left halves of the AS brain have insufficient "central coherence" or pulling-together power to see the overall picture - may also be of benefit in work which requires very precise attention to detail."


      Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether Somerby is on the spectrum, any more than it matters that Trump is a narcissistic sociopath. What matters is what Trump has done, and for Somerby, what he argues and what he says here. Somerby is not correct in his assessments of journalists or political arguments, just because he is different. He needs to make a case, and he mostly doesn't succeed in that, because nitpicky details and trivia are not at the heart of whether Trump stole classified documents or whether he deserves to be tried and put in jail, or whether Democrats will win the midterms. There is a bigger picture that Somerby needs to understand, and if he cannot take the explanations of Einstein's work on faith, even when he doesn't understand them, he won't learn anything about today's political problems either. No matter how many trivial errors he finds in Alex Wagner's work.

    2. Another Paquette on free speech:


  5. Okay, dear Bob, how 'bout this:
    You're sitting by the window in a non-moving train.
    And thru the window you're looking at another non-moving train, right next to yours.
    And then your train starts moving, very smoothly and slowly.
    And then, for a few seconds, you get the impression that it's not yours but the other (still standing) train is moving.

    Is this what your Greene fella was trying to convey?

  6. Mao, I was about to make the same comment, but you beat me to it. I've experienced a number of times, sitting in a train that is slowly starting to leave the station, where a stationary train on the next platform, seems to be moving.

    1. This optical illusion happens because your brain has learned from prior experience in the world that since you are sitting on a seat, you are not the one moving, so the other train must be in motion. Normally, when we sit in chairs, they are fixed and stationary and not moving. That life experience contributes to the illusion.

      We experience the external world as images on a two-dimensional surface, the retina at the back of the eyeball. Further processing by the brain converts that to a three-dimensional image and interprets what the objects are in it, where they are located in relation to each other and in relation to us, and whether they are moving (or we are moving in relation to them). The ability to do this requires experience in a three-dimensional space that is explored physically using other senses along with vision (touch, hearing, proprioception).

    2. Maybe Bishop Berkely made some good points along these lines

    3. I was about to say the same thing. That is what Greene meant.

    4. We don't think this is an optical illusion or manifestation of solipsism.

      It's relativism. But it's difficult to illustrate because we perceive Earth and everything attached to it as the stationery point of reference. That's why the geocentric model is so intuitive.

  7. Mao has commented twice today. Both times he made perfect sense. He is not stupid. He’s actually pretty smart.

    It’s just sad that he’s a Russian troll. He may think intend to defend the motherland, but he just makes her look bad.

  8. He may think intend
    He may intend