FRIDAY, AUGUST 26, 2022
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.