EINSTEIN NEAR CARRBORO! Friday night, we won a great win. As always, the discourse had suffered: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, DECEMBER 1, 2008
Transitions: We grant ourselves the standard, one-day post-holiday reprieve, before returning to the sad topics which drive our national discourse.
The way we sports fans reason: Sports scribes are making the annual bollix of the annual BCS debate. The confusion turns on the failure to notice an obvious fact: Theres no way to pick two teams for a national title game that will always produce the right outcome.
The background: On several occasions in the past, sports experts (pollsters) picked two teams for the title gameand seemed (to some) to make the wrong choice. As a solution, we added computer rankings into the stewand now, those computer rankings have seemed (to some) to make the wrong choice about this weeks Big 12 title game, a game which provides Oklahoma a direct route to the national title game. Oklahoma is inand Texas is outin a way which strikes some as unfair.
Duh! In many years, there wont be two (and only two) teams which clearly stand out from the pack. No system will ever resolve this problem. Meanwhile, using the current AP poll, heres how the major bowl games would shake out this year if we used them as the opening round in an eight-team tournament:
Four teams would emerge from those games, adding two weeks (three games) to the college season. Oddly, that super-classic 4 versus 5 Rose Bowl game might produce the most interest this year.
For our money, Utah may not quite belong in that mix. But its hard to argue that Boise State (9) or Ohio State (10) would be cheated by their exclusion. (Boise State needs to schedule better opponents outside its conference. Among other recent disasters, Ohio State got destroyed when it played USC in September.)
But note the way we sports fans reason. In many years, there will be no systematic way to pick the two most deserving teams. But note how often this debate seems to proceed in the absence of that understanding. Reporters struggle to find the right system, seeming to be unaware that this critter just doesnt exist. In many years, there is simply no clear way to pick the two best teams. No system will ever resolve this.
Meanwhile, for lovers of eternal myths about dominance: SEC teams have gone 6-9 against teams from the other BCS conferences this year. (More specifically, ACC teams have beaten SEC teams in six of nine head-to-head match-ups.) SEC may be too good for its own good, the New York Times headlined on September 22. [T]he SEC once more appears to have separated itself as the nation's top conference, the infallible newspaper said.
Einstein near Carrboro: We spent the holidays on the Chapel Hill/Carrboro line, enjoying ourselves in the traditional manner: Marveling at the incoherence of an Einstein-made-easy book.
In this case, the book was Walter Isaacsons Einstein: His Life and Universe, a book with which weve periodically struggled since its release in the spring of 2007. And yes, we took the standard abuse this weekend for engaging in such pursuits. One close relative offered ridicule when she spied our reading selection. Who but the entire staff of THE DAILY HOWLER, she quickly asked, would read a book like that? We explained that the book was a major best-seller, by a major Gotham insiderfifteen weeks on the New York Times list, we see from subsequent research. But our triumph occurred on Friday nightthough we cant share the glory with Isaacson himself, or with the critics who stood in line to say how great his book is.
On that evening, we were joined for dinner by a local couple and their two teen-aged children. The lady, a 49-year-old native of the Dominican Republic, spotted our book and sadly announced that she had tried to read it last yearbut had given it up as too hard to follow. As our close relative sputtered in wonder, we basked in the glow of another great triumph. But we restrained ourselves from telling our guest that the fault was not in the stars, or with her. The fault in this case lay with an author who simply couldnt make Einstein easyand with the usual crowd of observers prepared to insist that he had.
Indeed: On the back of our hardback edition of Isaacsons book, a Yale physics professor makes this wild claim: Isaacsons treatment of Einsteins scientific work is excellent: accurate, complete, and just the right level of detail for the general reader. This may be the most inaccurate statement ever rendered in Englishexcept for the times when similar claims were made in support of other Einstein-made-easy books.
(As weve noted in the past: Einstein himself wrote an Einstein-made-easy bookand even he couldnt make Einstein easy!)
We work with these books for several reasons. First, wed like to understand Einstein ourselves, although we currently dont. Beyond that, were fascinated by the fact that major writers apparently think theyve explained Einsteins work for the general reader, when they plainly havent. Meanwhile, the conceptual problems which litter such books are not unlike the conceptual problems which drive so much of our public discourseand the failure of critics to notice such problems seems to be a guaranteed part of our world. Wherever incoherence is sold, high-toned critics are prepared not to notice. This is especially true, one suspects, if the incoherence is being presented by the right sorts of people.
How about it? Is Isaacsons treatment of Einsteins work accurate and complete, with just the right level of detail for the general reader? It would take a great deal of effort to address that questionalthough the answer is quite clearly no. But were always struck by the opening paragraph in the books Chapter 6, Special Relativity. (Its Isaacsons first real attempt to explain relativity. Chapter 9 is called General Relativity.) No, you cant judge a chapter by its opening sentences. But we find these two intriguing:
Lets say it again: You cant judge a chapter by its opening paragraphbut we always find that one amusing. As always in books of this type, the author asserts that the topic at hand is quite simple. Then, he offers a one-sentence explanation of that conceptan explanation which few general readers will really understand.
The fundamental laws of physics are the same whatever your state of motion? That can sound like a simple concept as a general reader encounters it. But how many readers have any idea what Isaacson means when he refers to the fundamental laws of physics? (Could they name one? Well admit it: We cant.) And what does he mean by a state of motion? That might be easier to imagine (correctly or otherwise): After all, the general reader is often sitting motionless in a chairbefore walking over to the fridge when Isaacsons prose proves befuddling. Presumably, this might count as a change in his state of motion, this general reader might well presume.
But for us, its the very simplicity of the concept, as described, which gives this passage its lightly comical tone. After all, what general reader would ever have thought that the fundamental laws of physics (whatever they are) did change whenever you crossed the room? Indeed, how fundamental could such laws be, if they changed so frequently? Meanwhile, how could the greatest achievement in the history of science reduce to something so seemingly trivial? Really? The fundamental laws of physics dont change when I walk to the bathroom? Who would have dreamed something different?
How could this be the thing Einstein sawEinstein, and nobody else?
Yes, we knowthese possible problems could, in theory, be resolved as Isaacson proceeds. But in our view, the haze only deepens with each passing paragraph. For our money, Isaacson makes a puzzling botch of a basic notion (theres no such thing as absolute motion or rest) by the time he finishes paragraph 6. Then, he jumps to a new topic and he botches that too, having linked his topics together by the most slender of threads. Things get no betterin our view, they get worsein his subsequent chapters about Einsteins science. Indeed, about Isaacsons work on the science, were inclined to say this: Its muddles, all the way down.
For the record, this doesnt necessarily mean that Isaacson doesnt understand Einsteins work. It does mean that he cant explain the work to a general reader; presumably, it also means that he cant see that he hasnt so explained it. Meanwhile, a long line of observers are willing to swear that hes done so, in a brilliant manner. These are some of the most powerful ideas in all of science, a reviewer said in the Sunday Times, and both Isaacson and Neffe present them with brio and insight. (This particular reviewers was doubling up, killing two Einstein-made-easy birds with one inaccurate stone.)
We wanted to tell our guest Friday night that the fault didnt lie with herbut she was too busy rolling around on the floor with our 29-month-old Chapel Hill relative. (The fundamental laws of physics remained intact as this occurred.) Meanwhile, the conceptual weakness which drives such work litters vast parts of our public discourse. No, our intellectual elites dont allways reesun reel gudand they rarely seem to notice such shortcomings in the work of other club members. For that reason, well cheer the Times Janet Maslin this time. Reviewing Isaacson, she did the unthinkable; she tattled on a fellow Gotham swell. Good lord! According to Maslin, a member of our discourse elite had flubbed a basic mission:
Politely, Maslin pretended that Isaacson would have done better if hed only had more space and time. Well bet the house against this. And by the way: We have no doubt that Brian Greene, whom Maslin cites, is a straight-A physicistthat he does understand the physics, quite well. But Greene cant make Einstein easy either. In our view, hes proven that in his own pair of Einstein-made-easys.
Can people tell when presentations dont really make sense? Are they willing to say that they dont understand the things authority figures have said? These are important skills and tendenciesand theyre largely absent from our mainstream discourse. For this reason, absurd notions litter our political worldlargely accepted by one and all. You know the pattern: Pundits hear something saidand repeat it. Life is much prettier lived this way. Until our systems start falling apart from the neglect involved in this Staged Group Agreement, as is occurring right now.