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Daily Howler: Friday night, we won a great win. As always, the discourse had suffered
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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: There’s 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 game—and seemed (to some) to make the wrong choice. As a solution, we added computer rankings into the stew—and now, those computer rankings have seemed (to some) to make the wrong choice about this week’s Big 12 title game, a game which provides Oklahoma a direct route to the national title game. Oklahoma is in—and Texas is out—in a way which strikes some as unfair.

Duh! In many years, there won’t 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, here’s how the major bowl games would shake out this year if we used them as the opening round in an eight-team tournament:

Sugar Bowl: Alabama (1) versus Texas Tech (8)
Orange Bowl: Florida (2) versus Utah (7)
Fiesta Bowl: Texas (3) versus Penn State (6)
Rose Bowl: Oklahoma (4) versus Southern Cal (5)

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 it’s 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 doesn’t 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 Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe, a book with which we’ve 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 insider—fifteen weeks on the New York Times list, we see from subsequent research. But our triumph occurred on Friday night—though we can’t 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 year—but 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 couldn’t make Einstein easy—and with the usual crowd of observers prepared to insist that he had.

Indeed: On the back of our hardback edition of Isaacson’s book, a Yale physics professor makes this wild claim: “Isaacson’s treatment of Einstein’s 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 English—except for the times when similar claims were made in support of other “Einstein-made-easy” books.

(As we’ve noted in the past: Einstein himself wrote an “Einstein-made-easy” book—and even he couldn’t make Einstein easy!)

We work with these books for several reasons. First, we’d like to understand Einstein ourselves, although we currently don’t. Beyond that, we’re fascinated by the fact that major writers apparently think they’ve explained Einstein’s work for the general reader, when they plainly haven’t. Meanwhile, the conceptual problems which litter such books are not unlike the conceptual problems which drive so much of our public discourse—and 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 Isaacson’s treatment of Einstein’s 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 question—although the answer is quite clearly no. But we’re always struck by the opening paragraph in the book’s Chapter 6, “Special Relativity.” (It’s Isaacson’s first real attempt to explain relativity. Chapter 9 is called “General Relativity.”) No, you can’t judge a chapter by its opening sentences. But we find these two intriguing:

ISAACSON (page 107): Relativity is a simple concept. It asserts that the fundamental laws of physics are the same whatever your state of motion.

Let’s say it again: You can’t judge a chapter by its opening paragraph—but 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 concept—an 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? We’ll admit it: We can’t.) 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 chair—before walking over to the fridge when Isaacson’s prose proves befuddling. Presumably, this might count as a change in his “state of motion,” this general reader might well presume.

But for us, it’s 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 don’t change when I walk to the bathroom? Who would have dreamed something different?

How could this be the thing Einstein saw—Einstein, and nobody else?

Yes, we know—these 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 (there’s 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 better—in our view, they get worse—in his subsequent chapters about Einstein’s science. Indeed, about Isaacson’s work on the science, we’re inclined to say this: It’s muddles, all the way down.

For the record, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Isaacson doesn’t “understand” Einstein’s work. It does mean that he can’t explain the work to a general reader; presumably, it also means that he can’t see that he hasn’t so explained it. Meanwhile, a long line of observers are willing to swear that he’s 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 didn’t lie with her—but 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 gud—and they rarely seem to notice such shortcomings in the work of other club members. For that reason, we’ll 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:

MASLIN (4/9/07): Mr. Isaacson deals clearly and comfortably with the scope of Einstein's life. If his highly readable and informative book has an Achilles' heel, it's in the area of science. Mr. Isaacson had the best available help (most notably the physicist Brian Greene's) in explicating the series of revelations Einstein brought forth in his wonder year, 1905, and the subsequent problems with quantum theory and uncertainty that would bedevil him.

But these sections of the book are succinctly abbreviated. Paradoxically that makes them less accessible than they would have been through longer, more patient explication. Still, the cosmic physics would be heavy sledding in any book chiefly devoted to Einstein's life and times, and Mr. Isaacson acknowledges that. ''O.K., it's not easy,'' he writes, ''but that's why we're no Einstein and he was.''

Politely, Maslin pretended that Isaacson would have done better if he’d only had more space and time. We’ll bet the house against this. And by the way: We have no doubt that Brian Greene, whom Maslin cites, is a straight-A physicist—that he does understand the physics, quite well. But Greene can’t make Einstein easy either. In our view, he’s proven that in his own pair of “Einstein-made-easy’s.”

Can people tell when presentations don’t really make sense? Are they willing to say that they don’t understand the things authority figures have said? These are important skills and tendencies—and they’re largely absent from our mainstream discourse. For this reason, absurd notions litter our political world—largely accepted by one and all. You know the pattern: Pundits hear something said—and 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.