Tag Archives: philosophy

Bertrand Russell on Relativity (free audio)

Bertrand Russell’s ABC of Rel­a­tiv­ity: The Clas­sic Intro­duc­tion to Ein­stein
(Free Audio) via Open Cul­ture | Feb­ru­ary 16th, 2012

click for audio file index

Every­body knows that Ein­stein did some­thing aston­ish­ing,” writes Bertrand Rus­sell in the open­ing pas­sage of ABC of Rel­a­tiv­ity“but very few peo­ple know exactly what it was. It is gen­er­ally rec­og­nized that he rev­o­lu­tion­ized our con­cep­tion of the phys­i­cal world, but the new con­cep­tions are wrapped up in math­e­mat­i­cal tech­ni­cal­i­ties. It is true that there are innu­mer­able pop­u­lar accounts of the the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity, but they gen­er­ally cease to be intel­li­gi­ble just at the point where they begin to say some­thing important.”

Eighty-seven years after it was writ­ten, ABC of Rel­a­tiv­ity still stands as one of the most intel­li­gi­ble intro­duc­tions to Albert Einstein’s the­o­ries. Rus­sell wrote the book in 1925 as a com­pan­ion to his ear­lier vol­ume, ABC of Atoms. The project of writ­ing books for a gen­eral read­er­ship was born of neces­sity. Rus­sell had no aca­d­e­mic appoint­ment, and needed the money. But as Peter Clark explains in his intro­duc­tion to the Rout­ledge fifth edi­tion to ABC of Rel­a­tiv­ity, the early 1920s were also a time when Rus­sell was becom­ing increas­ingly pre­oc­cu­pied with social and polit­i­cal issues. He believed that many of the social ills of the period, includ­ing the rise of nation­al­ism, were con­se­quences of a wide­spread and entrenched irra­tional­ity, born of igno­rance and a lack of edu­ca­tion. Writes Clark:

It was cer­tainly a heroic period in Russell’s life, when he earnestly believed that the sort of blind unthink­ing prejudice–which he con­ceived to be fun­da­men­tally respon­si­ble for the hor­rors of the First World War–could be tran­scended by the dis­sem­i­na­tion of knowl­edge and the exer­cise in crit­i­cal rea­son­ing power by all classes of soci­ety. His huge out­put in this period was designed to bring within, as far as pos­si­ble, everyone’s grasp the free­dom of thought and action which knowl­edge and learn­ing brings. That spirit of enlight­en­ment cer­tainly per­vades the ABC of Relativity.

Thanks to UbuWeb, you can lis­ten to an abridged audio ver­sion of ABC of Rel­a­tiv­ity online. The book is read by Eng­lish actor Derek Jacobi (who also starred in the film we fea­tured last week on Alan Tur­ing: Break­ing the Code). Jacobi reads one of the later edi­tions of ABC of Rel­a­tiv­ity. In 1959, and again in 1969, Rus­sell con­sented to revi­sions by physi­cist Felix Pirani. Chap­ter 11 was rewrit­ten by Pirani to incor­po­rate the expan­sion of the uni­verse, which wasn’t announced by Edwin Hub­ble until four years after the first edi­tion of Russell’s book. The one trou­bling thing about the text, as it now stands, is that Pirani didn’t limit him­self to the revi­sions made under Russell’s super­vi­sion. He made more changes in 1985, fif­teen years after Russell’s death.

Here is the audio book, divided into chapters:

  1. Touch and Sight: The Earth and the Heavens
  2. What Hap­pens and What is Observed
  3. The Veloc­ity of Light
  4. Clocks and Foot-rules
  5. Space-Time
  6. The Spe­cial The­ory of Relativity
  7. Inter­vals in Space-Time
  8. Einstein’s Law of Gravitation
  9. Proofs of Einstein’s Law of Gravitation
  10. Mass, Momen­tum, Energy, and Action
  11. The Expand­ing Universe
  12. Con­ven­tions and Nat­ural Laws
  13. The Abo­li­tion of ‘Force’
  14. What is Matter?
  15. Philo­soph­i­cal Consequences

Stel­lar courses focus­ing on Einstein’s physics can also be found in our big col­lec­tion of Free Courses Online. Just scroll down to the Physics sec­tion.

The audio text listed above also appears in our list of Free Audio Books.

Plato, Web2, and the End of Critical Thinking


The Web will be the end of Crit­i­cal Thinking

It is fairly com­mon, par­tic­u­larly among infor­mal groups of edu­ca­tors, to hear some­one  exco­ri­ate the Web, Social Media, and Infor­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy in gen­eral. “Our kids don’t think any­more, they just click.” The argu­ment is that Social Media and text mes­sag­ing are erod­ing, if not destroy­ing, the abil­ity of young peo­ple to write coher­ent sen­tences. In “my day” if you wanted to learn some­thing, you had to pick up a book, roll up your sleeves, and con­cen­trate. Nowa­days, you just Google it or, if you go in for heavy intel­lec­tual lift­ing, you can take five min­utes and read about it in Wikipedia.

[When I started UC Berke­ley, an under­grad­u­ate had to have a ded­i­ca­tion and com­mit­ment to learn­ing. In order to access “infor­ma­tion,” it was nec­es­sary to enter the “tem­ple of knowl­edge” (the Library), go to the mas­sive ranks of card cat­a­logues, and start thumb­ing. When three likely sources were found, cards would be filled out and handed to the keeper of the books. Elves would scurry through the stacks retriev­ing the requested tomes. As it hap­pened, usu­ally only one of the three would be of any use and the process began again. –Today, I can find more infor­ma­tion in five min­utes than I could in a week in 1967.]

What does this all have to do with Plato? Two-and-a-half mil­len­nia ago, Plato also lived in a time of chang­ing tech­nolo­gies. Plato was lit­er­ate, just as most edu­ca­tors use email, Google, and to a cer­tain extent, social media. Like other edu­ca­tors, Plato was gen­er­ally con­ser­v­a­tive though, and skep­ti­cal of change. One of these changes was the rapid spread of writ­ten lan­guage. Plato felt that writ­ing would, in essence, destroy crit­i­cal think­ing by mak­ing people’s minds lazy. Why remem­ber when all you have to do is open a scroll?

Does any of this sound famil­iar? This is what Plato said about the loss of essen­tial skills result­ing from the adop­tion of new technologies:

“[Writ­ing] will intro­duce for­get­ful­ness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not prac­tice using their mem­ory because they will put their trust in writ­ing, which is exter­nal and depends on signs that belong to oth­ers, instead of try­ing to remem­ber from the inside, com­pletely on their own. You have not dis­cov­ered a potion for remem­ber­ing, but for remind­ing; you pro­vide your stu­dents with the appear­ance of wis­dom, not with its real­ity. Your inven­tion will enable them to hear many things with­out being prop­erly taught, and they will imag­ine that they have came to know much while for the most part they will know noth­ing. And they will be dif­fi­cult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.” (Phae­drus 275a-b)

Plato was also pre­scient about content-filtering. There are some things and ideas that should not be shared indiscriminately.

“You know, Phae­drus, writ­ing shares a strange fea­ture with paint­ing. The off­springs of paint­ing stand there as if they are alive, but if any­one asks them any­thing, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of writ­ten words. You’d think they were speak­ing as if they had some under­stand­ing, but if you ques­tion any­thing that has been said because you want to learn more, it con­tin­ues to sig­nify just that very same hing for­ever. When it has once been writ­ten down, every dis­course roams about every­where, reach­ing indis­crim­i­nately those with under­stand­ing no less than those who have no busi­ness with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s sup­port; alone, it can nei­ther defend itself nor come to its own sup­port.” (Phae­drus 275d-e)

There are some ideas that not just any­one should be able to access.

Change is dan­ger­ous. It threat­ens to sweep away things that we have always believed. It fright­ens us because we feel that we don’t under­stand it and can’t con­trol it. Funny thing is: it’s always hap­pened and we’ve always man­aged to use chang­ing ideas and chang­ing ways of doing things to our advantage.

You could go to the Library and see if they can find a copy or…

you can read the full text of Phae­drus here. You can even down­load an audio ver­sion for your iPod/iPhone/iPad.