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The say of the week – and commentary April 30, 2007

Posted by dorigo in humor, personal, physics, science.

You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”

(Albert Einstein)

Which really means I am not going to understand anything more, since both my grandmothers have passed away…. That might also explain why they say that if you are going to make a significant contribution to the field of Physics, you’ll do so at a fairly young age.

I do like the game of taking a solemn sentence and turning its meaning upside down. You learn something from it at times. Take the following: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants“, by Isaac Newton. One could modify it as follows: “If I have not seen further, it is by standing in the footprints of giants“. Which makes sense, since once the giant is gone he or she leaves a furrow which is difficult to jump out of…



1. Bee - April 30, 2007

🙂 Funny, only yesterday I put this quotation in the footer of my template. See, nothing in the quotation says anything about the relevance of your grandmother understanding what you explain. So go ahead… cemeteries are definitely supportive for in depth thinking. Best,


2. D - April 30, 2007

Or, as Hal Abelson puts it, “If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders”

3. carlbrannen - April 30, 2007

If you want to explain Einstein’s rotating black holes to your grandmother, you might start with the little known, but very intuitive paper by Hamilton and Lisle.

4. Massimiliano - May 1, 2007

Hmmm, assumed that we can generalize “your” (whose?) grandmother as any grandmother… this sentence means that anything my grandmother doesn’t understand is basically said by people who don’t understand what they are saying… with the consequences we can imagine… oh, actually Einstein apparently didn’t state that grandmothers should REALLY understand what people is explaining to them… 🙂 Well, my month favourite quote is what Bohr answered to Einstein after he said “God is not playing dice”, he sayd: “Please stop telling God what to do!”.

5. Kea - May 1, 2007

One of my grandmothers was very smart, but girls in her family never finished school so she could only get work (during WWI) as a seamstress (much to her father’s horror, since he didn’t think women should work at all). She loved that job, because they soon realised that she could remember all the client numbers and other useful numerical data, so they gave her a better job. In the end, she had a very lonely life, and I really wish she was still here so that I could explain Quantum Gravity to her. I think she would have enjoyed it.

6. dorigo - May 1, 2007

Hi Carl,

thank you for the link… I gave a look at the paper, but it is low in the list of things I have to read right now! I am preparing for an important talk at a meeting where funding for italian experiments is decided, and I need to do things right.


7. dorigo - May 1, 2007

That is right, massimiliano. We can actually think of a generalized grandmother, and the sentence still applies. I think we should actually conceive a computer program simulating the brain of the typical grandmother – they recently simulated a mouse, I think we should ask Ray how long it takes for grandma. Once we have a silicon grandma in place (not one with breast implants, but one with simulated neurons and axons) we can then test our ability to explain things to her. It would be quite fun.


8. dorigo - May 1, 2007

Wow Kea, WWI… that was the heck of a long time ago. My mother’s mother was born in 1900, when was yours born ?

9. Bee - May 1, 2007

speaking of grandmas, my mother’s mother (born 1911, died last year) worked for an observatory during WW2 (in Germany). she often told me it was difficult to get the job because she had not finished high school (father died in WW1, she had 5 sisters and 1 brother, no chance), but it avoided her being drafted to help the nazis. it seemed she convinced the Professor nevertheless, computing planetary orbits, positions of stars etc (with TABLES not with computers…) I only learned later that the government probably needed all this for the orientation of the military at night. well. she’s always been interested in physics, but I think she never quite understood what I actually do.

10. Kea - May 2, 2007

Hi Tommaso. That was about my paternal grandma, born in Sydney in 1902. I’m not sure when my other grandma was born, but it must have been just a few years after that.

11. Thomas D - May 2, 2007

Actually I think the well-known ‘Eliza’ program is already a fairly good simulation of a generalized grandmother.

12. dorigo - May 2, 2007

Bee, your grandmother seems to have had a quite interesting life!

Kea, so she was very young when she started working. I wonder if you can explain quantum gravity to me for starters. I am quite old, you know.

Thomas, that is a good idea… But we need a more powerful version of Eliza to make that interesting.


13. Kea - May 2, 2007

Hi Tommaso. I am still trying to understand it, but I will try. You have given me the encouragement to write a 10 page paper entitled M Theory for Grandmas.

14. Top mass updates from CDF: 2 - the world’s best measurement « A Quantum Diaries Survivor - October 23, 2007

[…] the probability of the different final states of top pair decay. If you want to become able to explain to your grandma how comes that a whooping 45% of them top pairs just yield hadronic jets, while a mere 5% […]

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