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Einstein’s Sky 

Of saints and scientists

Thursday, Sep 23 2004
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Photo courtesy The Lotte Jacobi Archives

In 1950, a young boy named Frank Felleman penciled a note to Albert Einstein: “I want to know what is beyond the sky. My mother said you could tell me.” This innocent query must surely have delighted the world’s most famous scientist, for in effect Einstein had wrestled with the same question himself. With his general theory of relativity, he had developed a way of describing the cosmos as a whole, the entire realm of the stars and galaxies and everything in fact beyond the sky.

It is unlikely Mrs. Felleman was aware of this feature of general relativity, but her suggestion of a correspondent for her curious son is an index of the stature that Einstein had by then achieved. Just as a child with a Christmas wish list naturally writes to Santa Claus, so, during the last decades of his life, Einstein was the figure to whom children with scientific inquiries were naturally directed.

We do not know if Einstein answered young Frank’s letter, though he certainly responded to some of the children who, along with adults all over the world, deluged him with mail. A new exhibition at the Skirball Center, simply titled Einstein, pays homage to this leading figure of modern physics through an epic examination of his life and science. Here, letters from children are interspersed with Nobel Prize citations and original manuscripts of his seminal papers; and explanations of black holes share gallery space with his FBI file, which eventually amounted to over 1,400 pages.

Following on from its first showing at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and subsequent incarnations in Boston and Chicago, the exhibition will receive its only West Coast display at the Skirball before heading off to Israel. It is by far the most comprehensive Einstein show ever mounted, in part because it is the first time that most of these artifacts have been allowed to travel. In his will, Einstein bequeathed his personal effects to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which he had helped to found, and until now the rectors have not permitted the precious items to leave. The Skirball is making the most of this rare opportunity and will have the show up for nine months, rotating throughout this period many original documents. At any point, says Skirball curator Grace Cohen Grossman, there will always be at least one original manuscript page with the celebrated equation E=mc2 in Einstein’s own handwriting.

In the preface to his book A Brief History of Time, Einstein’s most illustrious disciple, Stephen Hawking, notes that he was told by his publishers that for every equation he put in it, sales would drop by half. While Hawking took the advice to heart, he felt that in the singular case of E=mc2 he could make an exception. Truth is, it was likely to boost sales, having been used to hawk everything from coffee cups to T-shirts. It has even been the subject of a full-length biography and has become one of the premier icons of our age. To see it written in Einstein’s hand for the very first time is a bit like gazing upon Moses’ tablets. No other scientist in history has inspired such reverence. Or so many merchandising options.

Books on Einstein continue to sell by the truckload — one publishing-industry friend of mine suggests that the ultimate best-seller would include the words food, sex and Einstein in the title. In expectation of a voracious public appetite, the Skirball has set up a temporary shop with a vast selection of books, calendars, mugs and so on. The Center has even weighed in itself with an infant romper suit stamped “smarty pants” on the back.

 

The timing of the Skirball show is perfect. 2005 is the International Year of Physics in honor of the centennial of Einstein’s so-called “annus mirabilis,” in which Einstein launched himself upon the scientific stage with no fewer than five extraordinary papers. One of these was his doctoral thesis, one would be cited in his Nobel Prize nomination (and lays down a foundation stone of the quantum world picture), another demonstrated the existence of molecules (still a debatable point back in 1905), and the final two introduced the special theory of relativity. Not since Newton spent the winter of 1665-66 dreaming up the foundations of modern physics has one person in any scientific field made such monumental achievements in such a short period of time. All this while working as a clerk in the Swiss patent office with not even a Ph.D. to his name.

It is the life as much as the science that inspires, and the former occupies somewhat more than half of the show. There are sections on Einstein and pacifism (he vocally objected to Germany’s aggression in World War I), Einstein and the Nazis (he, of course, was able to get out before the Holocaust began, and he lobbied hard to get the U.S. to accept more refugees), Einstein and the Jewish state (he was asked to be its first president but wisely declined), and Einstein in California (from 1931 to 1933, he spent three winters at Caltech, and this idyllic phase of his life is the subject of an interactive multimedia documentary produced especially for the Skirball by the Labyrinth Project at USC’s Annenberg Center for Communication).

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