By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Perhaps most surprising is the section on Einstein and the FBI. As early as 1932, his outspoken commitment to freedom of thought attracted the bureau’s attention. In 1953, in a letter responding to a young schoolteacher who’d been called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Einstein suggested that he refuse to answer questions and follow instead the way of noncooperation advocated by Gandhi. The letter was printed in The New York Times and did not amuse the HUAC gestapo. In a memo from 1945, one of its members had already admonished, “It’s about time the American people got wise about Einstein . . . He ought to be prosecuted.”
Leaving aside the concluding opinion, the first part of this advice could hardly be more apposite. With our dismal level of scientific literacy, we Americans desperately need to get wise about Einstein — or at least the basics of modern science. And here the Skirball Center is pulling out all the stops. Working with USC’s Rossier School of Education, it has developed a K-12 package for teachers to use in conjunction with the show. Weekday mornings will be set aside for school field trips, and 10,000 children are expected to see the exhibition during its run.
And what of the physics itself, those fiendishly difficult and counterintuitive ideas for which Einstein is so well known? All the major concepts are there — the flexible nature of space and time; how time goes slower when you travel at near light-speeds; how stars warp the fabric of space; the quantum nature of light; and of course black holes. It’s all admirably done with lighted-up models and computer animations and carefully worded explanations. In short, it’s about as good an account of Einstein’s ideas as could be hoped for in a museum show. As someone who has attempted to do the same in a single chapter of a book, I sympathize fully with the problems faced by the show’s designers. The trouble is that these ideas are so inherently abstract, they are bound to leave a portion of the audience utterly bamboozled anyway, with no discredit to either side.
General relativity in particular is maddeningly hard for non-physicists to grasp. In 1919, the year in which astronomers first found evidence for this theory, Scientific American sponsored a competition for the most understandable explanation. The prize was a not-insubstantial $5,000. At the time, Einstein joked that he was the only one of his circle not to give it a shot. “I don’t believe I could do it,” he said. The point here is that visitors should not feel the least bit dim if they don’t come away with a full understanding. What matters is not the details but the passion for knowledge. If that can help to inspire more of our youngsters to take up science, the show will have been a resounding success.
I do however have one serious quibble with the exhibition: Like virtually every other presentation of Einstein’s life, it is all a little too hagiographic. The man was a genius; he was a champion of the downtrodden and an advocate for peace; at the same time he was a human being, and like the rest of us he was flawed. One rare hint of this is in the section dealing with his first wife, Mileva Maric, a fellow physics student and the mother of his children. When negotiating his divorce with Maric, Einstein presented a written set of conditions under which he would remain married to her. They included the stipulation that she would bring him three meals a day in his room, that he would eat alone, and that she would have no expectation of intimacy with him. Sensibly, Mileva opted for divorce, which did include his promise that should he win the Nobel Prize (as he expected), she would get the money. The medal itself and its accompanying certificate are on display in the show.
One may question the muckraking in Roger Highfield and Paul Carter’s infamous 1993 biography, but it is pretty clear that, along with the genuine sense of humanity, Einstein also had a selfish and even ruthless streak when it came to his personal life and his desire to put his physics above all else. Einstein is famous for being so immersed in his ideas he did not know where his socks were. But you can bet his second wife, Elsa, knew. Behind men of genius there is all too often a support structure — usually a wife — who clears the decks precisely so the great one does not have to bother with the trivia. In this sense Einstein was no worse than many other “great men” — but neither was he much better. This aspect of his life is worthy of attention not because it demeans him, but because within its archetypal story lie very serious issues about why it is that physics remains the most overwhelmingly male-dominated of all the sciences.
Einstein himself would not disagree, I think. No sentimentalist, he understood that we do not always achieve the heights of goodness to which we aspire. Yet as he once wrote, “We have to do the best we can.” Einstein was not the scientific saint he is too often painted to be, but in so many ways he did the best that any man could. The world he showed us beyond the sky — a place filled with black holes, gravity waves and expanding space-time — is as enchanting as any fairy tale. A hundred years after his epochal papers, physicists are still exploring the consequences of his monumental insights. Cosmologically speaking, we are all a good deal wiser for his efforts.
EINSTEIN | Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles | Through May 29, 2005
Margaret Wertheim’s bookThe Pearly Gates of Cyberspace includes a chapter on Einstein’s space and time written for the layman. Her bookPythagoras’ Trousers presents an historical critique of physics as a male-dominated science.