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Einstein’s Sky

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).

 

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 book The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace includes a chapter on Einstein’s space and time written for the layman. Her book Pythagoras’ Trousers presents an historical critique of physics as a male-dominated science.


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