Relics of a life: Einstein museum exhibit brings an interactive twist

Einstein-Read

In December 2014, Stathis Psillos, former Rotman Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Science at Western, suggested the idea of Einstein @ Rotman, a series of events culminating with a museum exhibit with manuscripts related to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which was first presented 100 years ago this month.

After a successful series of public lectures and an academic conference, Einstein – Philosopher/Scientist: 100 Years of General Relativity brings the Einstein @ Rotman theme to a close with an exhibit running through Dec. 12.

For the show, we have indeed been able to secure some excellent replicas of Einstein’s manuscripts. Appearing courtesy of the Albert Einstein Archives, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, these high-quality replicas even include coffee smears present on the original documents. Featured in the exhibit are pages from Einstein’s Zurich Notebook, foolscap pages from the handwritten Theory of General Relativity manuscript, and examples of correspondence between Einstein and his contemporaries. All these feature helpful English descriptions and translations where relevant.

Beyond manuscript replicas, the exhibit also includes interactive demonstrations of some classic physics experiments. Putting together these demonstrations brought out my inner physics geek, and hopefully it will yours as well. See Young’s famous Double Slit Experiment, and a Michelson Interferometer demonstrated with a laser, and a custom-made display that demonstrates the warping of spacetime with spandex.

Einstein-Read-Collage

Even non-physics-geeks might find that last one at least intriguing.

The show is anchored by a series of posters that shows the time-line of Einstein’s life, and a series of posters which delves into more detail about general relativity in particular.

Einstein is typically remembered for general relativity and the earlier theory of special relativity, as well as his other contributions to physics, including early papers on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, and mass-energy equivalence (which marked the first appearance of the famous formula E=mc2). But Einstein had many faces beyond his work in theoretical physics, and some of these are explored in the exhibit as well.

Researching this show, I came face-to-face with an Einstein who had nuanced and subtle views on many things, and who spoke up loudly with his opinions once he became an international celebrity. He was involved with the civil rights movement in the United States, and promoted socialism in an era under the influence of McCarthyism. His work as a pacifist and nuclear arms educator were also very important to him.

Meanwhile, his own later work in theoretical physics was downplayed as irrelevant by many of his colleagues, some of who even became angry Einstein was wasting his time on what they considered a boondoggle – the search for a unified field theory.

Einstein’s views were varied, but there are some patterns that can be observed. At the age of 12, Einstein had a series of realizations that led to what he described in his Autobiographical Notes (1949) as “a positively fanatical orgy of freethinking.” From this stemmed his perennial distrust of authority of all kinds. He distrusted religion, the state, and any conventions of society he couldn’t find justification for. This same distrust of authority (and received knowledge without examination) led to results as various as his dislike in later life of wearing socks, and his ability to question notions in physics that seemed contradictory to him. It was also this distrust of authority that contributed to his great love of philosophy.

In many ways, Einstein actually was a philosopher, as well as a scientist. Einstein’s famous thought experiments (like picturing himself riding on a beam of light) have much in common with natural philosophy of the past, and his work was heavily influenced by Kant, Mach, and Schopenhauer, who he read with great relish in his earlier years.

In later years, Einstein had correspondence with a number of philosophers, and even advocated for a chair in philosophy of science in the Department of Physics at Berlin University in the 1920s, which was successful, with the first occupant of that chair being influential logical empiricist Hans Reichenbach.

Curating this exhibit, I’ve learned a lot about Einstein, and what makes him a particularly good example of the kind of interdisciplinary research that takes place at the Rotman Institute of Philosophy.

Architect and systems theorist Buckminster Fuller tells a tale that Einstein once said to him “I cannot myself conceive of anything I have done ever having the slightest practical application.” In fact, Einstein seems more like an example of what Fuller called a comprehensivist – the opposite of a specialist.

Though Einstein’s highest achievements came in theoretical physics, those achievements were contingent on detailed knowledge in mathematics and astronomy. Einstein was also a skilled engineer, having grown up around a father and uncle with an engineering business, and later designing, with Leo Szilard, the Einstein refrigerator (which unfortunately, never got off the ground). Later in life, Einstein even spent time developing what he called his Cosmic Religion, which was a sort of pantheistic non-creed based in deep respect for nature.

But most key for what we explore in this show, Einstein’s relationship with the arts and humanities was also a key to his achievements. Einstein’s love of music is well-known, and he was a more than passable classical musician. Beyond that, it was Einstein’s trust in humankind’s creativity that is one of his most lasting non-scientific contributions.

 

“… a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move towards higher levels.”

– Albert Einstein, New York Times, May 25, 1946

 

Originally said in a context of the urgent need for atomic education in the aftermath of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there’s a reason this quote (and its many variations found everywhere from graffiti to T-shirts) still says something to us today. Einstein inspires us to explore the depths and heights of our natural world and our imaginations, but also to step back and think philosophically about truth and values, using the same powers of creativity he applied to scientific challenges.

Rob Read is the curator of Einstein – Philosopher/Scientist: 100 Years of General Relativity, and administrative assistant at the Rotman Institute of Philosophy. Einstein – Philosopher/Scientist: 100 Years of General Relativity takes place at Satellite Project Space, 121 Dundas St., through Dec. 12.