The Scientific Deep End
By Ed Reynolds
November 03, 2005
The most fascinating lesson garnered from the Einstein exhibit currently at the McWane Center is Albert Einstein’s confession that his imagination played a major role in the “thought experiments” the famed scientist engaged in as he contemplated the mysteries of the universe. “Imagination is more important than knowledge” was his philosophy. Oddly, he never proved his own scientific notions. Einstein merely speculated about time and space, leaving others to prove that he was correct. The most famous of these was Arthur Eddington’s confirmation of Einstein’s speculation that light is bent by gravity. During a 1919 solar eclipse, stars hidden behind the sun were proven to exist because their rays were curved by the sun’s gravity. Only the blotting out of the sun allowed the starlight rays to be seen as they curved around the sun.
The exhibits on display explaining Einstein’s observations are interesting, though somewhat frustrating to the curious lay person when it comes to fully grasping the concepts of one of the greatest scientists in history. Don’t let this discourage you. Simply standing in the presence of handwritten pages by Einstein explaining his 1916 General Theory of Relativity is nothing less than mind-boggling. One wall is covered with a 72-page handwritten manuscript that is the earliest known description of relativity in Einstein’s handwriting, as he did not keep any of the drafts of his 1905 Special Theory of Relativity.
Also on exhibit are the FBI files that addressed Einstein as a security risk. Beginning in 1932, J. Edgar Hoover was determined to prove that Einstein was affiliated with traitors. The scientist had upset some with his support of civil rights. Renowned black opera soprano Marian Anderson was refused a room at a hotel in Princeton, New Jersey, after a concert. Einstein invited her to stay with him, forming a friendship that lasted his entire life. Einstein became an American citizen in 1940, one year after warning President Franklin Roosevelt that defecting German scientists told him the Nazis were working on an atomic bomb. Einstein urged Roosevelt to get America involved in the creation of nuclear weapons. The Manhattan Project began two years later. Interestingly, despite Hoover’s efforts to discredit him, Einstein supported the American war effort by penning a handwritten version of his 1905 Special Theory of Relativity, which was auctioned off to raise $6.5 million in war bonds.
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By the 1950s, however, Einstein had embraced pacifism, calling for the United States to share nuclear technology with the Soviet Union. His denunciation of McCarthyism prompted a letter from House Un-American Activities Committee member John Rankin, who wrote, “It’s about time the American people got wise to Einstein . . . He ought to be prosecuted.” Also on display are letters exchanged with Sigmund Freud regarding human nature and the urge to go to war.
Among the memorabilia is a Birmingham connection. A copy of a letter Einstein wrote to Dr. Robert S. Teague, a UAB professor, is on display. In the correspondence, Einstein sought $1 million to educate Americans on responsible use of atomic power, which Einstein refers to as “the most revolutionary force since prehistoric man’s discovery of fire.” In another letter Einstein refused to accept the presidency of the newly created state of Israel in 1945.
Then there are the letters from children. In 1954, a child wrote in a first-grader’s crude scrawl: “Dear Mr. Einstein, I am a little girl of six. I saw your picture in the paper. I think you ought to have your haircut [sic] so you can look better.”
“Einstein” will be on exhibit at the McWane Center through January 22. For more information, call 714-8300 or visit www.mcwane.org.