The most comprehensive exhibition ever presented on the life and theories of Albert Einstein opens this week at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Many of the original manuscripts and personal treasures on display have never been seen by the general public.
The exhibition, simply titled Einstein, features dazzling interactive exhibits that would, perhaps, even amaze the man credited with helping bring about the Information Age.
There is a large video installation that distorts the image of visitors, illustrating Einstein's assertion that the Sun's gravity alters light traveling from distant stars. At another station, a computer simulator allows visitors to increase or decrease the size of an animated black hole - the small, celestial bodies believed to be collapsed stars.
In still another exhibit, visitors can track "muons". The Museum's Gretchen Walker explains. "What we're looking at here is a fine mist in the bottom of a tank, and that mist is acting like a cloud chamber," she said. "As a cosmic ray goes through the mist, it heats the mist and leaves a jet trail. The muons, or cosmic rays, that we're detecting are traveling very close to the speed of light, so time is passing much more slowly for them. Their life-spans are only about two microseconds, but they last several hours by our time."
Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity - E=mc2- is a cornerstone of the exhibit and of modern science. Hanoch Gutfreund, a professor of theoretical physics who served as an advisor to Museum curators, says that the exhibition, which will travel internationally beginning next year, brings the legendary equation to life. "E=mc2 appears on stamps and in commercials, but so few people know what it really means," he said. "Anybody that is willing to stand by the panels that explain what it stands for will walk away with a sense of understanding. They will not be able to derive it from first principles, but they will understand what it means. "
Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity laid the foundation for the development of atomic energy. His work on the photoelectric effect led to the advent of vacuum tubes and integrated circuits, and ultimately to the computer revolution. His understanding of the size and shape of molecules has helped unlock the mysteries of DNA. All of these achievements are celebrated in this landmark collection. But Michael Shara, curator of the exhibition, says the exhibit also celebrates what Einstein left unachieved. "Einstein spent the last 30 years of his life trying to assemble a grand unified theory, to take the world of the super-microscopic and the world of the macroscopic - the entire universe - and join them into one beautiful theory," he said. "He didn't succeed, and he considered the last 30 years of his life to be a failure. Today, we regard it as a great success because he pushed all of theoretical physics in the direction of a general unified theory. Today, that's one of the hottest topics in physics, and it's because of him."
In 1921, Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics. He fled Nazi Germany and emigrated to the United States in 1933, where he began a long stint teaching at Princeton University. The writing pad Einstein was using at the time of his death in 1955, containing his final calculations in pursuit of the general unified theory, is on view at the exhibit.
The exhibition also honors Albert Einstein's life outside the world of science. On display are a secondary school report card, a tea set, some of his pipes, and his magnetic compass. Not far away are his 1939 letter to President Franklin Roosevelt warning him that the Nazis might be using uranium to build a nuclear bomb, and a 1952 letter from Israel's ambassador to the United States, Abba Eban, offering Einstein the presidency of Israel.
Physics professor Hanoch Gutfreund says these elements are essential to the exhibition. "His fame comes from his contributions to science, but he expressed his views on virtually every issue on our cultural and political agenda," said Hanoch Gutfreund. "He talked about war and peace, about religion, about human rights, about nationalism, and on all that, sometimes his opinions were expressed bluntly. He was uncompromising. Sometimes they were expressed naively, but people paid attention. People listened to what he had to say."
The exhibition also includes a collection of letters Einstein received from admirers all over the world. One, from a young child in Bristol, Pennsylvania, captures the enormity of Albert Einstein's lasting fame. It reads: "Dear Dr. Einstein, I want to know what is beyond the sky. My mother said you could tell me. Yours Truly, Frank Fellerman."
Photos courtesy American Museum of Natural History in New York