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Einstein: Scientist-Curator's View - 2002-12-08

Almost a half-century after his death, the wrinkled, sad-happy visage and silvery mane of Albert Einstein are the image of scientific genius around the world. But Einstein did more than discover Relativity and the space-time continuum. The German-born physicist was also a pacifist, a lover and a visionary who helped make possible many important features of today's advanced civilization. This multi-faceted Albert Einstein is the focus of a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

As the chief astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History, Michael Shara spends most of his time working analyzing the one hundred thousand stars nearest to Earth. But Mr. Shara is also curator of the Museum's latest tour de force: a comprehensive public exhibition of the great Albert Einstein's life and work. "As curator of the exhibition, it was my responsibility to choose the pieces that would go into this exhibition. We have some extraordinary original documents in Einstein's own handwriting including, for example, an 'E=MC squared,' [along with] some of his field equations for General Relativity, and an original manuscript on Special Relativity," he says.

We have correspondence with Sigmund Freud, [and] a letter from Abba Eban offering him the presidency of the State of Israel. But at the same time we have love letters to wives and a mistress.

Phillips:"He liked women a lot."
Shara: "He certainly did!"

But Mr. Shara knows that it is not "Einstein the Celebrity," or "Einstein the Lover," but "Einstein, the Genius" - Einstein the author of 'E=MC squared,' Einstein the Einstein, that looms largest in the world's imagination. This is true even though most people regard Einstein's famous equation as an other-worldly code that only another genius could ever understand. "And this myth persists almost to the present day that Einstein's physics is not comprehensible. Wrong! False. Not true! We think that we've been able to show -- using some fairly simple videos, animations interactives and text -- Special Relativity and General Relativity. That is, how what E=MC squared is, how it works, what the implications are and how gravity works from very very first principles that we believe a 10-year-old can understand!

In the early 1900s, by about 1913, Einstein made a prediction that light traveling by the edge of the Sun and coming from a distant star, should be deflected in its path. And so a star, seen near the edge of the Sun, during a total eclipse of the Sun, would appear in a slightly different position than if that star were observed months later when the Sun was in a different part of the sky and that star could be observed. This was an audacious prediction. It was completely different from that made by Newton. Sir Isaac Newton, three centuries before, had also suggested that light might deflected but by a different amount.

It turned out that measurements in 1919 showed that Einstein was right and that Newton was wrong. And this was an absolute revolution in physics [and] in our view of the world. It showed that a single man, with nothing more than a pencil and paper and his brain, had figured out far better than anyone ever had before, how the universe works. Phillips: "So he refined a measurement. It seems that turning the universe on its head would require something more dramatic than that. Rather than merely a refinement of a measurement. To say it is this value rather than that value."
Shara: "It wasn't the value itself that counted. It was the picture of the universe. Einstein said the following: Let's picture a trampoline, a large, flat, rubber surface. And I take a marble and I roll the marble across the trampoline. What happens? Well, the marble simply follows a straight path."

Now I do another experiment: I take a very heavy steel ball and I put it in the center of the trampoline. The trampoline is no longer flat. It now has a curved surface with a deep dip in the center. And when I roll a marble across this trampoline, the marble does not follow a straight path. The marble now follows a curved path because the marble is following is following the curved surface on the trampoline. Einstein said that this is how gravity works.

The Sun, which is by analogy that heavy steel ball, bends or warps space and time around itself just as that heavy ball warps the trampoline. The marble, the little marble, is the Earth. The little marble would follow a straight path throughout space forever were it not close to the Sun. But because the Earth is in the neighborhood of the Sun, and the Sun is warping the space and time around itself, the Earth follows a curved path around the Sun. That is the reason for gravity.

Phillips: "How does time figure into that?"
Shara: "Time, in fact, is the fourth dimension. We think typically of length, width and height as being the three dimensions we are aware of and if you take a snapshot, an instantaneous snapshot of the world, what you see is length, width and height at one instant of time, frozen in time. But of course all of us are moving through time. We are all moving forward through time."

And if you think of time as being just like length width and height and that time can in a sense be bent and distorted, it can flow more quickly and more slowly depending on whether we are in a strong gravitational field near a warping object, which in fact Einstein showed is true, then you realize that the universe if four dimensional. And it is this four dimensional picture of the universe that Einstein used to make his prediction about light being bent. The museum show also reflects Einstein's often-uneasy place at the intersection of physics and politics. It includes the letter he sent to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 warning that Germany was planning to build an atomic bomb, and recommending that the United States should accelerate its atomic weapons program.

"…This of course led to the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. It seems strange after what I've just told you, but he was also very much a pacifist," says Mr. Shara. "He signed many manifestoes in favor of pacifism, a simple world government against the use of force, against militarism, against weapons of any sort.

"…And he taught us - and by 'us' I mean scientists collectively - that we have a social responsibility. We do work in a vacuum and we have to speak out for using our research and the fruits of our labor for good and not for evil."

Phillips: "What do you want people to come away with after seeing this?"
Shara: "That he was just such a man. [A] very complex, extraordinarily brilliant man, possibly the greatest genius of all time, the greatest scietici geniusm of all time… whose discoveries have laid the framework and groundwork for our civilization. Not just atomic bombs and nuclear power plants and understanding how stars shine, but his work on Brownian Motion in 1905 led to an understanding of the size of molecules and that molecules exist which led to x-ray crystallography, which led to the description of the DNA molecule, which led to the entire genomics revolution."

And his work on the Photoelectric Effect, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1921, led to vacuum tubes, inexpensive transistor radios and televisions, the solid state physics revolution and integrated circuit revolution which led to the information technology revolution, [and the] computers. Our civilization would not be what it is today were it not for him.

Michael Shara is the chairman and curator of the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the curator of it current blockbuster exhibition "Einstein." To find out more about Einstein and the show on the internet go to, and simply click on the happy looking man with the wild gray hair riding a bicycle.