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Monday, June 17, 2019

Einstein in Oxford | History - Physics World

Taken from the June 2019 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

Andrew Robinson, Author and Journalist, reveals why Albert Einstein travelled to Britain on three occasions in the early 1930s – and how he shocked his audience in Oxford with his new thinking about how science work.

Historic moment: On 23 May 1931 Einstein received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford.
Photo: courtesy - ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo
Amid growing political unrest in Germany, Albert Einstein paid three short visits to Oxford in the early 1930s. Andrew Robinson reveals why this celebrated physicist travelled to Britain and how Einstein seduced – and then shocked – his audiences with his new thinking about how science works.

The History of Science Museum in Oxford contains 18,000 objects, ranging from an ancient Roman vertical disc sundial to an X-ray spectrometer built by the physicist Henry Moseley in 1913. Its most famous object, however, is a humble Oxford blackboard – chalked by Albert Einstein on 16 May 1931 with calculations about the size, density and age of the universe. The museum’s website describes it as “a relic of a secular saint”, adding that some visitors “treat it almost as an object of veneration, anxiously requesting its location on arrival and eager to experience some connection with this near-mythical figure of science”.

The blackboard is perhaps the most lasting legacy of a visit that Einstein paid to Oxford in the spring of 1931. He had been to the city once before, having dropped by briefly in 1921 during his first visit to Britain. That was shortly after British astronomers had observed the 1919 solar eclipse, confirming Einstein’s general theory of relativity and propelling him to fame. On that occasion, he and his second wife, Elsa, were in Oxford for just a few hours, having a guided tour of the city and university provided by Einstein’s admirer Frederick Lindemann. A fellow German-born physicist, Lindemann was at the time head of the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford and later rose to fame as Winston Churchill’s science adviser.

Einstein’s return in 1931 was also due to Lindemann, who had been courting the great man on behalf of the Oxford-based Rhodes Trust, which wished to launch a series of lectures in memory of the businessman and South African politician Cecil Rhodes. Einstein, who hardly spoke English, had already declined a previous invitation in July 1927, in part because he felt that his poor health – triggered by overwork and an inadequate diet in Berlin during the rigours of the First World War – would make “a long stay in foreign and unfamiliar surroundings…too great a burden for me, particularly bearing in mind the language difficulty”.

But shortly afterwards he changed his mind, telling Lindemann in August 1927: “It is very important to me that in England, where my work has received greater recognition than anywhere else in the world, I should not give the impression of ingratitude.” Other difficulties intervened, but at long last, after Lindemann saw Einstein personally in Berlin in 1930, he agreed to lecture, and to stay at Lindemann’s Oxford college, Christ Church...

Photo: courtesy - CC BY-SA 3.0/Museum of the History of Science, Oxford

The idea of preserving Einstein’s blackboards during his visit to Oxford in 1931 seems to have come from dons who had attended his three public lectures, notably Robert Gunther, who had founded the History of Science Museum in Oxford a few years earlier. They rescued the two blackboards from Einstein’s 16 May lecture about the expansion of the universe. Although one board was later accidentally wiped in the museum’s storeroom, the other survives.
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Publication date:
24 Sep 2019
Source: Physics World