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Seeing is Relative

Displays in São Paulo and in Switzerland recall Einstein's "miraculous year"

disseminationEinstein in Rio de Janeiro visits the Botanical Gardendissemination

2005, the year baptized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) and by the UN as the World Year of Physics for marking the centenary of the first writings on the Theory of Relativity, will leave echoes for a good part of 2006. It is because the fame and charisma of Albert Einstein (1879-1955), the first pop scientist, shall we say, of the history of the academic world, have prevented the commemorations from ending.

In Berne, the Swiss city in which the scientist of German origin published, in 1905, the five noteworthy texts that launched him to worldwide fame – two of them beginning the Theory of Relativity”, an exhibition that draws a parallel between the life of the physicist and the urban development of the city at the beginning of the 20th century, was opened in April last year and is being extended to October of this year (read more on page 92).

Far nearer by, at the Institute of Nuclear Energy and Research (Ipen) of the National Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN), headquartered on the campus of the University of São Paulo (USP), the exhibition “Einstein and Latin America”, organized by the Museum of Astronomy and Kindred Sciences (Mast), with the collaboration of the Brazilian Physics Society (SBF), exhibits documents, objects, texts and images relating to Einstein’s visits to Latin America in 1925 and 1930, as well as the expedition of English astronomers to the city of Sobral, in the interior of Ceará, in 1919. Due to the excellent climatic conditions of the region, the observation of the total eclipse of the Sun allowed the scientists to prove the Theory of General Relativity, concluded by Einstein in 1915.

“The exhibition was staged to celebrate the World Year of Physics, established because of the centenary of the so-called “miraculous year”, in which Einstein changed the course of the history of science with his five studies. And we decided to stress the relationship between Einstein and Latin America”, says Alfredo Tiomno Tolmasquim, the director of the Mast and the author of the book “Einstein, o viajante da Relatividade na América do Sul” [Einstein, the traveler of Relativity in South America] (Vieira&Lent). The display was staged from September to November 2005 at Mast, in Rio de Janeiro, and marks, in São Paulo, the beginning of the commemorations of the semicentenary of Ipen, besides a series of activities at both the institute and Mast with the objective of preserving and publicizing the memory of Brazilian science.

Besides biographical data and details of Einstein’s main scientific ideas, the display shows how the press reported the journeys that the scientist made to Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil in 1925, and to Panama and Cuba, in 1930. “When he was in South America in 1925, Einstein was already internationally famous”, Tolmasquim explains. “So a quick look at the press coverage is enough for us to see how he was considered over here as a scientist of genius. At the same time, particularly in Brazil, that the positivist tradition was very strong, there were some criticisms of the Theory of Relativity, which smacked of abstraction and rather impractical results in science to that date”, the author ponders. “It is odd to note that the texts did not refer to Einstein as a physicist, but as a scientist. Above all in Brazil, there was no official recognition of physicists.”

The invitation for the journey to Latin America came from Argentina, a country where there was a scientific community more matured about physics. That is why it was in Buenos Aires, Córdoba and La Plata that Latin Americans had the greatest opportunities for hearing about the Theory of Relativity. “Einstein gave eight talks in the course of one month in Argentina. Afterwards, he spent one week in Montevideo and one week in Rio de Janeiro”, Tolmasquim says. The father of the Theory of Relativity proved to be extremely cordial throughout the journey. However, his diary entries during the stay, incidentally one of the main documents of the exhibition, subsequently revealed that some situations displeased the genius. “For example, he took part in a meeting at the Academy of Sciences of Argentina, and afterwards he sent a sent a complimentary letter of thanks to the organizers”, says Tolmasquim. “In his diary, he wrote that he found the discussions rather unproductive, with very weak questions and observations from the participants.”

Moreover, the director of the Mast emphasizes that Einstein’s diary reveals some wear and tear in the course of his visit to Latin America. “You realize very quickly that he didn’t feel well in the heat of the tropics. He was also traveling alone and felt isolated. So much so, that at a given point, when he describes the ship in which he was traveling between Montevideo and Rio, you get the impression that he couldn’t stand it any more”, the researcher reports.

This did not mean that Einstein failed to poetic on his visit to Brazil. In 1925, the English expedition that had proved the Theory of Relativity in the interior of Ceará in 1919 was already world famous and, of course, had great repercussion with the Brazilian press. “When Einstein arrived in Brazil, physician Aloísio de Castro expressed how much the Brazilian population was proud of the expedition to Sobral”, says Tolmasquim. Kindly, Einstein replied: ‘the idea that my mind conceived was proven in the sunny sky of Brazil”.

Without a doubt, the 1919 expedition collaborated towards the consolidation of Einstein’s fame at the effusive beginning of the 20th century, in which the means of communication made a great contribution to the propagation of the Theory of Relativity. “For a long time, Einstein dedicated himself to analyzing the possible deviation of a beam of light when passing close to a large mass, like the Sun. In 1915, with his Theory of General Relativity, he foresaw the deviation of light, caused by the deformation of space and time in proximity to matter”, the researcher says. “Einstein also concluded that the theory could be tested during a total eclipse of the Sun: if he were right, stars that at that moment were almost behind the Sun could be seen, since their light would be diverted”, he explains.

Two geographical regions were chosen for proving the Theory of Relativity: Sobral and Príncipe, an island of the African coast. According to the astronomical and meteorological calculations, these places had the most favorable conditions for observing the phenomenon. The two expeditions were organized under the leadership of Englishman Frank Dyson, but only the Brazilian one had conclusive results, as the African climate of the day of the eclipse make observation difficult. “The National Observatory also took part in the expedition and gave the English commission support, but its interest was concentrated on other aspects of the eclipse”, Tolmasquim says.

According to the researcher, Einstein’s visit to the tropics did not change the reality of science in the region. It did, though, make a large contribution to publicizing the new scientific ideas in the period. “Einstein also proved to be a good observer from the ethnographic point of view. When to get to know about the works of Marshall Rondon with the Brazilian indigenous communities, he went so far as to write to the Nobel committee to suggest a possible indication of Rondon for the Nobel Peace Prize”, says Tolmasquim. The letter did not result in anything, but without a doubt it showed one more facet of Einstein’s scientific and human sensitivity.

Einstein and the city: Mutual creations

Luiz Roberto Alves

“A powerful syntax has legitimated history, knowledge, payer and the articulated flow of introspection. The future has its own specific grammar.”
George Steiner

The city of Berne did not disappoint. On the entry ticket for the exhibition on its illustrious adoptive son, Albert Einstein, it had the unforgettable formula E = mc² printed. Mass and energy both to understand the theory of its citizen of 1905 and the practice of urban management in those days. In the city museum, on the banks of the icy Aare, the display that began on April 15, 2005, is being extended until October, in the certainty of growing public and publicity. The Swiss capital not only feels it has the right to gather together fundamental documents about and by the physicist-polytechnician and young worker in the municipal intellectual property section, but also makes explicit an important urban reference, that is, its citizens, illustrious or not, invent and reinvent themselves in the urban dynamics. In the same way, they could stagnate in a forgotten and misgoverned city.

Einstein’s life and work, exquisitely opened up to the eyes, the hands and the heart in their movement of images, blend with the Bernese urbanity around the annus mirabilis of 1905. On the same floor of the museum in which his life as a student, friend and lover is detailed, a broad tableau of working women and their children in the Berne of the end of the 19th century signposts the urban transformations. Einstein is living in a city in mutation. In it, he draws up basic texts on the Theory of Special Relativity and he prepares the movements of the restless spirit that lead to Berlin, to the 1922 Nobel and to the polemical American retreat.

The multicultural society of a hundred years ago, endowed with a liberal education and stimulus for learning and work, is relived in the memory of the humanist physicist. The recent exhibition spreads over the gardens and various floors of the building located in the Helvetiaplaz equipment, documentary material and contraptions for the invention and imagination of people, in particular of the children and adolescents. In the same way it makes you see that the young student who looks for his first job in Berne does so because he believes in the city. Between 1890 and 1910, Berne went from 48 to 117 thousand inhabitants. It builds bridges, organizes housing projects, expands public education and innovates in the science-technology duo. The very museum of the city was constructed between 1892 and 1894. One is used to saying that in those days the young Helvetic State attracted many intellectuals from the north and many manual workers from the south. At the intersection of these social players, it defined its urban dynamics. The exhibition suggests that in now way should the city’s organization by class be forgotten, seeing that it shows Einstein’s salary and compared it with the wages of the manual workers.

The young scientist was earning 3,500 francs a month, while a couple of workers in civil construction would receive, together, far less than 2 thousand. It is noted in a curious description that to buy 1 kilo of sugar, Einstein would work 17 minutes; at his side, the couple of worker would spend 38 minutes of their work effort to acquire the sugar. Accordingly, the questions of physics and the time-space interplay must have a lot to do with the daily sugar, which has to do with hard human work. As we know, at the beginning of the 20th century, the young Albert Einstein was issuing opinions at the local city hall on proposals for establishing patents for inventions in the field of physics. In those days, he was married to Mileva Maric, a scientist. Although he was reserved and with limited friendships, around the table with sausages, tea, cheese and fruit, he would gather the small band of fans of physics, music and philosophy. Called the Olympic Academy, the group, along with its all night-long digressions, went so far as to construct a potentiometer, said never to have been used.

Indeed, Einstein’s Switzerland has been establishing itself as from the federative constitution of 1874. The defense of its supposed neutrality made the effective values of the confederation be forgotten in the European scenario of the time: intercultural space, with differentiated education, plural forms of religiosity and capacity for attracting innovations. That is why the Einstein family moves from Ulm, Germany, where he was born – 1879 – the boy his mother considered very big and gawky, to Munich, then Italy and Aarau, Switzerland. Albert, held to problematic and questioning at the catholic school in Munich, often not very bright in the view of a rigid and syllabus-bound school, suffers a setback at the first attempt, but enters the famous Polytechnic Institute of Zurich in 1896. There follow other stumbles in the attempt to be a professor. As a Swiss citizen, he becomes a technician and from then on helps decisively to recreate our physical and political world.

The exhibition fills the eyes of children, adolescents and adults, since it creates relationships between the theories and the day-to-day of the citizen. A display for the families of the city. In which the city is also a historical subject. What one sees in the completeness of the display is the scenario of the city transformed into memory and phenomena of the day-to-day. The life of the scientist, of the worker, of the citizen, who would cross the Kirchenfeld bridge on foot and would carry on to work, who would spend 18 minutes of time to take home a kilo of sugar, who used the money of the Nobel Prize to buy some houses Zurich and to arrange for month payments for the children he had with Mileva. Who was educated as a humanist observing the dangerous European scene that was en route to the two world wars. Who took up the political integrity of fame and stated with all the letters his horror of the growing construction of violence. Who immortalized speeches about the equality of rights and opportunities, on a par with the economic protection of people. Einstein, to the eyes of Berne, reinvented himself in the modernized city. Amongst light, velocity, time-space, philosophy and music the scientist sponsored what somehow Walter Benjamin meant with the dwelling of the city inside us. The fruits of dwelling and being dwelled in can only serve the world to the extent that they are adapted to the fate of what is local, what is political, the polis. From that point onwards, we may discuss and question globalization.

Luiz Roberto Alves is a professor at the Communications and Arts School of the University of São Paulo (ECA/USP) and currently a visiting researcher at the University of Florence, with the support of the CNPq.