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Tropical relativity

Unpublished notes written by Albert Einstein in his visit to South America (including Brazil) in 1925 come out in a book

Well, it is all relative. “He is one of those supermen that for us, savages and illiterate inhabitants of these Brazils, exist only in monographs and in dictionaries, one of those predestined people who are not to be found in the indigenous fauna, and whose existence we go far as to doubt. I wanted an old-fashioned sage, a flesh and blood know-all on whose belly I could wreak some intimate flicks that would leave me the certainty of his erudite reality”, wrote, in 1925, journalist Jorge Santos, describing the effect that the interview with Albert Einstein, then on a visit to Brazil, had had on him. “Little understanding of science. I am a sort of white elephant, and, for me, they are all fools”, noted the scientist in his diary of this trip to South America (besides Brazil, he visited Argentina and Uruguay), made up of succinct comments like these, but very flavorsome for their acidity.

As can be seen in Einstein, o viajante da relatividade na América do Sul [Einstein, the traveler of relativity in South America], by Alfredo Tiomno Tolmasquim (launched by Vieira&Lent), which brings the whole story of the physicist’s tropical periplus and his hitherto unpublished diary, whose manuscript is kept at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The author is a professor at the Astronomy and Kindred Sciences Museum, in Rio de Janeiro, and a visiting researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, in Berlin. “These annotations constitute an intimate expression of his thoughts and sentiments, portraying his state of spirit at each moment. They help us to get to know a bit more the human side of someone that many thought to have a slice of divinity”, Tolmasquim explains.

When he was already an international celebrity for his Theory of Relativity, Einstein’s invitation to visit South America came originally from the University of Buenos Aires, in 1923, but it was only taken up two years later. Finding out about the forthcoming visit of the physicist from the papers of the Plate, rabbi Raffalovich, the leader of the Jewish community of Rio de Janeiro, soon understood that the possibility of extending the visit to Brazil would be a golden chance to improve the image of the Jews amongst the Brazilians.

With the assistance of academics from Rio, he managed to get Einstein to accept a stopover in the country. For the scientist, it was a valuable opportunity: an admirer of exotic cultures, Einstein was also an intransigent defender of a Hebrew University and of Zionism. The chance of helping the local colony seemed ideal to him, and on March 21, 1925, he docked in Rio, on board the Cap. Polônio. In a brief interview, he advised the more dauntless that relativity had not widened the horizons of science, but, on the contrary, had restricted them, clarifying that the erroneous idea of the infinite had been replaced by that of a limited universe.

Brazil also took on for him another charm: after all, it had been the observation of a solar eclipse in Sobral (besides Ilha do Príncipe, in the Gulf of Guinea), Ceará, made in 1919 by an expedition from the Royal Astronomical Society, that helped to prove his new and polemical theory. Actually, the physician had not been so enthusiastic as all that with the observation made in Brazil, as it had been done in an inefficient manner, but even so, at the request of Assis Chateaubriand, he elegantly wrote a note: “The question that my mind formulated was answered by the sunny sky of Brazil”.

By the firmament it may well be, since the state of the sciences in the country, at that time, left much to be desired. There was just one incipient university in Brazil, the one in Rio de Janeiro, from 1920, and the few researches carried out over here had absolutely practical ends. Which only augments the merit of men like Amoroso Costa, who, six days after the announcement of the theory in London, was capable of writing an article about it in O Jornal [The Journal], explaining Einstein’s discovery.

In general, though, what did indeed impress the scientist was the local nature. “A delicious ethnic mixture on the streets. Portuguese-Indian-Black at all the crossroads. As spontaneous as plants, subjugated by the heat.” “The visit to the Botanical Garden was for me one of the greatest happenings that I have had through visual impressions.” It was not all flowers: “The European needs greater metabolic stimulus than this eternal hot-humid atmosphere offers. What are natural beauty and wealth worth? I think that the life of a European wage-slave may yet be richer, above all less utopian and nebulous. Adaptation probably only possible with renouncement of agility”, he writes in his diary.

In the meantime, he goes to Argentina and to Uruguay, but returns to Brazil in May to stay one week. He gives lectures (in general, packed with many rubbernecks and few sages) and visits, like a good tourist, Copacabana and the Sugar Loaf (“a giddy trip over wild forest on a steel cable, and, on top, magnificent interplay and alternation of mist and sun”). In the press, the “everything is relative” jargon comes to explain everything from the cost of living to soccer, not forgetting a slogan for a lottery shop. At the end of the trip, the genius gave vent: “Free at last, although more dead than alive”. You do not have to be a sage to understand.