Reviews

Sunday, December 01, 2002
Exhibits

Einstein
American Museum of Natural History, New York City
November 15, 2002-August 10, 2003


In his late years, Einstein boldly decried McCarthyism and promoted civil rights but floundered in his search for new scientific harmonies.
Photograph by Lotte Jacobi, courtesy of American Museum of Natural History.

At the heart of a magisterial new exhibit about Albert Einstein is a single piece of paper: the draft of a 1916 manuscript in which he outlined the details of his new general theory of relativity. In a letter sent a few months earlier to his friend Arnold Sommerfeld, Einstein described the raw, physically draining effort required to craft his intellectual masterpiece. "I have lived through the most exacting period of my life," he wrote. The product of that ordeal, shown in Einstein's own hand, conveys the pain and triumph of scientific discovery in a way no photograph or textbook ever could. Visitors need not understand the details of relativity to appreciate the mad grandeur of what Einstein had achieved: With nothing more than strokes of pen on paper, he had uncovered the true nature of gravity and explained the unseen structure of space itself.

Einstein's subsequent fame made him so familiar to us that, ironically, today we hardly know him at all. Our understanding of the man is colored by pop iconography: caricatures, truncated quotations, posters of him riding a bicycle or sticking out his tongue. These versions present a defanged Einstein, an absentminded genius framed by the legendary shock of white hair. Einstein himself contributed to this simplification. He capitalized on his widespread appeal to the general public, understanding that his fame allowed him a unique platform for expressing his scientific and social views. At the same time, he was reluctant to be memorialized, a reticence that probably helped the stylized images of him dominate after his death. Einstein insisted that his home near Princeton University not be turned into a tourist attraction; his papers are stored at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, carefully preserved but largely inaccessible.


Einstein's manuscript of a 1946 article on relativity includes his signature and the equation E=mc2.
Photograph courtesy of American Museum of Natural History.

The American Museum of Natural History's new exhibit is all the more welcome, therefore, for giving us Einstein in his totality. Amazingly, there has not been a full-scale museum show devoted to the man and his work since a 1979 installation at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.—and this latest examination far surpasses what came before. In keeping with current trends, it contains eye-catching graphics and clever interactive sections that portray the bending of light by gravity and decode the meaning of E=mc2. But most exciting are the artifacts themselves, many of them on public display for the first time.

Under the guidance of curator Michael Shara, the museum has assembled a treasure trove of Einstein's original manuscripts, photographs, letters, and personal effects. A display of Einstein's tobacco pipes and a love letter to his first wife, Mileva—they drifted apart and divorced in 1919—portray him on a human scale. His famous letter warning FDR that the Nazis might be attempting to build an atomic bomb appears next to the president's reply, the two shown side by side for the first and probably last time. (The FDR letter belongs to a separate presidential archive.) The exhibit details Einstein's support for both Zionism and peace between Arabs and Jews, as well as his opposition to Nazism and militarism alike. The contrasts show Einstein wrestling with social and political challenges every bit as complex as the ones in physics.

The exhibit also chronicles Einstein's struggles to build on the conceptual breakthroughs that came to him so early in life. Historians refer to 1905 as Einstein's annus mirabilis, the "miracle year," when he published his special theory of relativity, demonstrated direct evidence of the existence of atoms, and established the foundations of quantum physics—all at the age of 26. His 1916 general relativity manuscript essentially marked the end of his scientifically productive career. Yet he toiled on, spending the last three decades of his life searching for a unified field theory that would tie together gravity and light. A writing pad filled with equations from 1955, written shortly before his death, vividly documents this endless quest to uncover nature's hidden beauty and harmony.

Einstein sought revelation and repeatedly found it, penetrating to a deeper level of reality than anyone who came before. Encountering the human dimensions of his life only inspires a more profound, almost spiritual awe. The exhibit evokes a man who transcended his weaknesses, a prophet who followed a rocky path toward the scientific divine.


 
Books

The Lunar Men:
Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World

By Jenny Uglow
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30

Traveling anywhere after dark In 18th-century England could be a terrifying experience. The black of night concealed all manner of hazards, ranging from potholes that ripped the wooden wheels off horse-drawn carriages to highwaymen waiting to relieve hapless passersby of their money and their lives. As a result, nightlife was governed by lunar phases. Social gatherings were reserved for nights when the moon was a bright beacon in the sky.

So it happened that, from the 1760s through the 1780s, a group of science devotees in Birmingham, calling themselves the Lunar Society, convened on Monday nights closest to the full moon for informal discussions that ran the gamut from astronomy to zoology. Such intellectual clubs were common in Britain on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, but the Lunar Society stands out for the collective brilliance and accomplishments of its members. "Together," writes Jenny Uglow, "they nudge[d] their whole society and culture over the threshold of the modern, tilting it irrevocably away from old patterns of life towards the world we know today."

The core of the Lunar Society consisted of five men: Matthew Boulton, a manufacturer as well as an avid mineralogist and metallurgist; James Watt, the inventor of the modern steam engine; Erasmus Darwin, a physician who dabbled in evolutionary theory more than 80 years before his grandson Charles published On the Origin of Species; Josiah Wedgwood, whose manufacture of pottery created the industrial model for the next century; and Joseph Priestley, the chemist who isolated oxygen and first published its discovery.

At a typical Lunar Society gathering, children bounded in and out as the men and their wives shared prodigious servings of capons and fish, great wedges of Stilton and cheddar, and piled-high platters of pies and syllabubs. But as soon as dinner was cleared away, the women and children disappeared, and out came the instruments, models, minerals, and machines. Wedgwood might describe his latest attempts to fuse various quartz samples. Watt might unroll a drawing of a steam-engine condenser. Invariably, the men talked late into the night, then headed home in full moonlight, ruminating on new ideas to test in their workshops.

At one meeting in 1781, Priestley entertained his cohorts with an experiment that demonstrated that water is not an element but is instead composed of hydrogen and oxygen. Priestley was slow to recognize the importance of his experiment, but others rushed to reproduce and explain the results in print. Antoine Lavoisier won the race in 1783. In Uglow's view, the episode is indicative of the way nearly all science advances: "The progress of this vital discovery is like the flow of water itself, the accumulated knowledge building up, finding an entry, running down different channels and finally bursting out."
— Craig Canine


 
Toys

Come Fly Away
Playing with the laws of aerodynamics

By Hannah Hoag

Gliders
Xstream, available in 9-inch or 15-inch lengths: $12.95-$29.95
Wow Wee Power Air Surfer: $49.99


The IWA on the Xstream Glider's nose stands for Internal Wing Aircraft, a technology that generates impressive lift and thrust as air moves through the duct-shaped wings.
Photograph by Jens Mortensen
If you're the type who enjoys launching a paper airplane and watching how it bobs and weaves in the wind, you'll be blown away by the latest generation of toy gliders. The wing design of the Xstream Glider (www.iwatoyco.com) is so innovative that its pilot-inventor, Robert Carr, has received inquiries about possible military applications for an engine-powered version. The glider features three wings on each side of its fuselage, parallel surfaces that converge at the wing tips and dramatically increase the mass and velocity of airflow operating on those surfaces. The design has an astonishing effect on the glider's lift and thrust. A flick of the wrist can send the Xstream a distance of 60 yards and to a height of 75 feet. The Power Air Surfer, a radio-controlled bi-wing glider produced by Wow Wee (www.wowwee.com), comes with a remote control, a rechargeable battery, and an in-field recharger. The Power Air Surfer glider needs its motor to gain altitude, but at 40 feet you can cut the engines and watch the plane glide gracefully to earth.


 
Books

The Firefly Visual Dictionary
Jean-Claude Corbeil and Ariane Archambault
Firefly Books, $49.95

More than 6,000 objects from science, Technology, sports, art, and everyday life are cataloged and visually deconstructed in Corbeil and Archambault's splendid visual dictionary. Colorful diagrams with detailed labels reveal everything from the difference between a jackfruit and a horned melon to the inner workings of a single-lens reflex camera (below). But you'll also encounter objects you may not have known existed and learn new vocabulary to identify the objects or parts you never knew had a name—such as the wicket gate of a hydroelectric generator or the stratum spinosum of your own skin.
Photograph courtesy of Firefly Books Ltd.



— Maia Weinstock


 
Books

The Forgotten Woman of DNA
Who really discovered the double helix?

By Josie Glausiusz

Rosalind Franklin:
The Dark Lady of DNA
By Brenda Maddox
HarperCollins, $29.95


Photograph by Jens Mortensen
The grave site, in an old Jewish cemetery in northwest London, is marked by a simple stone slab, coated in grime and abandoned to neglect. The inscription on the tombstone reads in part: In Memory of Rosalind Elsie Franklin, Dearly Loved Elder _aughter of Ellis and M__iel Franklin. 25th July 1920-16th Ap__il 1958. Her Research and Disco_eries _n Viruses Remain of Las_in_ Benefit _o Mankind.

Even if the missing letters on Rosalind Franklin's tombstone were restored, her epitaph would be incomplete. Indeed, the sequence of three letters that define her legacy—DNA—were never there. And that is strange, because Franklin made what is arguably one of the seminal discoveries of 20th-century science: She found that DNA, a molecule that contains the alphabet of life, is a double helix. That crucial clue enabled molecular biologists James Watson and Francis Crick to construct their double-helix model. Yet she received little public recognition for this work and succumbed to ovarian cancer at age 37. Watson and Crick went on to claim the 1962 Nobel Prize.

Brenda Maddox's riveting biography restores Franklin to her rightful place in history. Born into a prominent Jewish banking family, Franklin grew up in London and studied physical chemistry at Cambridge University before departing in 1947 for a four-year stint in a government laboratory in Paris. There she used X-ray crystallography to explore the structural changes that occur when graphite forms in heated coal—work that proved vital to the atomic industry, which uses graphite to slow the rate of fission. In 1951 she took up a post at King's College, London, where she was encouraged to use similar X-ray techniques to investigate the structure of certain biological fibers then galvanizing intense interest: DNA.

Experiments conducted by Oswald Avery, an American bacteriologist, had already revealed that DNA is the agent of heredity. Yet no one knew exactly how DNA passed on its genetic message, since its molecular structure remained a mystery. X-ray crystallography—bombarding crystals of DNA with X rays and studying the pattern produced as they scatter back—was one route to discerning its form. For two years, Franklin photographed DNA from every angle, using a special tilting microcamera she designed and assembled, taking hundreds of shots, then calculating the distances between its atoms. She discovered that DNA existed in two forms. When dry, the fiber was short; when wet, it was long and thin—the form in which it opens up to replicate itself. This structure, the photos showed, was clearly a helix.

While Franklin was conducting these experiments in her basement lab, Watson and Crick were busy, not far away in Cambridge, building models of the molecule. Yet they lacked key data that would enable them to complete it. When Franklin's colleague Maurice Wilkins borrowed the best of her X-ray images and showed it, without her consent, to Watson, he immediately saw that she had found an essential piece of the puzzle. Within weeks, he and Crick had cracked the genetic code, publishing their results soon thereafter in Nature in 1953. Although Franklin published her own results in the same issue, it was Watson, Crick, and Wilkins who would share the Nobel Prize four years after Franklin's death.

The Nobel is never awarded posthumously, so no consideration was given to Franklin's work on the double helix. But as Maddox points out, Franklin never had her eyes on the prize in any case. After leaving King's in 1953, she moved to London's Birkbeck College and used X-ray crystallography to deduce the internal structure of the tobacco mosaic virus. She discovered that its genetic material, RNA, was deeply embedded in and protected by proteins, which enabled this virus, as well as others such as polio, to smuggle their genes inside a host cell and cause infection.

Despite Franklin's considerable scientific achievements, Watson, in his book The Double Helix, merely caricatured her as a dowdy, bad-tempered harridan. It seemed vindictive, especially because Franklin was no longer alive to defend her reputation. It was also, as Maddox makes clear, a woefully distorted view of a woman whose friends knew her as vivacious and kind, as well as passionate about politics, books, theater, fashion, and travel. Above all, she was a dedicated scientist and superb experimentalist. "Miss Franklin," wrote a colleague in an obituary published in Nature, "was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook."


 


Science Best-sellers

1. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
By Steven Pinker,
Viking
2. The Hidden Connections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive, and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainabililty
By Fritjof Capra,
Doubleday
3. Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and The Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II
By Jennet Conant,
Simon & Schuster
4. Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller
By Gregg Herken,
Henry Holt
5. The Hunt for Zero Point: Inside the Classified World of Antigravity Technology
By Nick Cook,
Broadway
6. The Killers Within: The Deadly Rise of Drug-Resistant Bacteria
By Michael Shnayerson and Mark J. Plotkin,
Little, Brown & Co.
7. The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the World-Wide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth
By Jeremy Rifkin,
J. P. Tarcher
8. A New Kind of Science
By Stephen Wolfram,
Wolfram Media
9. The Universe in a Nutshell
By Stephen Hawking,
Bantam
10. Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding the Earth From Peril
By Timothy Ferris,
Simon & Schuster
* Source: Barnes & Noble Booksellers



 

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