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Einstein Exhibit Adds a Human Side to the Equation

Times Staff Writer

This is not the textbook Albert Einstein.

This lusty fellow was a draft-dodging bohemian with sweaty feet, a skirt-chasing cad and a security risk whose outspoken humanitarian politics filled a 1,500-page FBI dossier.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Dec. 06, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 06, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 6 inches; 248 words Type of Material: Correction
Einstein -- A photograph of Albert Einstein published in Sunday’s Section A incorrectly credited Agence France-Presse. The photo should have been credited to the California Institute of Technology.

An amateur violinist, he set space, time, matter and energy dancing to his own tune. And with a two-page letter in 1939, he launched the nuclear arms race, yet he also set a standard for moral responsibility that scientists today still emulate almost 50 years after his death.

A sometimes startling portrait emerges from a major retrospective on this pivotal scientist of the 20th century organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Skirball Center in Los Angeles.

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The exhibit, which opened last month in New York and comes to Los Angeles in 2004, highlights the challenge of restoring humanity to an iconic figure at the center of perhaps the most far-reaching intellectual and scientific revolution of modern history.

And on Saturday, the crowd waiting to enter the exhibition at the American Museum on Central Park was as thick as the holiday throngs awaiting entry to FAO Schwarz on 5th Avenue.

For the first time, Einstein’s original letters, manuscripts and memorabilia have been pulled together. The result is sharply at odds with Einstein’s popular image as a gentle, mental giant crowned by a halo of frizzy hair.

“He was a skirt-chaser; he had mistresses; he cheated on his wives,” exhibit curator Michael Shara said. “He also is the person who more than any other physicist -- more than any other scientist -- taught us that scientists have enormous social responsibilities.”

Shara, an astrophysicist who studies stellar evolution, is not content simply to revise Einstein’s public image. He is also determined to teach Einstein’s physics to the millions of people expected to tour the exhibit over the next three years.

“I want them to come away with the core of his science,” Shara said, “with the essence of special relativity and of general relativity. The core can be explained in 10 minutes to an attentive 10-year-old.”

Even so, Shara spent three years organizing the exhibit.

The result is a clever science lesson encompassing 7,000 square feet of gallery space, sugar-coated with scandal and seasoned with controversy. It combines interactive exhibits with intriguing personal documents from the Einstein archive at Hebrew University.

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When Saturday’s visitors stepped through the exhibit’s double doors, they found themselves distorted by a black hole -- an effect created with fish-eye lenses and projectors to demonstrate the gravitational “lensing” effect predicted by Einstein. “This is my space-time reality,” an elderly man murmured ruefully as he watched his bald spot expand to encompass a galaxy.

They had entered Einstein’s world, where space has hills and valleys; where time travels at different speeds; where energy and mass are interchangeable.

“I’m not sure I understand it all at all,” Luke Keller, 22, from Iowa City, Iowa, said after watching light pulses in an exhibit illustrating Einstein’s ideas of relativity. “But it is not as abstract as you might think.”

For Shara and the exhibit designers, however, the real proof is in the mind of a child.

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Joshua Littman, 10, from Greenwich, Conn., spent nine minutes Saturday studying one interactive exhibit on Einstein’s revolutionary formulation of mass and energy: E=mc2.

“He is a very bright young man,” said his grandfather, Stanley Darer, 68, who brought the boy to the exhibit. “With a 10-year-old, you just want to plant seeds; then you have to see where they grow.”

This seed began to sprout almost instantly.

Asked about Einstein’s equation, Joshua, in Harry Potter glasses and a rumpled red school jersey, did not hesitate. “A kilogram of mass could make a light bulb burn for 30 million years,” he said.

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Aaron Deutsch, 11, visiting with his family from Princeton, N.J., where Einstein lived for many years, also pondered the scientist’s breakthrough. “It is a weird concept, almost too strange,” he said. “But I think I got it.”

Suzannah Fraker Graber, an 11-year-old visiting with her parents from Washington, DC., put her finger on the moral conundrum at the heart of the equation.

“E=mc2 helped people make the bomb,” she said. She frowned. “But Einstein wanted peace too.”

In a telling illustration, two letters that launched the modern world are displayed together.

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The first was written by Einstein in 1939 to alert President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the potential of nuclear weapons. Next to it is Roosevelt’s terse reply, assuring Einstein that the United States would devote all resources necessary to investigating the possibility.

With his few dozen well-chosen words, Einstein set in motion the Manhattan Project and the development of the first atomic bomb.

The exhibit’s paper trail begins with Einstein’s high school report card, which dispels the popular myth that he was something of a dunce in school. Einstein was a straight-A student with perfect scores in math and science. But he hated formal classes so much that he dropped science completely for a year after graduation.

Also on display is his Nobel Prize certificate and the letter offering him the presidency of the state of Israel. His FBI file takes up most of a wall.

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Stephen Mackler, a 60-year-old periodontist from Greensboro, N.C., lingered over the original 72-page manuscript of Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

“This was revolutionary. It still is revolutionary,” he said. “Now if I could combine this with dentistry, I’d really make a contribution ... brushing and flossing and relativity.”


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