Profs. go to work on the railroad

Train of thought Profs.

November 11, 2009 04:22
4 minute read.
professors trains 248 88

professors trains 248 88. (photo credit: Rafi Delaya)

Someone's been working on the railroad - and though he's not an engineer, he is a physicist. His students: commuters aboard the morning train from Modi'in to Tel Aviv. The unlikely subject: Albert Einstein's love life. It's part of a new weekly series of lectures by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, intended to convert daily commuting time into a productive educational experience. Commuters boarding in Modi'in, a city about half an hour from Tel Aviv by train, were informed last week that they were to be the guinea pigs for this experiment. Participants were asked to gather in one of the rail cars. It may not be the most optimal classroom, and not everyone really wants to be "back in school," but most folks seemed genuinely interested. The idea is dubbed "Scientists on the Trains," and its purpose is to expose the general public to the university. "Everyone in this car today is a lab mouse, and I am a guinea pig," Prof. Hanoch Gutfreund told his audience. "We have never done anything like this. I have never spoken to an audience in which some people were sitting with their backs to me. But we are hoping that in this way we, who are usually secluded at the university, will reach a wider public." It's not easy to give a 25-minute lecture, particularly to commuters on a fast-moving train. But the day's topic was juicy enough to generate interest, even from a captive audience: "The love letters between Albert Einstein and his two wives." Zooming past plodding traffic jams, passengers could ponder Einstein's theory of relative speed. Einstein, the wild-haired, Jewish German physicist, best known for his theory of relativity, bequeathed his love letters to the Hebrew University. Gutfreund, a former president of the university, is responsible for the letters. Gutfreund claims there was a direct correlation between Einstein's love affairs and his intellectual creativity. "The love letters between Albert Einstein and his first wife, Mileva, and the love letters to his second wife, Elsa, teach us about the emotional and intellectual development of the greatest scientist of the 20th century," Gutfreund said. "In later years, he wrote to Elsa almost every day when he was traveling away from home. Those were no longer love letters, but they are interesting because they convey his impression of the places he visited, from people he met to events that occurred around him." Amid the ticket collectors and exiting passengers, Gutfreund read from one of Einstein's letters: "My dear kitten, I just read a wonderful paper by Lenard on the generation of cathode rays. Under the influence of this piece I am filled with such happiness and joy that I absolutely must share it with you." According to Gutfreund, Einstein's mother disapproved of her son's relationship with Mileva, possibly because she viewed her as a country girl of lower status. Einstein eventually married Mileva after she became pregnant, and according to his letters, the young academic decided to take a job in 1902 as a clerk at the Swiss Federal Patent Office in Bern to support his young family instead of holding out for a more prestigious university job. It was during this period that he worked on his theory of relativity, quantum theory and statistical physics. Gutfreund speculated that the productiveness of these years could have been due to his relative isolation as a clerk. Reactions were mixed. "It's a great idea," said Barak Ben-Eliezer. "I missed the train at 8:43 and I get this lecture, and I love Einstein. Every morning I come to work by train, and so next time I hope there is another lecture." It was clear that the lecture series was not aimed at bringing in more passengers, but there were a few who took the special train on purpose. One was Rina Levy, a 72-year-old pensioner from Jaffa. "I didn't come for a college degree," Levy said. "I came to enjoy myself. A university professor and a train! What could be so bad?" The lectures are not expected to replace enrollment in university. "Lecturers should be in classrooms, they go better there," said Elon, 24, a university student. "I got to know a little of the personal life of Einstein. I wish I knew more of his work and less on his personal life. It was quite an interesting lecture, although short... I would say it isn't the most optimal of classrooms. I don't know if it is the best way to learn, but it's not bad. If anyone didn't want to join in, they could go to the next car." In the next car sat two young men, surfboards and backpacks at their feet. They were heading for the airport to fly to the Philippines for a surfing vacation. "I never expected this on the train," said Shai as he tightened the straps of his pack. "To be honest, it seems interesting, but I have to get off in five minutes." Upon reaching Tel Aviv Central Savidor, Gutfreund appeared pleased with the experiment. "Sometimes you need gimmicks to make yourself heard and make yourself seen. But so what? So it is a gimmick, but the purpose and results are very appropriate," he said. "The plan is to have a list of researchers or scholars who are willing to do exactly what I did today and talk about different topics like climate change, sustainable agriculture, the working and functioning of the brain, biomedical research, and all that packaged between one train station and the next." Though the university does not plan to give any academic credit for attending the lectures, one thing is for certain: It will make the commute pass more quickly.

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