Real Israel: Lecture circuit

Lecture circuit

professors trains 248 88 (photo credit: Rafi Delaya)
professors trains 248 88
(photo credit: Rafi Delaya)
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem is going places. In what appears to be a worldwide first, lecturers are leaving the Ivory Tower to work on the railroad. On November 4, in cooperation with Israel Railways, the university launched the first of its "Scientists on the Rails" program. Along with the train, commuters on the 9 a.m. from Modi'in to Tel Aviv's Savidor station could catch a lecture given by former HU president Prof. Hanoch Gutfreund. Gutfreund, usually stationed in Jerusalem, gave a repeat performance on the 10.26 a.m. from Savidor to Modi'in - undoubtedly signalling a departure from his regular lecture circuit. Since the Hebrew University is home to the repository of Albert Einstein's archives, it was perhaps natural that the great scientist, who was among the founders of the university, should feature as the first topic. Instead of listening to iPods or working on laptops, commuters could travel back in time to a period when Einstein revolutionized the way we understand the universe - using just pen and paper. However, while Einstein's Theory of Relativity lends itself to train travel, Gutfreund chose instead to get personal. His chosen topic was Einstein's love letters to his two wives. Gutfreund might not have a one-track mind but he is so passionate about the scientist that one HU official noted: "He'd go anywhere to speak about Einstein." That obviously includes off the beaten track for university lecturers. Gutfreund said that 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. In his letters to Mileva, herself a scientist, he discussed many aspects of his work along with more intimate matters. 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." It seems that Einstein's relations with women were no less complicated than his theories of physics, but possibly easier to convey in a 25-minute train ride." "We wanted something scientific but that would still speak to the wider population," said Hebrew University spokeswoman Orit Sulitzeanu of the choice for the pilot program. Sulitzeanu, who came up with the idea of giving scientists the unusual platform, said she had been looking for a way to help explain the importance of higher education. "The status of higher education and universities is eroding. Ordinary people - and even politicians - don't realize the importance of research and that it is a strategic national asset. We need to do something to change the misconceptions. "Usually people come to the university to hear lectures, but I thought it would be good if the university were to go to them," she explained. The train seemed to be a obvious choice because commuters tend to have a suitable socioeconomic background and lectures could be adapted to the length of the journey. Bus riders will have to carry on waiting for inspiration on their travels, it seems. The commuters were captivated but not captive. The lecture was confined to one carriage and just after the rush hour to avoid antagonizing people. Those who missed the train, as it were, can catch parts of the talk on YouTube via the Israel Railways Web site: While some passengers can be seen gazing out the windows, the lecture on the whole seems to have been a positive trip and some commuters confessed they came along just for the ride and lecture. Gutfreund quipped that while he was used to students walking out of lectures, this was the first time they'd done so because they'd reached their train station: "And I've never given a lecture before where half the people have their backs toward me." He admitted there had been some uncertainty about how the idea would be received but he was surprised at not only the amount of media interest but also the response from the passengers - "One woman told me she decided to stay on the train past her stop in order to hear the end of the lecture." He is now summing up his own learning experience and encouraging other lecturers to take the train. "Although it might not suit everyone, I can recommend it," he said. Sulitzeanu was also encouraged by the positive feedback and is working full steam ahead on the logistics of the rest of the series, which will continue throughout the coming year. The topic of the next lecture - time, station and platform to be announced - will probably be related to the theme of "Medicine on the Right Track." Neuroscientists Prof. Idan Segev and Eilon Vaadia are both willing to put their considerable brain power into the program. Passengers might not be able to earn a degree as they commute to work - job training is not the goal - but when it comes to broadening their general knowledge, the "Scientists on the Rails" project might be just the ticket.