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Culture

Exploring Einstein's Laboratory

An exhibition organized by the Max Planck Institute in Berlin pays tribute to the scientist 100 years after he published his theory of relativity and 50 years since his death. But the show goes much further than that.

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He has become a cult figure, not only in the world of science

Along Berlin’s boulevard Unter den Linden, a series of bright red letters "E" have been installed. They represent "Einstein," "Energy" or "E=mc²" in places associated with the scientist's life in the German capital.

These red letters are intended to draw attention to one of the highlights of Germany's current Einstein Year: the exhibition "Chief Engineer of the Universe." It introduces visitors to various competing views in understanding our world.

For the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, which organized the show, Albert Einstein's key role in shaping the world view on fundamental questions of the nature of space, gravitation and the invisible forces of magnetism, radiation and electricity makes him the "Chief Engineer of the Universe."

The feel of a modern laboratory

The Institute's Professor Jürgen Renn does not intend to relate a hero's tale, though. He says the exhibition "is more an exercise in presenting the adventure of scientific research and its history in an attractive and understandable style."

Albert Einstein - Ingenieur des Universums

The exhibit wants to create a certain atmosphere

"Sure, that's a challenge," said Renn. "We've tried to create an atmosphere, which can also be grasped aesthetically." He said the organizers had created something like a giant modern laboratory.

"Entering that, the visitor feels the bustle, but also the inquisitiveness that drives these scientists," said Renn. "These are emotional qualities, which we have tried to put into practice."

More than just Einstein's face

The exhibition is a giant laboratory on three floors. Historic experiments have been set up with original tools. Curious views into the sub-atomic world are made accessible in dark studios. Einstein himself explains scientific advances in original film footage.

For the show, the institute collected more than 1,000 exhibits from around the world. Contemporary documents are on display, some of which have never been published before.

At one point in the exhibition, the audience is suddenly blinded by bright light and left alone in a white room. Exhibition organizer Stefan Iglhaut explained that this is about looking at the world in a different way.

Albert Einstein

This is probably the most famous photograph of Einstein

"I think this is an unusual way to make Einstein understandable and interesting," said Iglhaut. "We're not only explaining his theories, but also finding metaphors and pictures which impress our audience. We want them to take home more than just Einstein's face."

Everybody knows his face: the weird old guy with the gray mop of hair sticking his tongue out at the world. But the exhibition communicates the historical context of Einstein's influence and the special challenges which arose for him as a human being and as a scientist.

A desk with a history

Einstein's life is illuminated against the background of the political and social upheavals of his time. Visitors follow him from his childhood in the middle-class world of the family electrical business, through his time in Switzerland, to the tense world of the Jewry caught between anti-Semitism and new Zionist beginnings.

In 1933, Einstein's books were burnt by Germans just outside the museum. In the same year, Einstein emigrated to the United States, where he experienced "a tense atmosphere of fortified democracy and political mistrust," said Renn.

Renn's favorite exhibit is Einstein's desk. "He had to leave it behind in Berlin when the Nazis forced him to emigrate," he said. "The French ambassador helped him to have it transferred to his office in Princeton. Since then, this is the first time this very moving piece of furniture with its dramatic history has made it back to Germany."

It's rather unspectacular: a simple, fairly small wooden desk. But here Einstein worked to change the world. In 1905, his "Special Theory of Relativity" revolutionized our understanding of space and time, while E=mc² became the most famous equation in physics.

Einstein succeeded in moving young and old

Einstein once said it was important to never stop asking. "One cannot help but marvel reverently at the secrets of eternity, life and the wonderful structure of reality," the famous scientist said.

Einstein Ausstellung: Unsichtbare Kräfte

Visitors can also see Einstein's impact on the world today

Throughout the exhibition, more than 50 multimedia stations encourage visitors to ask their own questions.

It concludes with Einstein's impact on today's science and culture. Twenty-four seats are arranged along a white conference table. One after another, today's leading scientists give their views on the "secrets of eternity, life and the wonderful structure of reality."

Einstein, his colleagues and this exhibition have succeeded in moving young and old.

The success of this exhibition is that it maintains a balance between historical reflection on successive changes in world views, information on the life and work of Albert Einstein -- the "Chief Engineer of the Universe" -- and how these themes relate to challenges that we face today.

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