Montana State University

Spring 2013

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Mountains and Minds

Illustration by Bridget Ashcraft

Why does Einstein still matter? May 07, 2013 by Anne Cantrell • Published 05/07/13

MSU community theorizes about the wide-ranging contributions of the physics genius

Albert Einstein died 58 years ago, but his legacy is resonant, and no place more than in the mountains of Montana.

That was particularly evident this spring when a variety of creative Montana State University faculty and staff members saluted the renowned physicist's wide-ranging legacy with a series of events, "Celebrating Einstein."

The celebration was a cavalcade of offerings that not only focused on science, but also on art and creativity.

The MSU Symphony Orchestra performed a commissioned musical composition to provide true sounds of gravitational waves. The Headwater Dance Company acted out a lecture. Through the use of light and shadows, an art installation enabled individuals to feel as though they were in the midst of a black hole. A new film explored Einstein's rare talent for imaginatively exploring math, matter and metaphor. And, the President's annual Fine Art Series focused on "The art of science: The science of art" in connection with the celebration.

It's fitting for the university to celebrate Einstein because he represents an important link between art and science, according to MSU physics professor Nicolas Yunes, organizer of the Einstein event.

"Einstein thought of physics creatively," Yunes said. "His ideas seemed wacky at times and required an artistic leap, but they changed our understanding of modern physics."

Yunes received a coveted Einstein Fellowship from NASA and conceived of a multi-disciplinary Einstein festival several years ago when pondering gravitational waves, a consequence of Einstein's theory of General Relativity, and what they might sound like when played by a real orchestra. The festival became a reality at MSU when Yunes collaborated to stage the series of events with faculty and staff from MSU's College of Letters and Science, College of Arts and Architecture, College of Engineering, Creative Research Lab, and Extended University. Grants from the National Science Foundation and NASA's Montana Space Grant Consortium, together with support from other university offices, helped fund the project.

The ultimate goal of "Celebrating Einstein" is to stimulate kids' interest in physics and math, he said.

"If we can't excite the next generation of scientists in the U.S., we will fall behind in the world," Yunes said. "To move technology and science forward, we need to get kids excited."

A few members of MSU's faculty and staff discuss why Einstein still matters.



Dennis Aig

Dennis Aig, film
Einstein explored through math and physics the universe no one could see. He artfully described what his equations and imagination told him was there as he sought a fundamental order and elegance.  He was the heir not only of Newton but also of Da Vinci, and the father of the two major branches of modern physics, although he resisted categorization.  He remained the consummate rogue outlaw, pushing boundaries just far enough to keep moving forward without winding up in an intellectual or academic prison. Were he alive today, he would be a reclusive but legendary video game designer.




Jason Bolte

Jason Bolte, music
Why does Einstein still matter to musicians and listeners? Only one word is needed to answer this question: time. Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity leads us to explore the way humans measure time in relation to each other, as well as how we perceive and experience it. Einstein's theories concerning time invite musicians to explore how perceived time can be affected, molded and shaped by music and sound. We only need to listen to the vast variety of music today to hear these effects. From Minimalism to electronic dance music like Dubstep, musicians, composers, and performers are continuing to explore and affect the listener's perceived sense of time.




Joey Key

Joey Key, physics
Albert Einstein's elegant Theory of General Relativity predicts that accelerating mass produces gravitational waves. These waves, ripples in the fabric of space and time, travel at the speed of light. They carry information about the systems that create them, including super-massive black hole binaries in the centers of galaxies. We have observed star systems losing energy exactly at the rate Einstein predicted for the production of gravitational waves, but we have yet to catch an elusive gravitational wave signal. The first detection is likely to come when an advanced detector turns on in the next five years. This moment will usher in the era of gravitational wave astronomy, and the new observations and discoveries will revolutionize our understanding of the universe. Einstein and his ideas continue to inspire scientists and philosophers as we strive to answer the big questions about our universe and our place in the cosmos.



David Lageson

David Lageson, geology
Einstein still matters because, more than ever, science matters in our modern world. Our survival as a species depends upon our ability to better understand the natural world that we inhabit, so that we can make informed decisions that will not adversely affect future generations living on this fragile planet. Geology traditionally focuses on one aspect of the collective Earth System, the geosphere, but today we recognize that the Earth System is better understood as an integrated, interactive and dynamic exchange of energy and matter involving the geosphere + hydrosphere + atmosphere + biosphere + anthroposphere. The principles and laws of physics and chemistry pervade every aspect of our modern understanding of Earth System Science--most certainly the work of Albert Einstein. Einstein gave us the "glasses" to see our place in the universe more clearly than ever before. To quote Einstein, "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible." Our greatest gift as a species is our ability to comprehend the world and universe around us and Einstein's work is still opening new doors of understanding. What a gift he gave us!



Sara Mast

Sara Mast, art
Einstein said of himself: "I'm enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge." Though it appears that he did not appreciate the revolution in the arts that was taking place all around him as he was making a revolution in science, there are distinct parallels in the art and science of his time. Einstein proposed his special theory of relativity in 1905, the year that Cézanne died. Both men shifted the Newtonian paradigm and came to radically new conclusions about space, time and light in art and science. Each inextricably altered our views of how to perceive objective reality.

Einstein also said: "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer as good as dead..." Artists embrace the sense of wonder that Einstein prized so highly, and the concept of pursuing one's intuition as a means of 'coming to know' the mysterious bridges science and art in a way that few scientists have been able to do in our highly technological era. Einstein's creative process continues to demonstrate that nothing works in isolation, and that relationship, in both art and science, is essential to see things as a whole.



Michael Reidy

Michael Reidy, history
As a historian of science, Einstein matters to me, partly, because of the way he approached physics. His work is logically rigorous, mathematically simple, and aesthetically elegant. The mind-blowing consequences are largely responsible for the revolution of modern physics. Even more important for me is Einstein the man. He loved the spotlight and cultivated his own fame. The cultural resonance of his zany character brought a rich, human component to science. He was politically engaged, socially conscious, and extremely idealistic. He truly believed that knowledge could overpower violence, that more understanding could end world conflicts. Because of him, we view physics, and the modern physicist, in an entirely different way.



Michael Sexson

Michael Sexson, English
What is not in doubt is that Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka lived in Prague during the years 1910-12.  If we believe Einstein's successor to the Prague Physics Chair, the two actually met and talked at the Café Louvre. What they discussed, if indeed they met at all, has never been revealed. A story has circulated for many years that Einstein returned a book written by Kafka lent him by the esteemed German writer Thomas Mann with the remark "I couldn't read it for its perversity. The human mind isn't complicated enough." I like to think that the book the great riddle-solver borrowed (if indeed he did) contained the following parable of Kafka's:

....a man once said: If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid of all your daily cares.
....Another said: I bet that is also a parable.
....The first said: You have won.
....The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.
....The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.

Einstein matters today. After all, who else would we conjure up to ask to solve this most perverse of riddles from the most perverse parabolist?



Greg Young

Greg Young, music
Einstein has become part of our culture. Make a simple reference to ideas that came from a clerk sitting alone in a Swiss patent office, and everyone knows whom we are talking about. Creativity is seen as one of Einstein's primary strengths, and it is becoming a critical component in the future success of the American economy. Interdisciplinary activities, including the fine arts, might help produce important discoveries in a variety of fields, rivaling the discoveries of Einstein. 



Nicolas Yunes

Nicolas Yunes, physics
Much of the science and technology that we take for granted today would be impossible without Einstein's contributions to science. In a single year, 1905, he discovered the photoelectric effect (the basis for solar energy and technology), Brownian motion (the basis of the atomic theory and statistical mechanics), and the theory of Special Relativity and energy-matter equivalence (the basis for nuclear power). It took him 10 more years to create his masterpiece, the theory of General Relativity, which rebooted astrophysics and created cosmology. Even today's cell phones rely heavily on the use of the Global Positioning System, which would be horrendously inaccurate without General Relativity.

Einstein taught us that the universe is much more beautiful than we ever imagined and that science, and physics in particular, is an art rooted deeply in imagination and creativity. Both science and art strive to understand the world; we just use mathematics and logic instead of brushes and paint.