Einstein: The Man and The Genius

You Can See a Chalkboard Covered in Albert Einstein's Writing at Oxford University

When you go to The Louvre, you ask to see the Mona Lisa. When you go to the Museum of the History of Science, you ask to see a chalkboard. Though it's no artistic masterpiece, this particular chalkboard is well-worth gawking over. Those wiggly white marks were drawn by one Albert Einstein.

Masterpiece of Brilliance

Question: When is a blackboard not a blackboard? Answer: When it holds a left-behind relic of a world-famous genius. A blackboard displaying original writings of Albert Einstein is prominently displayed in the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford, and it is one of the museum's biggest draws. "It has become a kind of icon," historian and museum curator Dr. Jim Bennett said. "People come and look at it as though it was almost a quasi-religious sort of object because Einstein had such a standing in the modern world." The humble board is framed and elevated in the unlikely spot of the museum's basement.

Though blackboards are meant to be erased, reused, and written on over and over again, this one was salvaged immediately after Einstein wrapped up his 1931 lecture at Oxford University. Because the value in preserving this board was instantly apparent, we know that the physicist was already a world-renowned scientific celebrity at the time (1931 was well after he published his big-deal theory of general relativity in 1916, after all). Special shoutout to the unnamed Oxfordian who did some quick thinking to snatch that chalky display before the janitors wiped 'er clean.

What You Chalkin' Bout?

To the untrained eye, the white chalk marks on the near-holy board don't really mean much at first glance. But, c'mon, this is Einstein we're talking about. The preserved marks were from his 1931 Rhodes Memorial lecture series, and these particular scribbles lay out the most fundamental questions in cosmology.

As described by The Oxford Student: "the first three lines establish an equation for D, the measure of expansion in the universe, and the lower four lines provide numerical values for the expansion, density, radius, and age of the universe. According to the last line, the age of the universe is probably 10 (or 100) billions years, which is not only a seemingly incomprehensible figure but also an interesting estimate compared to today's consensus of 15 billion years." Whoa. Heavy. Even if you're in the know about cosmology, one part of his work may be throwing you off : the "L.J." at the bottom. That's because that's in German. Here, L.J. stands for "lictjahr," which translates to "light-year."

Besides what the board literally communicates, it's also a relic of the past and a specific point in time. The 1930s were an exciting time in science, as Einstein's theories of relativity were being combined with astronomical data to tackle these huge cosmological questions. People were aware of the significance at the time, too. Each of Einstein's three lectures was covered separately by the Times. And the chalkboard's importance only grows with time. "It's a little bit like having a saint's bones in a medieval cathedral," Stephen Johnston, assistant keeper at the museum, tells the BBC. "Einstein is a secular saint and people want to come and be in his presence. And the blackboard is a way of just being in the same space as Einstein."

To get a better understanding of everybody's favorite genius, check out the biography "Einstein: His Life and Universe" by Walter Isaacson. The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Einstein's Blackboard in Oxford's Museum of the History of Science

Written by Joanie Faletto September 16, 2017

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