culture and society Archive

Genius – a missed opportunity

Posted April 30, 2017 By admin

The ten part National Geographic drama of Albert Einstein started last Monday (in New Zealand).

I expected to have mixed reactions – and I did. There were some positives and some negatives. On the whole it was a credible drama, but not brilliant.

Science is hard to portray in drama and this production struggled. On the whole, gimmicky portrayals of sunbeams and visual tricks of space left me somewhat cold, as did the rather clunky insertion of scientific language in the middle of everyday conversations, the worse of which was the gratuitous sex scene at the beginning. I get why the makers did it – shock the viewer at the start, strip away the old world view of Einstein with a sexier more true to life rendition of him and his affairs – but really – the first scene of him in the drama is him shagging his secretary against the blackboard and wiping his equations off the back of her dress afterwards? Please. For me, the weaving of the science into the everyday needed more work and better crafting.

Where the drama worked better was when it stuck to the drama. Jonny Flynn’s portrayal of the young Einstein was excellent; in fact, in many ways was more convincing than that of Geoffrey Rush’s portrayal of the older Einstein, which to me appeared rather hackneyed.

The first episode of Genius left me feeling as though it was a bit of a missed opportunity. The telling of the science and the real life older Einstein could have been more nuanced, which would have made the show more seamless and more compelling.

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2016 – Forget Trump, it was Einstein’s year

Posted January 24, 2017 By admin

Somewhat predictably Time magazine named Donald Trump as their person of the year. I understand the reasoning, but cannot agree. The year undoubtedly belonged to Albert Einstein, but to understand why, we need to understand the deep importance of his theories and the effect they have on our everyday lives.
Two stories stand like book ends to the year; seemingly unconnected, but that is wrong. They are connected by the work of Albert Einstein.
The first was the announcement in February of the discovery of Gravitational Waves. Confirmation from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) of the capture of the signal on Sept. 14, 2015, caused quite a stir worldwide. Some described it as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the last 100 years. Why? In essence, it gives us the ability of seeing the universe in a whole new way. Suddenly we are not only able to see the Universe, but now hear it. Whereas before we were deaf to space, now we can hear its music. And what will this mean? Ultimately it will take us all the way back to the start – back to the big bang. The very act of creation may be opened to us.
The second story was the December story that Uber was to use driverless cars in San Francisco. To be fair, it was short-lived. California officials ordered a shutdown after concerns of the cars running red lights. However, surely this is the thin end of the wedge. Driverless cars are here to stay and are set to revolutionise the transportation industry, the insurance industry and all service industries that employ drivers. We are on the verge of a huge shift in how we use the car.
What links these two stories? The General Theory of Relativity (GTR). Einstein’s 1916 masterpiece. Gravitational waves were predicted by Einstein as a consequence of the theory. No theory – no gravitational waves. And for driverless cars? One of the essential elements of the whole system is GPS. Without it, there could be no driverless cars and without the GTR there could be no GPS system. The network of satellites that provide GPS have to constantly take account of the effects of the GTR. If the adjustments were not made then every day the GPS system would be thrown out by miles, rendering it useless.
These stories are a reminder of Einstein’s legacy and our dependence on it. Long after The Don has gone, Einstein will still be influencing and remaking our world and our understanding of the universe. So whilst today’s news cycle may be dominated by Trump, when we look back to 2016 in a hundred years time it will be Einstein people will talk about.

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Einstein’s Practical Doctorate

Posted October 31, 2015 By admin

As November 2015 approaches and the celebrations of 100 years since Albert Einstein’s publication of The General Theory of Relativity kicks into full gear, it is easy to forget his other great achievements. This year also marks the 110th anniversary of Einstein’s so called “miracle year” of 1905 when he published papers on the following subjects:

  • The photoelectric effect
  • Size and number of atoms in a solution
  • Brownian motion
  • Special relativity and a subsequent further paper on the same subject and introducing the small matter of e=mc2.

The least celebrated of these great papers is the second in respect of the size and number of atoms; however, although maybe the least well known by the public it holds an Einstein record and has important influences for a number of industries.

The paper, entitled “A New Determination of molecular Dimensions”, (subject to some minor improvements) was the paper that Einstein submitted to the University of Zurich on the 20th July 1905 for his Doctorate, which he was to receive on the 15th January 1906.

What the paper described was a technique for calculating the size and number of molecules (atoms) in a solution. He did this in a mathematical calculation for the behaviour of sugar molecules in a solution and how this affects the measurable properties of the solution. He was finding a new way of getting results using liquids alone as against previous methods of obtaining the size and number of molecules in a solution from the kinetic theory of gasses.

Why should we be interested in this subject? Well, there are three reasons:

  • It was the work for which Einstein became a Doctor, so it is of biographic interest.
  • It is the most cited paper from Albert Einstein. What does this mean? In 1979 ( to mark the centenary of Einstein’s birth) researchers carried out a survey of citations (in papers published between 1961 and 1975) of all science papers published before 1912. Of the top eleven, four were by Einstein and the top was this paper.
  • It has widespread applications where the suspension of particles in liquids is used from industries as varied as the dairy industry, the study of pollution and the behaviour of liquid cement.

This paper is another example of the way in which Albert Einstein affects our world, in this case on a practical and important level.

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Einstein Special – Scientific American

Posted September 27, 2015 By admin

As I have written about several times this year, 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the first publication of The General Theory of Relativity and, as expected, the books and articles are coming thick and fast.


The latest contribution is a Scientific American special Issue: 100 years of General Relativity. Contributors include Brian Greene, Walter Isaacson, Lawrence Krauss and Corey S, Powell. There are familiar subjects: essays about the history of the publication, his importance, his personality and his mistakes. However, one article in particular caught my attention. It is called Relativity’s Reach and contains a map of Einstein’s influence. It’s premise is that many of the ideas at the limits of physics, such as M-theory and de Sitter universes rely on Einstein’s masterwork on gravity and the bending of space and time.


The article relies on the analysis of 2435 abstracts of 2014 physics papers for 61 keywords, each of which represents a research topic that has grown out of general relativity, which is then visually represented.. It leads to a visually interesting map and reveals the depths to which Einstein’s work influences current ideas at the cutting edge of physics. And remember, this is just his work on General relativity; it doesn’t touch his work on Quantum Theory and Special relativity.


For a complete list of the current works that Einstein’s work is the cornerstone for, you will need to see the article, but it includes: multiverse, accelerating universe, standard model, supersymmetry, cosmology, string theory, quantum gravity, dark matter and gravitational waves.


Einstein’s influence remains deep and persuasive. It not only underpins much of our daily lives through technology, but also the ideas at the very edge of our understanding about the universe and the world in which we live.

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Einstein Pot Pori

Posted June 27, 2015 By admin

At various times I like to take a look at how and where Albert Einstein is appearing in the news or media. It is an interesting snapshot of his enduring legacy and the continued interest in him and his scientific achievements.


In the past few weeks I have spotted and viewed the following. I’m sure there are many more and if you have seen any of interest, I’d be delighted for you to forward a link.


    1. In May, the World Science Festival held its annual festival. It featured this wonderful panel discussion hosted by Brian Greene entitled Reality beyond Einstein. It traversed the expanding universe, the Big Bang, inflation, dark energy, black holes, string theory and many more subjects, all of them arising from Einstein’s General Theory of relativity.
    2. Science Vine in The Guardian published “How do solar panels work?” It is a concise and easy to understand explanation of the science and technology behind sonar panels. As the article points out, Albert Einstein provided the real breakthrough for modern photovoltaic technology in 1905, when he described the nature of light and used this to explain the nature of the photoelectric effect. It is a concise explanation of how important Einstein is to solar energy and one of the possible answers to future energy needs and sustainable energy production.
    3. The Guardian also published an article “Five reasons we should celebrate Albert Einstein”, by the writer Steven Gimbel, who has recently published a new biography “Einstein: His Space and Times”. I particularly enjoyed his fifth reason – His meaning as a cultural symbol of modernity and his conclusion that Einstein “gives us pride in ourselves as individuals who can make a difference; we can revel in free thought, but there is no need in doing so to reject our shared humanity”.
    4. In the “All About History Annual Volume Einstein appears in the 50 Events that changed the World (1905 – the laws of physics rewritten) and 21 Discoveries that changed the World (E=mc2. The equation that rewrote physics). Neither articles are in depth and neither list is numbered, but they are interesting in how his discoveries are viewed as part of our history.
    5. And finally, from the Perimeter Institute for theoretical physics a talk by Jurgen Renn of the Max Plank Institute entitled “The genesis and renaissance of relativity”. I wonderful talk on Einstein’s discovery of the theory and its underpinning of all of our astrophysics and cosmology.


In some respects it is unsurprising that this year there is attention on Albert Einstein, it is, of course, the 100th anniversary of the publication of his General Theory of Relativity. However, it is inescapable to see the sheer range and breadth of the ways in which he continues to appear in our culture. Einstein continues to be the torch bearer and touchstone of the general public’s engagement with science and the way science shapes our technology and society.

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