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On Einstein, politics and relativity

Einstein shaking hands.
March 25, 2014

MIT professor David Kaiser explores ways Einstein’s theory of relativity is embedded in the political history of the 20th century during the annual Honors Program Lecture at 7:30 p.m. April 1 on campus in McDaniel Lounge.

The lecture, “Einstein’s Legacy: Studying Gravity in War and Peace,” is free and open to the public.

Most people think of Einstein as a loner, a scientist who steered clear of everyday hustle and bustle, choosing instead a life in the lab apart from society. But in fact Einstein was so engaged with politics, the FBI had him under surveillance and compiled a 2000-page secret file on his political activities.

Yet Einstein’s legacy, his theory of relativity – which remains the standard explanation for gravity and the basis for virtually all thinking about the cosmos – is also considered by many as separate and unrelated to the human dramas of political history.

“But was it so?” asks Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and senior lecturer in Physics at MIT.

Kaiser tackles this question as he looks at some of the surprising ways that general relativity was part of the politics of the 1900s during the lecture, which is co-sponsored by McDaniel’s Honors Program and Department of History.

Author of the award-winning book, “Drawing Theories Apart: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics,” Kaiser earned an A.B. in Physics at Dartmouth College and Ph.D.s in Physics and in the History of Science at Harvard. He is also author of “How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival,” (2011) and is working on three more books – two about gravity and one titled “American Physics and the Cold War Bubble.”

Kaiser’s historical research focuses on the development of Physics in the United States during the Cold War, looking at how the discipline has evolved at the intersection of politics, culture, and the changing shape of higher education. His Physics research focuses on early-universe cosmology, working at the interface of particle physics and gravitation. His work has been featured in Nature, Science, Scientific American, the New York Times, Harper’s, the Huffington Post and on NPR, BBC radio and NOVA television programs.

Among his honors are the Pfizer Prize for best book in the field in 2007 and the Davis Prize for best book aimed at a general audience in 2013, both from the History of Science Society, and the Leroy Apker Award for best undergraduate Physics student from the American Physical Society in 1993. In 2012, he was named a MacVicar Faculty Fellow, MIT’s highest honor for excellence in undergraduate teaching and the Frank E. Perkins Award for excellence in mentoring graduate students.

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