Ask Alma's Owl: Einstein at Columbia

Dear Alma,

This year is the centennial of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Given how famous our physics department became, did he ever come to Columbia to talk about it?

— Physics Phanatic

Dear Physics Phanatic,

In 1921, Einstein gave his first lecture in America about his theory of relativity to Columbia faculty and students.

“Einstein in Lecture Explains his Theory,” ran The New York Times headline describing the April 15 talk, which he gave in German since he spoke little English at the time. Even so, every seat in the Horace Mann Auditorium at Teachers College was filled and spectators stood in the aisles, the newspaper reported.

The future Nobel laureate was escorted into the room to great applause by Columbia physics professor Michael Pupin, for whom Pupin Hall is named. Representatives of the departments of mathematics and astronomy also turned out in full force.

The celebrated scientist proceeded to explain his famous theory involving the relationship between space and time. The audience was rapt, the Times reported, listening “with the absorption of men of science listening to a brother scientist expound a theory which may alter all their conceptions of motion and space.”

The few who understood German laughed aloud when Einstein insisted that aspects of his theory were really “very simple,” according to the Columbia Spectator.

An announcement that one would need a special admissions card to hear Einstein speak. The notice reads that the school anticipates a \"probable large attendance,\" which proved to be correct.

Einstein also “caused much amusement when he wished to erase some diagrams he had drawn on the blackboard and made futile motions with his hand until Professor Pupin came to his rescue,” reported the Times.

That wasn’t Einstein’s only encounter with Columbia and its officials.

In a December 1930 visit to New York, Einstein was celebrated at a ceremony at City Hall, where he was introduced by Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler. Butler put Einstein in the scientific pantheon alongside Ptolemy, Copernicus, Newton and Kepler, and, in a flourish, called him “the ruling monarch of the mind.”

In his speech, Butler said that Einstein had considered coming to Columbia to “make his permanent home among us and to build his intellectual lighthouse on Morningside. But the claims of the homeland were too strong, and we must content ourselves with this brief visit and others that we hope will follow.”

Every seat in the room was filled, and thousands stood outside to watch Einstein and his wife arrive. Mayor Jimmy Walker welcomed the scientist saying, “We have a very profound appreciation of the contributions that you have made to science, even if we don’t understand them.” He then presented Einstein with the keys to the city; he said he was doing so “relatively” speaking, since the city requires no key to get in.

Einstein emigrated to the United States in 1933, taking up a post at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

— By Gary Shapiro

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October 26, 2015