This is Vassar: The newsletter for Vassar College Alumnae/i and Families

Exploring Einstein

Albert Einstein

Late last month, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem—in partnership with Princeton University and the California Institute of Technology—launched its updated and expanded Einstein Archive website. The digitized collection contains a complete catalog of nearly 80,000 documents in the university's Einstein Archives. It is a monumental project, designed to provide public access to vast Einstein-related resources, made possible through a large grant from the Polonsky Foundation UK, where Georgette Bennett ’67 serves as a trustee alongside her husband, Leonard Polonsky.

Meanwhile, another Einstein collection is taking center stage this semester in Vassar’s classrooms: the Morris and Adele Bergreen Albert Einstein Collection. A gift of Adele (Gabel) Bergreen '44 to the college in 2003, the collection is of keen interest to Science, Technology, and Society (STS) lecturer Jim Challey (pictured, below).

Challey has been an instructor at Vassar for some 35 years. Before retiring from the physics department a few years ago, he split his time between physics and STS, where he continues to focus primarily on the history of science. “I’ve been interested in Albert Einstein since graduate school,” he says, noting that he did his grad work at Princeton, Einstein’s old stomping ground. “On a daily basis, I would walk by his house.”

When the college first acquired the Einstein collection, Challey and Ron Patkus, head of special collections, organized an informal group known loosely as the Einstein Club. History professor Maria Hohn, German studies professors Silke von der Emde and Elliott Schreiber, and Jen Dahnert, associate vice president for principal gifts in the Office of Alumnae/i Affairs and Development, were all involved.

Jim Challey

They met once a week in the beginning, mostly to go over the material contained in the collection. Vassar’s Einstein collection is concerned less with his science and more with Einstein’s social and political concerns, notes Patkus. “Our collection emphasizes a side of Einstein we maybe don’t think about as much.”

The Einstein Club’s work culminated in the 2005 library exhibition “Albert Einstein: Life and Letters, 1905-1955.” Patkus, Challey, and German studies major Jessica (Heckman) Handelman ’05 contributed essays to the exhibition catalog.

Since then, Challey has been looking to revisit the Einstein material and share it with a new group of students. Challey's course, “Albert Einstein,” a 200-level STS course, is being offered for the first time this spring. Eighteen students are enrolled, spanning a range of majors, including neuroscience, computer science, English, economics, political science, French, and of course, physics and astronomy.

For the first half of the course, Challey explored a survey of Einstein’s life and work. Now, students are doing original research focused on the materials in the collection:

  • One student is examining a mysterious late 1940s-era petition, created by a group trying to promote world peace with respect to nuclear weapons. It contains exactly two signatures … that of Henry Wallace, vice president to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Einstein’s.
  • Another student is examining letters relating to the Zionist movement, exchanged between Einstein and a prominent rabbi. Einstein was conflicted, notes Challey. In general he supported the idea of a Jewish homeland, but he was against displacing Arabs to create it.
  • One student is looking at Einstein and his love of music.
  • Another student is researching the women in Einstein’s life.
  • A math major is studying one of the only documents in the collection that appears to be directly relevant to science … a real estate document with enigmatic equations scribbled on the back.

“I’m dying to see what they come up with,” Challey says, noting the students are in the midst of genuine research, exploring questions to which he doesn’t know the answers. “This is what it’s all about. Getting into the original material, finding questions, and trying to hunt down answers.”

–Peter Bronski

Einstein image © Vassar College, from the collection. Jim Challey image © Vassar College / Buck Lewis.

April 2012

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