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Weis: Einstein's Birthday

We celebrated my Grandma Rose’s 103rd birthday recently, and this got me thinking about the world she was born into more than a century ago. We tend to think of it as a simpler time, and in many ways it was.

When Rose’s husband, my Grandpa Ben, was alive, he was fond of telling the story of how he got his driver’s license before he was of legal age. He simply changed the first name on his older sister Jenny’s birth certificate to “Benny” and – voila – he was all set.

Such a deception would never fly today. I recently took my kids to get their learners’ permits, and I had to bring around five different forms of ID for all of us.

But getting back to 1911, that was also the year Albert Einstein was doing some of his most important work on the theory of general relativity. During the year my grandmother was born, Einstein calculated that light from another star would be bent by the Sun's gravity. That prediction was confirmed eight years later and Einstein then became the era’s preeminent scientific rock star.

Another famous scientist of the time was Marie Curie – of whom Einstein said that she was “of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame had not corrupted.” In 1911, Madame Curie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her groundbreaking work on radioactivity.

These developments in science provide us with another way to look at the time when my grandmother was busy being born. Like maybe it wasn’t such a simple era after all, seeing as that was when the stage was being set for the atomic age.

Einstein foresaw the terrible consequences that could come from unleashing the power of the atom. And no doubt this realization served to strengthen the enduring commitment to peace that he displayed throughout his entire adult life.

He also exhibited a deep and abiding reverence for the natural world. “Our task must be to free ourselves,” he said, “by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” I expect that were he still alive today, Einstein would count himself among those working hard to preserve and protect our environment.

Tomorrow - eleven days after my eldest relative’s birthday - happens to be Einstein’s birthday. And to honor the memory of that brilliant creator of relativity theory, I suggest a new interpretation of his most well-known formula. E = mc squared could also stand for Einstein = monumental contributor squared.

Albert Einstein serves as an unparalleled example of someone with the intelligence and wisdom to contribute to humanity on an exponential level. And his incorruptible contemporary Madame Curie once said, “…each of us must share a general responsibility for all humanity.”

We would do well to heed these wise words and good examples, so that someday our own grandchildren will look back upon us in the same way that I now regard my beloved grandmother: with deep affection and eternal gratitude.

Russ Weis advises first-year students at Northern Vermont University in Johnson, where he also teaches writing and works closely with two student environmental groups.
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