Local professor brings Einstein back from the dead
by Dylan Otto Krider
Like many successful people, a high school guidance counselor told Len Barron he wasn’t college material. (So many counselors set themselves up like this, one suspects a plot to motivate students.) For a time, Barron heeded their advice and hauled scrap metal for a number of years before signing up for some college courses in 1963, at the age of 30.
In that way, he is very much like the man whom Barron has spent the past 20 years trying to exalt in his one-man show on the life of Albert Einstein. (He just released a DVD, Portraits of Einstein, with clips of his show and other goodies.)
When Einstein’s family moved to Italy, he dropped out of high school to apply directly to the university, but flunked his entrance exams (though he always did well in math and physics) and had to go back to complete secondary school. He excelled in college, but couldn’t get a professorship because he “didn’t listen to anybody.”
After two years of fruitless searching, he ended up working as a technical assistant in a Swiss patent office “on a trial basis,” where the monotony allowed his mind to wander to the workings of the universe. It was there that the young Einstein came up with his theory of relativity.
When Barron eventually decided to go to college, he figured he better bone up on his reading, and started going through biographies of famous people. The ones who stood out to him were the scientists. “When you look at these people, their lives are broad,” he says. Einstein and Bohr, for instance, were accomplished musicians, teachers and unapologetic liberals.
Barron got a sociology degree from CU in 1967 and eventually joined the faculty, where he dedicated himself to reinventing education in Boulder. But his attraction to the quirky, German-American physicist did not fade. Dramatized biographies often tell us as much about the playwright as the historical figure.
Einstein lived simply, in a time when most work was done with a pen and paper. Barron also tries to live meagerly, in a small apartment with everything he needs: a desk, an old typewriter and two small shelves filled with Einstein biographies.
He even looks like Einstein, something he describes as a happy accident. “In ’63, it was the beginning of the hippie era, and I let my hair grow long and grew a mustache,” Barron says. And the look stuck.
He doesn’t even play Einstein in the show. “My role is as spinner of the tale. That offered many more possibilities for what I had in mind,” he says. “I’m not interested in the genius… My main interest is Einstein the educator, which is as brilliant as his work in physics.”
In his opinion, Einstein’s approach to education, and life, can be boiled down to three things: fairness, beauty and playfulness. These three things “guarantee that a person leads a fertile life and they are dearly loved.” Barron sees Einstein’s approach to learning as the “human equation,” an “E=mc2 for our own time.”
Einstein thought schools focused too much on rote learning, and saw mathematics as, though critical, merely a tool for the imagination. As a child, Einstein kept a compass because whatever force moved the needle in a vacuum had to be inherent in space itself. It was this and imagining himself riding on a beam of light that led him to equations so elegant that he launched a scientific revolution unequaled by any except perhaps Newton. Thus, his famous quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Einstein looked at science like an artist. He thought beauty was always the first test for a theory, a belief that led him to mistakenly dismiss the quantified uncertainty of quantum mechanics in a letter to Max Born, when he said, “The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the Old One. I, at any rate, am convinced that He (God) does not throw dice.” The idea being that the universe operates according to beautiful, economical rules.
Einstein, however, was a complex man. A recent batch of letters from the Hebrew University suggests Einstein engaged in at least six affairs while he was married to his cousin. A renowned pacifist, he was also a German Jew whose experience compelled him to write a letter encouraging Roosevelt to start the Manhattan Project. Fascinatingly enough, he could not get security clearance himself due to a lengthy FBI file on his connections to “communist” organizations, mostly pacifist groups that opposed fascism.
Five months before his death, however, he referred to the letter as one of his greatest mistakes. He believed in a God, but defined it as the symmetry of the universe, perhaps best described in a letter to Hans Muehsam: “I am a deeply religious nonbeliever… This is a somewhat new kind of religion.”
Einstein’s genius has since been the source of much controversy — upon his death, his brain was carved up and claimed by pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey, probably without the family’s permission. Harvey was fired by Princeton Hospital when he refused to turn over the Mason jars containing the sections of Einstein’s gray matter suspended in alcohol, but Harvey allowed several researchers access to the specimens.
They found possibly larger areas related to spatial and numerical reasoning, or a larger number of glial cells. However, it’s unclear if Einstein was the smartest human to come around in some time, or merely your average genius with the temperament to imagine things differently.
Einstein’s smarts, Barron is fond of pointing out, seemed to have as much to do with creativity as anything else, and he did most of his thinking on walks, a pastime Barron shares with the physicist. Einstein once told a reporter, “If I didn’t walk, there never would have been an Einstein.” The solitude seemed to free his mind.
When Barron lived across the street from Boulder Creek, he used to go for a walk every day. One 12-minute film on the DVD intersperses sounds of the gurgling creek with shots of Barron’s garden (he was a member of Eccentric Artists Gardens), and his narration on Einstein.
Barron also sees a little Einstein in his calls for environmental education, which teaches us to first love nature before we preserve it, and to live economically. But most of all, what seems to appeal to him is the scientist’s lust for life, the child-like curiosity most of us seem to outgrow. So fittingly, after dozens of books and decades talking about the man who defines him, Barron has boiled everything you need to know about Albert Einstein into one short poem, like the perfect mathematical formula:
cigars and pipes and ice cream
and playing the violin and sailing
and he loved loose fitting clothes and
stormy weather and trees and walking and he loved
physics and justice and education
and he loved being corrected
for it would save him
to climb up
and oh did he laugh a laugh like the bark of a contented seal
On the Bill:
Len Barron will show clips from Portraits of Einstein and discuss the scientist’s life on Thursday, Nov. 20, at the Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St., 303-447-2074, www.boulderbookstore.com.