Hebrew University Professors Now Lecture to Train Passengers

Is there a better venue for a lecture on the theory of relativity than a train traveling at 100 kilometers per hour?

The passenger at the Modi'in train station who Wednesday asked which carriage on the train to Tel Aviv would be the site of the university lecture on Albert Einstein's love letters was not confused. After exploring the feasibility of making its faculty available for lectures on trains, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem gave the honor of delivering the first Israel Railways train lecture to its former president, physics professor Hanoch Gottfreund.

"Everyone in this car today is an experimental mouse, and I am an experimental rabbit," Gottfreund told his audience. "We have never done anything like this. I have never spoken to an audience in which some people were sitting with their backs to me. But we are hoping that in this way we, who are usually secluded at the university, will reach a wider public."

And where better to lecture about the father of the theory of relativity than a train speeding down the track at 100 kilometers per hour? "The theory of relativity is always connected to trains," he explained. "Einstein said that if we are on a train whose windows are sealed (and whose rails and wheels are well-oiled), so that the passengers don't see the passing trees, there is no scientific experiment the passengers can conduct that will tell them whether they are moving. This assumption on Einstein's part is the basis of everything that followed - including the whole theory of special relativity, including the formula E=MC². So there really is special reason to talk about Einstein on a train."

The subject of star power was also addressed in Gottfreund's lecture: "The accolades and awards that were bestowed upon [Einstein] in his lifetime were unprecedented. You could say that a star was born, [like] Madonna and Elvis Presley in one person."

Albert Einstein Superstar also had two wives, secret affairs and a child born out of wedlock. But his work was even reflected in the letters he wrote his lovers. After all, it is not every day that a woman receives a letter that begins: "My dear kitten, I just read a wonderful paper by Lenard on the generation of cathode rays. Under the influence of this piece I am filled with such happiness and joy that I absolutely must share it with you."

"We would not see letters like those by Einstein in the cell phone text message generation," Gottfreund said. "Your generation is missing out on this."

"Beyond the intimate expressions in every love letter," he added, "there is evidence of his ruminations on issues from the world of physics, which he shared with the women he loved."

The passengers were satisfied with their train trip. "Many of us have dreamed of listening to university lectures but don't have time to do it," said one passenger, Isabel Tubi. "If the university comes to us, so much the better."

Another passenger, Barak Ben-Eliezer, remarked, "I missed the 8:43 train, but I gained this [experience]: For half an hour, instead of reading a newspaper, there was a fascinating lecture."

Wednesday, Gottfreund told Haaretz disappointedly that despite the potential of lectures of this kind, the shortness of the time does not allow him to explain the general theory of relativity. "Maybe when we travel by train from Metula to Eilat," he mused.

When asked how many trips would be necessary to earn a university degree, he answered in an appropriately relative manner: "It depends on how fast the train is going."