November 15, 2009
Jonathan Nackstrand, AFP, Getty Images
Albert Einstein, who explained his theory of relativity using the metaphor of a sealed railway carriage, probably did not foresee the day when professors would turn a commuter train into a lecture hall to convey his ideas.
But this month, Israeli commuters on the 9:04 from Platform Four at Modiin Central to Tel Aviv were treated to an academic lecture on Einstein's love letters to his two wives and various mistresses. It was the first in a series of railway lectures titled Scientists on Trains.
Hanoch Gutfreund, a professor emeritus of physics and a former president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, donned a microphone headset and stood in the aisle as he delivered his half-hour lecture.
He warned that love letters like Einstein's, which are stored at the Jewish National and University Library on the campus, are dying out in the age of Twitter and text messaging.
Half of Mr. Gutfreunds listeners had their backs to him, but he took that in stride, along with interruptions from the ticket collector and stops at intermediate stations.
Hebrew University started the lectures in an effort to shed its ivory-tower image as Israeli institutions struggle to convince the public that they urgently need more government support.
Its always a pleasure to find a very responsive and attentive audience, and I was surprised to find it in a passenger car on a train, Mr. Gutfreund said afterward. Einstein himself used the metaphor of trains, and next time I have a chance to do it, I will give a whole lecture about that.
One woman asked how long it would take her to get a degree based only on train lectures. Mr. Gutfreunds response was worthy of Einstein himself: It depends on how fast the train is going.