Evoking Einstein

Special course offers lively view of Albert Einstein's theories

In fall 2004, sixty-six students signed up for a new class by Kenyon physics professor Benjamin Schumacher. The course had the third highest enrollment that semester, and there wasn't a physics major in the bunch. The attraction: bungee cams, lasers, matches, and Albert Einstein.

Schumacher developed the class to commemorate the centenary of a group of Einstein's papers that forever changed our understanding of the world. In 1905, a year known as his annus mirabilis--or wondrous year--the theoretical physicist published five papers in which, among other discoveries, he introduced the special theory of relativity as well as the most famous equation in modern science, E=mc2.

For the course, Schumacher developed new labs and scientific demonstrations designed to illuminate the world in which we live. "Bungee cam" may sound like a David Letterman gambit, but in fact it's a demonstration of the principle of equivalence, a keystone of Einstein's special theory of relativity, which gives the correct laws of motion for any particle moving at any speed.

To create the "bungee cam," Schumacher attached rubber tubing to wireless video cameras and a collection of other objects. Students dropped the objects and watched them fall, all at the same speed. Watching the video, the objects appear to be unaffected by gravity.

Schumacher also wanted to demonstrate Einstein's theories on Brownian motion, which allows scientists to measure the size of atoms. "I learned about Brownian motion some twenty-five years ago, but I had never observed it," says Schumacher. His students won't be able to say the same.

For this experiment, Schumacher lit a match, blew it out, and with the smoke still issuing from the tip of the match, placed it inside a test tube. When the tube is illuminated by a laser, the ceaseless random motion first discerned in 1827 by the Scottish botanist Robert Brown can be observed by students with their own eyes. What they see are tiny particles bombarded from all sides.

"This is one of the most fun classes I've ever done," says Schumacher. "Relativity, statistical physics, quantum theory--and the remarkable life of the man Time magazine voted the 'Person of the Century.' What could be better?"