Sunday, March 4, 2012

Bye Bye Blackboard

(Above) Albert Einstein
Einstein’s blackboard was used in a lecture in Oxford on May 16, 1931.

At that time Einstein’s theories of relativity were being combined with astronomical data to explain the shifts towards the red in the spectra of distant galaxies, which indicated that the universe was expanding. In his lecture Einstein outlined a fairly simple model to explain this apparent expansion. In the first line on the blackboard, D, the measure of expansion in the universe, is defined in terms of the expansion factor P. The expression for the density of matter in the universe, given by Ú in the third line, is derived from the field equations. The last four lines contain numerical data, giving values for density, radius and age of the universe, where ‘L. J’ stands for ‘Licht Jahr’ (light year) and ‘J’ for ‘Jahr’ (year). According to the last line, the age of the universe is about 10, or perhaps 100 billion years (the bracket indicates an alternative figure, not a product of two figures).

Einstein’s blackboard deals with some of the most fundamental questions in cosmology.

(Above) Cornelia Parker
Navigating a Cliff Edge in Darkness 2005
‘Written while blindfolded, using cliff chalk from Beachy Head, Sussex’

(Above) The Right Reverend Richard Harries
Bishop of Oxford

‘I had the privilege of chairing the House of Lords Select Committee on Stem Cell Research. Most of us were non-scientists, but with the aid of a very good scientific adviser we did I think grasp some of the fundamental principles involved. Cloning was one issue we had to discuss and both then and subsequently I have found these little drawings helpful both for myself and others to whom I am talking.’

(Above) Joanna MacGregor

‘I wrote the music on this blackboard while I was giving a lecture about Bach’s Goldberg Variations at the Holywell Music Room on 22nd March this year, before performing them. I was trying to make a connection between Bach’s super-sensitivity to the contemporary styles around him – very very acute in this piece – and today’s musicians. There’s a lot of information in the Goldberg’s – structure, harmony, a ladder of canons – and coded information we can only guess at – myths, cosmological allegories, and a soulful journey. It all starts with the bass line.’

(Above) Sir Nicholas Grimshaw
President of the Royal Academy
‘Tension & Compression’

BLACKBOARDS ARE WIPED AFTER USE: they are meant for immediate communication, not for permanence. Even when are being used, their messages are continuously revised, erased and renewed. But when Einstein came to Oxford in 1931, he was already an international celebrity. After one of his lectures, a blackboard was preserved and has become a kind of relic. It is the most famous object in the Museum.

The exhibition in 2005 marked the centenary of the Special Theory of Relativity by inviting a number of well-known people in Britain to chalk on blackboards the same size as Einstein’s. All of the guest blackboards were prepared in the early months of 2005. The result was an exhibition about science, art, celebrity and nostalgia. The blackboard is fast disappearing from meetings, classes and lectures, hence the exhibition title: ‘Bye-Bye Blackboard’.

The exhibition was on display in the Special Exhibitions Gallery at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford from April 16 to September 18, 2005.

I gained knowledge of this wonderful exhibition through Eric Baker’s posting of images January 26, 2009 through the Design Observer. The copy above is from that posting, © Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

An AM repost from January 29, 2009

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