Janet McAllister on the arts
Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Einstein showcase cutest event of year

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Albert Einstein was pretty handy on the fiddle.
Albert Einstein was pretty handy on the fiddle.

Einstein would have been a giant of the twitterverse. Brevity is the soul of t-wit, and you can't get more super-saturated with meaning than "E=mc2". Then there are poetic bon mots such as: "I live my daydreams in music" and "imagination is more important than knowledge". He backed that one up with scientific evidence, changing knowledge by imagining he was travelling on a train at the speed of light.

His twitter mates would have egged him on; in rehearsal, composer Fritz Kreisler once told him: "The trouble with you, Mr Einstein, is that you can't count."

Those quotes are taken from the excellent programme notes for last Monday's candidate for cutest event of the year, hosted by the Royal Society of New Zealand and Chamber Music New Zealand. It was an illustrated and musical talk about Einstein's life and legacy, followed by a piano-and-strings concert of Einstein-related music. (The best brain of the 20th century loved the mathematical complexity of Mozart and Bach, and claimed music gave him the most joy in life.)

The talk was presented by Oxford's Professor Brian Foster, European director for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Foster gave an entertaining lecture, complete with balloon prop, interspersed by music from award-winning British violinist Jack Liebeck. Yes, one of the head honchos of the world's most expensive experiment is giving basic information to the general public when he could be sunning himself in Spain. It must be love - of Einstein, more likely, than of our wintry weather.

But wait, there's more: Foster and Liebeck performed a violin duet, the physicist and the virtuoso, just as Einstein liked to do with Kreisler (and other indulgent musicians). With one player slightly out of tune and rhythmically erratic, the piece sounded ... endearing.

Apparently Einstein's own playing wasn't too shabby; a scientifically ignorant music critic once wrote: "Einstein plays excellently. However, his worldwide fame is undeserved. There are many violinists who are just as good."

But let's face it, we were there for news of the LHC as much as for Einstein, and Foster skipped merrily across the dots that connect the two: Our Very Own Ernest Rutherford was a tall and jovial figure, often in danger of upsetting his students' delicate experiments with booming laughter. A Time magazine cover once echoed Einstein's white hair with a mushroom cloud - one of the pacifist's other legacies.

The slides were too small but a cross-section of one of the LHC's gigantic experimental chambers, Atlas, looked like an eye, bloodshot with traces of particle collisions. A blip on a graph showed us the growing statistical evidence that the LHC has found the Higgs boson.

The concert afterwards included a specially commissioned piece by Samuel Holloway who, in spite of his 17th century-style name, was born in Pukekohe in 1981. Holloway's Matter was inspired by the magnitudes of physics (from the mass-less to the massive). Compared to the smooth phrases of the concert's Mozart and Brahms pieces, each piano note in Matter seemed separated, like the bright particle bursts we'd seen earlier. Stars shrunk to a sub-atomic scale.

- NZ Herald

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