If you get a kick out of Albert, how about a jeté?

March 25, 2005

Our monthly guide to some of the conferences taking place around the world

Physicists like their subject caffeinated, but they will be offered some frothier takes on Einstein, finds Harriet Swain

So far, the 300 or so events being held in the UK to mark Einstein Year have included the Einstein Flip, which involved a BMX rider launching himself off a ramp and spinning backwards through 360 degrees, and a one-man comedy show about Einstein's life and work.

April sees the opening of an exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford featuring blackboards written on by celebrities such as Chris Patten, Oxford University's chancellor, and musician Brian Eno - all inspired by the blackboard that Einstein covered with equations when he lectured in Oxford in 1931 and that the museum has preserved. But where is the science in all this?

The answer, according to the Institute of Physics, is at its conference Physics 2005: A Century after Einstein . The conference is unashamedly aimed at the professional research community. "This is real physicists' physics - it's not decaffeinated," says Sir Michael Berry, Royal Society research professor at Bristol University, the conference chair.

About 700 delegates are expected to attend, including more than 100 invited speakers - just fewer than half from the UK, a quarter from North America and the rest from Europe and Australia. Sir Martin Rees, Lee Smolin, Richard Friend, Bernard Schutz and Claude Weisbuch will be among what Peter Main, the institute's director of science, calls "the best collection of speakers in the history of UK physics". Two of the seven plenary speakers - Steven Chu and Anthony Leggett - are Nobel prizewinners.

The institute has much riding on the conference. If it is judged a success, it will hold similar events every two years for Britain's physics community, which in recent years has concentrated on holding smaller, more specialised get-togethers.

This conference, in contrast, is thinking big, which is reflected in its focus. There are four main themes: relativity and cosmology; light and matter; and quantum physics (all inspired by Einstein's work); and physics in biology, which is a new area and marks a daring venture into interdisciplinary work.

"The key words in the title are 'after Einstein'," says Alwyn Jones, the conference's programme manager. "It will be about development of his ideas 100 years on."

An institute spokesman says:J "The idea is to look at new research fields where people are pushing back the boundaries of what we can do." This is why considerable excitement focuses on the physics in biology theme.

Richard Templer, chair of biophysical chemistry and head of the chemistry department at Imperial College London, for example, will discuss work on cell membranes that uses knowledge of physics to revolutionise thinking about how cells hold themselves together, which could result in insights that transform drug delivery.

Cutting-edge science in pure physics will also be at the conference table, with sessions on dark energy, gravitational waves, string theory and nanophotonics, which involves the interaction between light and materials on a nanoscale.

But the IoP has not entirely abandoned the less physics-literate public.

John Stachel, director of the Center of Einstein Studies at Boston University, will give a public Einstein lecture during the conference, which will include a discussion of his views on militarism. Einstein believed that it was better to address society's problems through looking at social and cultural issues rather than by increasing security - a view that has particular resonance in the current climate.

"If there is to be a human civilisation in the coming millennium, we had better pay attention to some of Einstein's views," Stachel argues.

Then there is the ballet. The institute commissioned Mark Baldwin, artistic director of the Rambert Dance Company, to produce a ballet to mark Einstein Year. The result, Constant Speed , will be premiered in May. The ballet focuses on two of Einstein's seminal 1905 research papers - the theory of special relativity (E=mc²) and the investigations of Brownian motion - and was developed following consultation with Ray Rivers, professor of theoretical physics at Imperial.

While Rivers admits that "it isn't a physics lecture, it's a piece of choreography that has some of the ideas tangentially in it", he says it is much closer to Einstein than many other arts-based activities taking place this year because at least it is genuinely concerned with motion, light and force. Brownian motion, for example, will be clearly reflected in the movements of the dancers, and photographic tableaux have been used to pick up on ideas of simultaneity.

Rivers and a member of the Rambert Dance Company will discuss the ballet on April 12 as part of the conference. They hope to include previews of the work, although Rivers is a little nervous at the prospect, confessing:

"Whether an audience of literal-minded physicists will like it, I don't know."

Physics 2005: A Century after Einstein is at Warwick University April 10-14. Details: www.physics2005.iop.org .

Bye Bye Blackboard from Einstein and Others opens at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford on April 16.

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