Time to cruise in the past lane

January 7, 2005

Einstein, Nelson and others give academics much to celebrate in 2005, writes Steve Farrar

From the Battle of Trafalgar to the cosmic insights of Albert Einstein, academics will meet to mark significant anniversaries in unprecedented numbers in 2005.

Growing media awareness and enhanced funding opportunities have contributed to a proliferation of conferences, seminars and publications linked to notable dates. Although such events have a long tradition, anniversaries are becoming increasingly prominent.

Museum exhibitions, television specials and academic gatherings will all form part of Einstein Year, a 12-month celebration of physics sparked by the centenary of the publication of Einstein's theory of special relativity and other groundbreaking papers that overturned our understanding of the universe. It will also be 50 years since the physicist's death.

Michael Green, professor of theoretical physics at Cambridge University and a plenary speaker at the "Physics - A Century after Einstein" conference at Warwick University in April, said the meeting would be a timely forum to review general issues.

"The 100th anniversary of Einstein's 1905 papers provides a great opportunity for reflecting on the course of fundamental physics in the years since Einstein was active," he said. "It is not only fascinating, it is also instructive to see how various kinds of theories have attempted to reconcile quantum theory and relativity."

Horatio Nelson's victory at Trafalgar in 1805 is being marked with public events across the UK, including three academic conferences.

Nigel Rigby, head of research at the National Maritime Museum, which is co-organising the "Europe at War: The Trafalgar Campaign in Context" meeting at London in July, said anniversaries provided an effective way to raise the profile of history.

"The conference will undoubtedly benefit from the wider public interest in the anniversary of Trafalgar, which will be fanned by growing media and publishing interest," he said.

Johan de Mylius, director of the Hans Christian Andersen Centre at the University of Southern Denmark and organiser of the International Hans Christian Andersen Conference in August, was concerned that events being held to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Danish writer would reinforce the idea that he wrote only children's stories.

But he hoped the many academic conferences, including one at the British Library in August, would stoke scholarly interest in Andersen as a serious poet.

"The bicentenary might open people's eyes to more aspects of Andersen's writings. While he may be among the best-known authors in the world, he is rarely studied in universities," Dr de Mylius said.

Martin Davies, co-organiser of the "Sixty Years on: How the Holocaust Looks Now" conference at Leicester University in April and author of Historics: Getting at What's Behind History , said anniversaries were inescapable.

"In a historicised world, so conscious of itself as a historical product, with history showing us how our world came to be made, how 'our' very identities are rooted in 'our' history, we cannot help having anniversaries," he observed.

"Considering that 12,000 years or more of recorded history exist and that there are only 365 days in a year, it is surprising there are so few."

Nevertheless, historians face "an avalanche of anniversaries" in 2005, said Peter Furtado, editor of History Today . "There are actually no more than usual, but I feel we are taking much more notice of them."

He said anniversaries drove the journalistic and publishing imperative by providing justification for books, television series and conferences covering a range of subjects competing for inclusion in a new canon of history.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, professor of global environmental history at Queen Mary, University of London, said he deplored anniversary obsession as part of an "idiot syndrome": decades and centuries did not provide rational grounds for taking an interest in a particular subject.

"Naturally, if you think things such as birthdays, Christmas and New Year are significant - which they aren't except Christmas in a peculiar sense - you're going to succumb to wider anniversary-related delusions," he said.

But he noted that historians tolerated this because it was easier to get funding for conferences or interest in potential publications or broadcasts if there was a link to an anniversary.

"We get the money, and 'at least', we sigh, 'these anniversaries get people interested'," he said, noting that his own book on Columbus was out for the quincentenary in 1993.

steve.farrar@thes.co.uk

DATES FOR NEW DIARIES

1455 War of the Roses starts at St Albans

1605 Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote published Gunpowder Plot thwarted; Guy Fawkes executed

1805 Nelson victorious in the Battle of Trafalgar Birth of the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen

Napoleon victorious in the Battle of Austerlitz

1905 Einstein publishes his theory of special relativity

The Aliens Act restricts immigration to the UK

1945 The Second World War ends

Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps liberated

First atomic bombs dropped

Adolf Hitler dies

1955 George Orwell's Animal Farm is published

1965 Winston Churchill dies

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