The Wonder of Einstein
In the Museum of the History of Science, Charlie and Lucy both peered at a small rectangle of blackboard placed high up on the wall. On it was a scrap of maths. The theory of relativity. Incomprehensible to those with no numerical sensibilities. But Einstein, Albert Einstein, had held a piece of chalk, stood in front of the blackboard, and scribbled those symbols during a lecture in 1931, and someone wisely thought, ‘I might just keep that’, and whisked it away for safe keeping.
Charlie, a quantum physics student, was as excited as Lucy, a fine arts student, was nonplussed. They had been friends forever and they knew each other well. They both stood dutifully and respectfully but he knew that Lucy only vaguely grasped its significance. He knew that she found maths dry and brittle, but she had agreed to come along with him all the same and he intended to take full advantage.
Charlie smiled at her. She didn’t understand that numbers could be beautiful and complex, and that they could create wondrous patterns, shapes and forms. Everything in life, even fine arts, could be explained, defined, solved and activated by numbers, given enough time and application. He was going to try to show her. Because he wanted her to see maths differently.
Because, after all this time of just being friends, he wanted her to see him differently.
‘It’s pretty high up,’ he said, ‘but there’s no glass or anything over the blackboard. What’s to stop someone from reaching up and rubbing it out? From replacing it with something banal like “Mikey was here!”’ He knew the horror showed on his face. He was genuinely distressed at the museum’s cavalier and reckless attitude towards Einstein’s blackboard, and he saw that it made Lucy chuckle, so he was pleased. He glanced at her, ‘The chalk won’t last forever, you know! Really, they should … laminate it or something.’ Lucy tried to hide her smile and patted him on the shoulder. He laughed, ‘Too much?’
‘Too much’, she agreed. ‘It’s not like it will erase the knowledge. Relativity will still exist. It just won’t be in Einstein’s handwriting. Which would be a shame, I suppose.’ She put a finger to her chin, cocked her head sideways, contemplating the blackboard.
He could tell, despite her feigned interest, that it was just a scrawl to her. The equation couldn’t be more foreign or incomprehensible. The longer she looked at the blackboard, the more she frowned.
She turned her frown towards him, ‘Ok. I’ll leave you at your altar and look at something else.’
He laughed and gave her a playful nudge. ‘Yeah, yeah, ok. There’s plenty of other things to look at. Come on.’
They wandered through the gallery. Lucy paused in front of a display of medieval medical implements and put her hand to the glass, eyes widening at their barbarity. Charlie watched her for a moment. Individually, her features were not necessarily beautiful, but collectively they formed a kind of beauty. Her lips were a little too large for her face. So were her teeth. But she had a girlish nose, slightly rounded at the tip. Her reddish hair was sometimes smooth and cool, but sometimes rakish and abandoned. Her icy blue eyes were easily warmed with a smile. She had a scar near the top of her hairline, speckled red but with a white slash. It looked very serious and people often imagined a terrible car crash, or a violent attack. He knew it was from running full pelt into an already-cracked glass sliding door when she was only five.
In short, the equation of her beauty was rogue and imperfect, but somehow the answer was sublime.
He reluctantly turned his gaze away from her and sought out something else to show off to her. He smiled to himself. The Painswick Astrolabe, 1370, English. Brass. Used to measure the position of celestial bodies. The outer ring of the rete for the tropic of Capricorn was depicted as a dragon, its elaborate head and tail meeting at the top. Other astrolabes clustered around, wrought in gold filigree, engraved and delicate. Such functional things caught off-guard, shyly dressed up for something grander. He called her over.
‘They’re gorgeous though!’ she exclaimed quietly. ‘Such luscious details for the sake of beauty.’ Her fingertips gently pressed the glass. She left marks. He grinned at her in a ‘told you so’ kind of way.
‘1370. Before the Renaissance. Before Da Vinci. Botticelli, Titian, Tinteretto. Beauty can be defined by maths, by calculation.’
She raised her eyebrows at him and pursed her lips. ‘And where did you rustle up those names? You don’t know the first thing about Da Vinci.’
‘Are you kidding, he’s a bit of a mathematical hero of mine. His architecture, his design, his art, was based on measurement.’
‘Ha! Wash your mouth out!’ she mock glared at him, and swiped his arm. ‘True, things like perspective and depth are critical, but art is about more than measurement. It’s about the human condition, emotion, feeling, religion, society, soul….in short Charlie, it’s not about the numbers.’
‘Well, even if you can’t see them, that doesn’t mean the latticework they create isn’t in the shadows, on the back of the canvas, painted over. They’re closely intertwined, my lovely friend, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Surrender.’
She stuck her tongue out and wrinkled her nose. He inched a little closer to her. He smelled pancakes, sweetness.
There was a pause between them. He’d never been so close to her like this, not in this manner. He’d never dared to call her anything as gallant and ridiculous as his ‘lovely friend’. He felt a fool. His heart racing, he felt a fool. But, although she flinched a little, she didn’t move away.
He watched her narrow her eyes a moment, as though thrown off balance, and held his breath. Then she turned away and wandered into a small room off to the side filled with world globes. He followed her in. It was as dark and hushed as a library. She walked around slowly, noting aloud the progress of geography through the ages – which continents appeared, which did not. Which countries had changed borders, which were still nebulous. He watched her trace her fingers in the air just above the globes, careful not to touch but wanting to, unmistakeably. She was tactile. The paintings she produced were textured, tangible, calling out to gentle hands. He had watched her paint once and was struck by the movement of her whole body, the way she leaned into the canvas.
The globes were celestial as well as terrestrial. Gilt brass constellations, supported by swirled wooden legs. Perfect spheres, plump with ambition.
Charlie came up beside her. ‘You can’t just paper mâchè this thing together you know. The globes start flat, then they’re broken up into these panels – gores. Very complicated business bringing everything together from a flat beginning and ensuring the edges meet perfectly. Very mathematical. It’s the most accurate depiction of the world – much more accurate than those two-dimensional atlas drawings. And, of course, it was a mathematician who developed the kind of globes we use today, with all the longitudinal and latitudinal parallel lines.’
Lucy rolled her eyes at him and then shook her head a little. ‘Yes, yes, I’m sure that’s all true. But I don’t see any of that. I see dragons, I see scorched deserts and frozen mountains. I picture cartographers working by candlelight under the patronage of rich lords. Look at the blowing winds, at the mysterious sea creatures. I see men setting sail from home, excited and terrified at once. I see those same men being astonished by the sweetness of mango, and I see them chewing dry beef and dying from scurvy. I see Indigenous peoples murdered in front of my eyes, sinking to their knees in bloody sand.’
It was his turn to stare. Then he burst into laughter. ‘But that’s wonderful.’
Her face was sceptical, and it was clear she thought he was laughing at her.
‘But it is, it’s fantastic Lucy. Because my perspective and yours together make this globe come alive in so many ways. Science and art, side by side. They need each other.’ Adrenalin tingled in his veins. He was looking into her eyes and felt the fizz of euphoria. He couldn’t stop himself from taking her elbow, though he was afraid his hand would tremble. His fingers were certainly sweaty. The risk was tremendous. ‘They complement each other. Don’t you think?’ He didn’t falter. He couldn’t now.
Her eyes went from her elbow to his face and he saw a small smile emerge, first around her eyes and then her mouth. It was wary, it was reluctant, but it was there. ‘Maybe you’re right Charlie.’ She didn’t move.
He dropped his hands, and then decided to shove them in his back pockets. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and let out a big breath. ‘Enough science though, right? Maybe we should we go to the art gallery now?’ He laughed. It was all he could do for now.
But she shook her head and stray red hair fell over one eye. ‘Not yet.’ She poked his chest gently. ‘There’s a sundial I want to look at again. Ivory, but oh so beautiful.’ Touch was familiar, so normal between them in a platonic way, but now he felt a frisson of tension reciprocated in it, and perhaps a lingering question. Or was it an answer? As they left the globe room, she linked her hands behind her back, perhaps also unsure what else to do with them. ‘Tell me again’, she said to him, ‘what does quantum physics do?’