Food (and drink) for the brain

What did Einstein win the Nobel Prize for in 1921?

What color hair was Einstein born with?

In the book “Driving Mr. Albert,” Michael Paterniti and Thomas Harvey rode across country to deliver something to Einstein's granddaughter. What was it?

If you answered “physics, black and Einstein's brain” to the above questions, you could very well have won some free drinks had you been at the recent Penn Science Café at University City's MarBar.

Penn News Officer Greg Lester kicked off the evening's program—part of a new lecture series intended to “take science out of the laboratory and treat it to a night on the town” —by flinging Einstein trivia questions at a substantial crowd gathered to hear physics and astronomy professor Vijay Balasubramanian expound on the famous scientist's “annus mirabilis.”

It was 100 years ago when Einstein published his four brilliant scientific papers that revolutionized our understanding of the universe. These included the groundbreaking 1905 paper on special relativity that fundamentally changed our picture of space and time.

Balasubramanian's task was to shed light on the mind-boggling nature of special relativity and quantum physics. He did so with the aid of a blue marker, a dry erase board, a couple of balloons and an animated lecture style that had the audience chuckling through their furrowed brows. As Balasubramanian talked about the “amazing summer” when Einstein set the groundwork for quantum theory, Brownian motion and special relativity, he emphasized the counterintuitive nature of Einstein's discoveries.

To illustrate the fact that motion does not exist for things moving at a constant speed, he asked his audience to take note next time they were on an Amtrak train. “When the train next to you begins to move, you will have the illusion that your train is moving backwards. For a moment, you don't know.”

What special relativity teaches us, he said, “is that we have to liberate ourselves from our imagination since space and time are merged.” Balasubramanian encouraged the audience to ask questions during his talk, as well as after, and he was rewarded with numerous smart, if perplexed, queries, many originating from the bartender.

After tying the audience up in cerebral knots and offering to answer questions about “any subject at all,” the good natured professor demonstrated the theory of universal expansion by blowing up a balloon, on which he had drawn a grid. As he halted midway to regain his breath, he noted ruefully, “There are no pauses in universal expansion.”

Throughout the presentation, audience members were able to order food and drinks from an attentive duo of waitresses who nimbly steered a course among the sofas, banquettes and free-standing chairs. A popular beverage choice was the “Big Bang,” specially concocted for the evening, with the promise that it would “create a universe of taste sensation in your brain.”

The next Science Café will take place April 20 and will feature Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Science Ben Horton speaking on “Lessons of the Tsunami: Birth of the Great Wave and a Hope for Early Warning.” Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Talk begins at 6 p.m. at the MarBar, 40th and Walnut streets.

Originally published on April 14, 2005