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Non-scientists discuss Einstein's influence
First broadcast in 2005. Revised repeats 10-13 April 2006 3.45-4.00pm

A hundred years on from Albert Einstein's 'miracle year' of 1905, Radio 4 talks to writers and artists who have wrestled with the scientific legacy of modern physics in their work.

Michael Frayn
Michael Frayn.
Photo Eamonn McCabe

Programme 1 Uncertain History

Michael Frayn's acclaimed stage play, Copenhagen, opened at the National Theatre in 1998. The story of a meeting between two theoretical physicists during the early years of Second World War, it's been hailed as the most successful use of science on the stage.

But as Frayn himself says, what drew him to the subject matter was foremost a desire to explore the uncertainty principle not so much as revolution in science but as it related to the human mind, what his central character, Werner Heisenberg called "the final core of uncertainty at the heart of things".

If Einstein was anything, says Frayn, he was a determinist and could never fully reconcile himself to quantum mechanics as his famous remark lamented: "God does not play dice".

Listen again Listen again to Programme 1
Einstein gave three public lectures in Oxford in 1931. This blackboard was preserved from then. Following Hubble's recent assertions of an expanding universe, here Einstein makes estimates of the density, radius and age of the universe. Courtesy of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford.

Programme 2 Dark Matters

Artist Cornelia Parker explores her ground-breaking (literally) work Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View which involved getting the army to blow up a garden shed in order to re-create the first moments after the creation of space and time.

It's an arresting, accomplished and well-travelled piece that works on many levels - psychological, archaeological and scientific, giving a physical reality to a moment in time - the moment after the beginning of everything - the Big Bang.

Indeed, Einstein's theories of Special and General Relativity directly predicted the Big Bang which was also the source of what he called "his greatest mistake" - the infamous 'cosmological constant' - an unknown force that held the expanding universe together like cosmic glue.

Einstein had put this idea in 'by hand' in order to justify the maths - a bit like a painter might create 'false' perspective in order to justify a composition.

As Cornelia Parker discusses her inspiration for this piece and its aims, cosmologists discuss how the Einstein's ideas shaped our notion of how the universe and everything in it got started.

Listen again Listen again to Programme 2
Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett

Programme 3 Fantasy Physics

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" said Arthur C Clarke decades ago and it holds true today. Just try and explain how your mobile phone or dvd player works.

Now glance over some of the extreme propositions explored in theoretical physics like string theory, quantum teleportation, baby universes and 11 dimensions, you might as well give scientists a tall pointy hat, a long beard, a wand and call them wizards.

Which is pretty much what writer Terry Pratchett as done on Discworld for the last 20 years.

With the help of fellow author and mathematician Ian Stewart, Pratchett explains his love of science, his fascination with Einstein and the science behind the fantasy world he's created and sold to more than 20 countries worldwide.

Listen again Listen again to Programme 3
Einstein Simplified
© Sidney Harris

Programme 4 Theoretically Funny

"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe."

One doesn't normally associate humour with physics but Einstein has proved the exception, at least for two artists.

The first is New Yorker Sid Harris who's been churning out science cartoons for reputable journals since the late sixties and has so far drawn over thirty thousand, many featuring an elderly man with wild white hair, a rye moustache and a child-like grasp of fundamental problems.

Uniquely, Einstein has become an icon of science universally recognised the world over but beyond the cliché of the mad genius lay, well, a mad genius - who hated socks.

Comedian Mark Steel has delved into the great man's life and found a great deal to laugh about, if only in theory.

Listen again Listen again to Programme 4
Another Big Bang
©Sidney Harris

Programme 5 Time Travels

Two physicists turned novelists - Gregory Benford and Andrew Crumey share their thoughts on the nature of time and Einstein's theories of Special and General relativity through their [respective] books Timescape and Mobius Dick.

Whilst both writers can be placed in the genre of science fiction, their stories are firmly rooted in the latest research and theoretical musings of Einstein's latter-day followers.

Listen again Listen again to Programme 5
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