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Book review: ‘The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein: South America 1925’

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A second volume of travel notes, from a trip through Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, reveal the ordinary human being, with all his faults, behind the genius.

“A good traveller does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveller does not know where he came from.” This quote from Chinese writer Lin Yutang (1895-1976) is one of the cleverest things ever written or said. It effectively means that it doesn’t really matter where you travel to. What does matter, however, is what you find. And your vision becomes much sharper if you are lost and not sure where you are going. Becoming a ‘perfect’ traveller, in the sense of being totally unbiased, is much harder; it requires complete eradication from memory of one’s background and past impressions to the point when the traveller’s mind becomes a tabula rasa, capable of perceiving the world as it really is.

Let us ask ourselves: what makes Albert Einstein’s travel diaries so important that a respected international publisher has just released the second volume of them? This is a sequel to the superbly revealing ‘The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein: The Far East, Palestine and Spain, 1922-1923’, which I wrote about when it was published to considerable acclaim in 2018.

To me, the answer is obvious: nothing exposes a person’s character as fully as the road, for, in the words of Jack Kerouac, “the road is life”, and we all – scientists and non-scientists alike – are keen to uncover what kind of person history’s greatest physicist was. My conclusion on finishing the earlier collection of his travel diaries, was that Einstein, while being an undisputed scientific genius on the one hand, was also the man of his time and an ordinary human being, with all his merits and faults, on the other.

This second volume, ‘The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein: South America, 1925’ (Princeton University Press, £28, ISBN 9780691201023), edited by Ze’ev Rosenkranz and covering Einstein’s travels in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil between March and May, confirms that initial impression.  Einstein’s main mission on that trip was to introduce the academics and university students in those countries to his theory of relativity. Also, as the great scientist himself confesses repeatedly, it was partially an escape from his growing popularity in Germany, where he his full-scale celebrity status had started to interfere with both his work and his private life.

As I gleaned from Rozenkranz’s detailed introduction, Einstein kept his diary in a 72-page lined notebook, of which only 43 pages carried his jottings, with the remaining 29 staying blank. He wrote daily, often in a rush – a fact that is illustrated by the facsimiled pages – all 43 of them – reproduced alongside a full transcription of Einstein’s own hasty and seemingly undecipherable scribbles and numerous photographs.

In each of the three countries, Einstein was warmly welcomed by the local Jewish communities. “Wherever I go, I am enthusiastically welcomed by the Jews, as, I am, for them, a sort of symbol of the cooperation of Jews...,” he noted.

The reception from the scientific communities was much less cordial. As was reported in the Argentine press, only a very limited number of “the country’s scientists... was capable of following Einstein’s arguments, and in position to judge the quality of the theory.” And here’s what he wrote himself: “In the afternoon, session of the Academy [in Buenos Aires]. Became foreign member. Very stupid scientific questions were posed to me, so it was difficult to remain serious...”.

Students, on the other hand, less conservative by definition and always open to new ideas, gave Einstein a much warmer reception. “First lecture in overfilled hall in seething heat. The young are always pleasant because they are interested in the topics...,” he wrote after addressing a capacity audience at the Colegio Nacional high school in Buenos Aires.

As for Einstein’s impressions of the places he visited, they - just like in the first volume of his diaries - are often sketchy, superficial and rather naive, albeit not necessarily all negative. A couple of examples.

On Buenos Aires: “City comfortable and boring. People delicate, doe-eyed, graceful, but clichéd, Luxury, superficiality...”

On Uruguay, where he spoke at the Montevideo Academy of Engineering: “... a happy little country, is not only charming in nature with warm humid climate, but also model social institutions...”

As in the previous volume, Einstein’s most controversial – arrogant and at times openly racist - comments concern the inhabitants of the countries he visited. From references to “... lackered Indians, sceptically cynical without any love of culture, debauched in beef tallow...”, to “unspeakably stupid creatures” and “unsavoury riff-raff”. The last two comments refer to Argentinians, for whom, in the words of Ze’ev Rozenkranz, Einstein “seems to have a general disdain” and whom “he views as morally and culturally inferior”.

In contrast, Einstein, somewhat innocently, admires the Uruguayans whom he finds “much more human and enjoyable” than Argentinians. “The [Uruguayan] people simply remind one of the Swiss and Dutch. Modest and natural...”

Such regrettably stereotypical small-town attitudes are neatly summed up by Einstein himself, who noted on arrival to Buenos Aires: “I’m terribly tired of people.” To the extent that he seems to have found himself unable - or unwilling - to judge them properly.

On the whole, however, I found the diary engrossing and captivating. Like no biopic or literary biography, it offers a fascinating and unembellished insight into the workings of one of history’s greatest minds, without either idolising or condemning it. As it is insightfully summed up by Rozenkranz: “...similar to us all, Einstein had the right to be wrong and to make potentially self-sabotaging decisions. That only renders him more human.”

Hear, hear...

Coming back to the opening quote from Lin Yutang, what kind of traveller was Einstein, after all? Definitely a good one, for, as his diaries testify, he often felt genuinely lost (read confused) when on the road, and the ability to get lost, as I keep telling the students of my travel writing courses, is the main quality of a good traveller.

Yet, like most of us (including this writer), being unable to shed completely the heavy luggage of his past and thus to reach an unbiased view of the world, he – while remaining a great scientist - had never become a ‘perfect’ traveller!

‘South America, 1925’ is the second of six Einstein travel diaries scheduled for publication. I can’t wait to lay my hands on the remaining four.

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