Einstein Year

By Jay Brunhouse

In 2006 Berlin will celebrate the opening of new train stations at Hauptbahnhof/Lehrter Bahnhof, Potsdamer Platz, Papestrasse and Gesundbrunnen on May 28 before the craziness and traffic crunch of the World Cup soccer games.

This year Berlin and Potsdam celebrate Einstein Year on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the physicist’s death and the 100th anniversary of his formulation of the Theory of Relativity. In 1905, Albert Einstein published five essays that revolutionized the classic ideas of space, time, mass and energy, changing our perception of the world.

After a few years as a professor in Zürich and Prague, Einstein returned to Berlin to the, then, Center of Research & Natural Sciences. From 1914 to 1932 he lived and worked in Berlin as a member of the Prussian Academy of the Sciences and as head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics.

In 1919 Einstein suddenly became a superstar when a British team confirmed his General Theory of Relativity by astronomical measurements.

Berlin and Potsdam are marking Einstein Year at Humboldt University, where he taught; at the Archenhold Observatory, where he delivered his first lecture on his Relativity Theory; at his villa in Caputh, where he spent the summers of 1929-1932, and at the Einstein Tower above Potsdam.

As you walk along Berlin’s Unter den Linden avenue, you will notice a series of 9-foot, red E’s with explanations of Einstein’s life and achievements. Unter den Linden began as no more than a path under Linden trees from the royal palace to the Brandenburg Gate. The name seems to have come from the orders given by the elector, who decreed in 1690 that “farmers must pen their pigs better ‘Unter den Linden,’ so they won’t damage the trees.” A hundred years later the street gained the character you recognize today.

Humboldt University

The gray stone Humboldt Universität (Humboldt University) building on the north side of Unter den Linden was originally the neoclassical 1748 palace built for Friedrich the Great’s brother, Prince Heinrich, but home to the university since its founding. It was opened by Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1810 while minister of education under King Friedrich Wilhelm.

At the entrance you see busts of Wilhelm, the writer and politician, and his brother, Alexander, the famed naturalist and explorer of South America who is credited as the first European to realize the value of using bird droppings for fertilizer.

In addition to Albert Einstein, the men who taught here were among the greatest figures of their times: Fichte and Hegel; the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm; Helmholtz, the physicist; Ranke, and Mommsen, the historian of the Roman Republic. Mark Twain, for one, was captivated by the sight of a whole roomful of Berlin students rising to their feet and raising their sabers in honor of the entry of Mommsen. Alumni include Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Karl Liebknecht.

One bus stop north of the Soviet Memorial in Berlin’s Treptow district, you see two small domes, like the shells of overgrown turtles, in a wild field. This is the Archenhold-Sternwarte (Archenhold Observatory). When the telescope with a 21-meter focal length was unveiled in 1896 it was a sensation, but the 50-centimeter reflecting telescope is no longer cutting edge. The Einstein Salon is open 2-4:30 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday.

Einstein Tower

About 20 minutes by foot above Potsdam’s Brandenburg State Parliament building on the Telegraphenberg (Telegraph Hill) you find the Einsteinturm (tower). It is one of the most sensational buildings in Germany because of its ongoing astrophysical research and striking architecture.

Planned and built in the years 1919-1924, it was the first important building designed by the famous architect Erich Mendelsohn and was a collaboration between Mendelsohn, astronomer Erwin Finlay Freundlich and Einstein, who used it for experiments to provide practical evidence of his Theory of Relativity.

Mirrors in the cupola at the top of the Einstein Tower gather sunlight and reflect it down into a subterranean astrophysical laboratory, but the building itself looks like an ungainly spaceship. Its squat, concrete tower, with four tiers of deeply recessed windows, rises heavily from an elongated base. “Organic,” according to Einstein. It was declared a technical monument as a major example of expressionist architecture.

After Einstein departed for the United States, Hitler appointed a new director, changed the name of the tower to “Institut für Sonnenphysik” and denounced “Jewish Physics.” The tower was heavily damaged during the last weeks of the Second World War by a bomb explosion nearby, and it was not until the beginning of the ’50s that work could be resumed. It was renovated between November 1997 and July 1999.

The tower is still an active sun observatory today. The Albert Einstein Science Park is open for visitors during the day, but the tower is accessible to visitors only to the extent that weekend tours bring visitors to the ground floor and main room so as not to disrupt research work.

Einstein Villa

On the occasion of Einstein’s 50th birthday in 1929, Berlin’s municipal council voted to present Germany’s foremost physicist with a city-owned villa, but this touched off such an embarrassing series of events that Einstein was led to despair and bought with his own money land in Caputh. There he built the handsome Einstein Summerhouse where he spent his summer months between 1929 and 1932.

As he left his villa in Caputh in 1932 to teach another semester at Cal Tech, he said to his wife, “Before you leave our villa this time, take a good look at it. . . You will never see it again.” Up to his death in 1955, he never again set foot in Germany.

After being closed for 30 years, the physicist’s renovated summerhouse at Am Waldrand 15-17 was reopened on May 5, 2005, as a high point of 2005’s Einstein Year. It is the only remaining site where the scientist once worked in Europe.

Reach Caputh by an 11-minute regional (RB) train ride from Potsdam Hauptbahnhof. Trains depart hourly, daily, or you can use Bus 607 from Potsdam Hauptbahnhof to Caputh, Schloss.

Many thanks

I thank the Berlin Tourist Office (www.berlin-tourist-information.de) for their help and for organizing a night for me at the Quality Hotel Berlin Tegel (Holländerstraße 31), 1.2 miles from Tegel Airport. Travel time between the hotel and airport is 15 to 45 minutes, depending on traffic.

The Potsdam Tourist Office (www. potsdamtourismus.de) graciously provided sightseeing and one night each at the modern, attractive Dorint Novotel Hotel Sanssouci (Jägerallee 20), which belongs in the 4-star, business-hotel brand of the Accor group, and the NH Hotel Voltaire (Friedrich-Ebert-Strasse 88), a quiet hotel in an attractive neighborhood (the Dutch Quarter) with a convenient streetcar connection to the Potsdam Hauptbahnhof.

In September we’ll ride Switzerland’s most famous train, the Glacier Express, in its 75th year. All Aboard! Till next month.

Note: The third edition of Mr. Brunhouse’s “Maverick Guide to Berlin” will be published late this year.