Carrière et vie professionnelle

Einstein’s Blackboard as a Mutant Object

From the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, UK

From the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, UK

To the experts (historians, collectors, and curators), Oxford’s Museum for the History of Science is known for having one of the best European collections of Renaissance and early modern scientific instruments (including the best collection of astrolabes in the World — the Wandering Seminar’s fetish object). To the general public, however, MHS is perhaps better known for possessing a rather peculiar object: Einstein’s blackboard, on which he gave a well-attended lecture at Oxford in 1931. It has become to some extent a relic, people coming in just to see it-virtually disregarding all the rest. Why an old blackboard, showing a set of field equations that few understands, has such an alluring — compelling — power of attraction?

To acknowledge such an unusual fact, Jim Bennett had the highly original idea of producing an exhibition around Einstein’s blackboard in order to celebrate the centenial anniversary of the special theory of relativity (1905-2005). The Bye, Bye Blackboard exhibition intended to combine “science, art, celebrity, and nostalgia” by inviting more than a dozen artists, scientists, and scholars to draw anything they wanted on similar blackboards as Einstein’s. The result was one of the most successful exhibitions in the history of the museum.

One obvious question arises from this experiment: what kind of “instrument” is this? What can we make of it? I would argue that this blackboard is not a scientific instrument (I think this is rather obvious), but an exceptional mutant artefact. Indeed, this blackboard cries out a truth that is too often forgotten, i.e. the significance of an object is frequently associated to sociological factors far beyond its original and intended ontological essence. In the case of blackboards, one writes on it with white or colored chalk, inscriptions meant to be erased almost immediately as a calculation or the explanation of a concept is completed and/or understood (or not). The nature of knowledge found on such blackboards is thus ephemeral; the intended ontological essence of blackboards is thus not to preserve knowledge, but rather to ascertain and replicate knowledge over and over again. Its ontological purpose is not passive long-term memory but rather short-term active replication. (Andrew Warwick has shown brilliantly in his Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics (2003) how training for the Cambridge mathematical tripos changed with the 19th-century introduction of paper and pencil, which merged both concepts of memory and replication.) Einstein’s blackboard at the MHS, therefore, is a contra naturam aberration, a socially produced “mutant artifact” because its ontological essence — its basic DNA function — has been fundamentally altered.

The significant and consequential alteration of Einstein’s blackboard did not come from an ontological breakdown (inherent principle) but from a sociological onslaught (outside environment) — i.e. preservation of Einstein’s aura of greatness. This sociological alteration has rendered Einstein’s blackboard both stronger and weaker than a plain blackboard. Stronger due to its new acquired fame and power of attraction to the museum, which a plain blackboard would obviously not warrant; weaker due to the simple fact that Einstein’s blackboard is no longer a “real” blackboard, it has lost its most fundamental ontological or genetic essence. Indeed, if you erase the equations on Einstein’s blackboard in order to recover the original ontological function of the blackboard — i.e. the replication of knowledge-you completely loose the socially-created artifact known as Einstein’s blackboard. The sociological metamorphosis at the origin of this celebrated artifact has completely destroyed its intrinsic nature. It has mutated genetically into something else. Einstein’s blackboard has become an object of memory, an object of collection modified at the ontological level by a social desire to celebrate the achievement of a great man.

In becoming this sacrosanct object of collection, Einstein’s blackboard has turned into what Baudrillard calls an objet abstrait de sa fonction. Baudrillard explains in Le Système des objets (1968) that every object has two functions: one is to be used (être pratiqué), one is to be owned (être possédé). In our case, when the blackboard was used before Einstein, it was simply a blackboard. Now that it is in possession of a museum, it has become an object, Einstein’s blackboard, an artifact that has lost its functionality, its intrisic function having been forever abstracted from the actuality of its ontology. This blackboard is no longer a specific instrument of social practices: its inherent qualities have transcended to the realm of subjectivity. As Baudrillard explains: “l’objet pur, dénué de fonction, ou abstrait de son usage, prend un statut strictement subjectif: il devient objet de collection. Il cesse d’être tapis, table, boussole ou bibelot pour devenir ‘objet’. Un ‘bel objet’ dira le collectionneur, et non pas une belle statuette. Lorsque l’objet n’est plus spécifié par sa fonction, il est qualifié par le sujet.” (p.121) When objects are possessed, stocked in private or museum collections, they become “masterpieces,” “star items,” or “artefacts of the finest quality.” This may help explain why we have so much trouble defining what type of object, for example, is the Whipple Museum’s ring dial discussed elsewhere. When used and manipulated, the ring dial is a scientific instrument; when seen behind a museum’s glass window (or, in the past, found on the shelf in an aristocrat’s cabinet) it becomes a “most beautiful acquisition.” Subjectivity trumps social (and especially scientific) practices.

In fact, understanding this struggle between “to be used” and “to be owned” could illuminate at least one aspect of what I dubbed the astrolabe syndrome. Baudrillard mentions that for everyday objects, functionality and possession are in a constant state of flux: “L’environnement habituel garde … un statut ambigu: le fonctionnel s’y défait sans cesse dans le subjectif, la possession s’y mêle à l’usage, dans une entreprise toujours déçue d’intégration totale.” (p.122) One uses a car, a computer, a fridge, a television, etc. and has the feeling of owning these objects, yet when comes the time to “upgrade” them, though a sentiment of nostalgia may step in, in the end they are simply discarded. Complete subjectivity towards objects is thus never reached by individuals, though owing to their familiarity with these objects, they know how to use them, they can relate to their subjective abstraction when seen in a museum.

It is not the case with scientific instruments. Most people are just not accustomed to use them. They do not know how to relate to scientific instruments because they simply have no clue how to manipulate them. They never have developped the habit of using them. Consequently, when the instrument’s use has been abstracted upon entering the realm of the museum collection, visitors just cannot see the subjective “beauty” of these scientific objects. Again, Baudrillard explains very well this relationship between objects and habits: “Chaque objet est à mi-chemin entre une spécificité pratique, sa fonction, qui est comme son discours manifeste, et l’absorption dans une série/collection, où il devient terme d’un discours latent, répétitif, le plus élémentaire et le plus tenace des discours. Ce système discursif des objets est homologue de celui des habitudes… L’objet devient d’ailleurs immédiatement support d’un réseau d’habitudes, point de cristallisation de routines du comportement. Inversement, il n’est peut-être pas d’habitude qui ne tourne autour d’un objet. Les uns et les autres s’impliquent inextricablement dans l’existence quotidienne.” (p.132) Learning how to use a scientific instrument and seeing its inner and exterior “beauty” go hand in hand. Without the habit — habitus, tacit knowledge — the scientific object means nothing to someone seeing it behind glass, as s/he would a familiar decorative art object (such as a chair, armoire, lamp, etc.).

Science museums throughout the world are trying to educate people about scientific principles, with a vast array of hands-on and computerized activities, but they do not create the habitus of using instrument. Knowing everything about astronomy does not help in understanding how an astrolabe works-and see its subjective beauty. Same thing with an eighteenth-century vacuum pump, a nineteenth-century saccharimeter, and a twentieth-century bubble chamber or coincidence counter. Children learn through play, through object manipulation. It is high-time museum visitors learn about scientific instrument by touching accurate replicas (and the real thing when possible), not just virtual ones.

March 9, 2009 - Posted by | Instrument, Museum | , ,


  1. I posted a comment from another computer other than my own a couple of days ago. This is one of the best articles that I’ve read in a long time. I almost cried when I read it. It’s very well-written and it reminded me of one of a few excellent teachers that I had in the sixth grade. She was one of the most dedicated teachers I had in school. It was a privilege to be her student. She wrote down many math problems on that blackboard. She taught school with the same enthusiasm that Einstein had in his lifetime. I was very fortunate to have Mrs. Souviney as well as other teachers in my hometown. I went to three one-room schools (each school had two grades). We didn’t even have running water but we had the best teachers anywhere and that’s what’s important.

    Comment by Peggy Mower | September 8, 2009 | Reply

  2. Powerful post.

    Comment by codec pack | August 14, 2010 | Reply

  3. Awfully well written article

    Comment by Berita Online | October 19, 2011 | Reply

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