Einstein on the Rocks

Pictures from a textbook, instead of a song, inspired a bumpy afternoon train ride from Berlin to Potsdam, Germany. There, Erich Mendelsohn’s Einsteinturm (Einstein Tower in English) rises (a little phallically) from the quiet, leafy campus of the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam. The image of the futuristic design has stuck with me since my days as an architecture undergrad, so I just knew I had to see it for myself.

There wasn’t any moss/mold in the black and white photos I saw in school. 

The tower, completed in 1921, houses a solar telescope and the first experiments aimed to either prove or disprove Einstein’s theory of relativity. While Einstein never worked in the observatory (and apparently didn’t even like the funky design when he toured it), the observatory’s connection to the famous scientist has survived a lot. Under the Nazi regime, the Institute was stripped of its independent status and all images of Einstein were confiscated. In 1945, it was discovered that the staff had saved a bronze bust of Einstein from being melted down. They hid the bust behind some crates in the one of the labs, and placed a single rock (“ein stein” means “one stone” in German) in its place. To me, there is nothing more endearing about human beings than small, stubborn acts of defiance. And maybe well-intentioned, but lousy puns.

The observatory still functions today. Because of this, you can visit the campus and view the Einsteinturm exterior for free during open hours, but if you want to go inside, you’ll have to arrange a tour in advance so the science isn’t constantly interrupted by architecture nerds with lame questions.

One of my favorite things about going to more obscure places on foot is that you stumble upon some other great stuff along the way. I got a nerdy kick out of the other buildings on the campus. I like anything that looks like the futuristic city from Disney’s underrated Meet the Robinsons.


Also, it you’re wondering, I did find a relatable song post-Potsdam. Give Einstein On the Beach (For An Eggman) by The Counting Crows a listen. [I can’t find any connection to the Philip Glass opera of the same name, but let me know in the comments if you know something I don’t.] The lyrics are pretty great and heavy with multiple meanings. I didn’t look up any interpretations, but I’m going to say with certainty that this song is about the atomic bomb, which Einstein’s famous E=MC^2 equation (accidentally) made possible:

And Albert’s visions blooming uncontrolled

And we all get burned as one more sun comes sliding down the sky
One more shadow leans against the wall
And the world begins to disappear
The worst things come from inside here
The shadows can be the dark side of each individual, but also probably references “nuclear shadows” created by intense blasts of thermal radiation. The “worst things” come from inside the bomb, but also just the human mind. Sometimes on accident. Sometimes on purpose. There is very clearly a reference to the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme, but The Counting Crows choose the word “Eggman” over “Egghead” to describe the German genius. This leads one to believe they are also making a Beatles reference. It could be a cute way to tie Einstein’s fantastic view of the universe to the hallucinogenic vibe (i.e. seeing things that others don’t) of I Am The Walrus, but after reading the meaning behind the Eggman in The Beatles’ song,  I don’t understand. I don’t want to understand. Ewww. Just ewwwww. So I might be taking the Eggman thing too far. The fact that the songs winds down with Never, never, never again, No no no in a kind of musical ellipsis echoes everyone’s hope that we learn from the worst parts of our history. But we’ll just have to see.


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