Tue, Jul 19, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Einstein on `spooky action-at-a-distance'

The great physicist took his own peep at the paranormal 74 years ago and was not over-impressed

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

A child runs by a portrait and caricatures of Albert Einstein, at a special exhibition in Seoul.

PHOTO: AP

The 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein's annus mirabilis has not passed quietly. Newspapers, magazines and TV documentaries have all trumpeted the year in which Einstein published five papers rethinking the laws of time and space. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the former patent clerk's death.

Yet lying between these two dates is a less well-known anniversary. It is 74 years since Einstein attended the only seance of his life. What could have persuaded Einstein to attend such an unscientific event?

By 1930 Einstein was one of the most famous people on the planet. His general theory of relativity (with a little help from E=mc2) had thrust him into the spotlight as the foremost proponent of the new scientific age. Knowing of his plans to leave Germany, the world's leading universities tried to tempt him to their campuses.

It was the offer from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, that proved most enticing, thanks to their top astronomer, Edwin Hubble, who had seen distant galaxies streaking away from Earth through his 250cm telescope. Here was proof that the universe was expanding, an observation that refuted Einstein's view of the universe as a fixed sphere. Intrigued, he and his wife traveled west in 1931.

In Pasadena, the 51-year-old Einstein found solace in the company of one of the locale's most notorious gadflies, the author Upton Sinclair. The Michael Moore of his time, Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) had exposed the unsanitary conditions and labor exploitation rife in Chicago's meat-packing industry. The book caused a national outcry and so horrified former president Theodore Roosevelt that he reputedly threw his sausages out of the White House window.

Sinclair went on to write further jeremiads against big business, yet his latest project was quite different. He had become obsessed with extra-sensory perception and had written a book, Mental Radio (1930), about experiments he had conducted that seemed to prove telepathy's existence.

Sinclair had sent Einstein a copy of Mental Radio before his arrival in the US. Einstein was a great admirer of Sinclair's previous, muckraking works and offered to write an open-minded, if ultimately non-committal, preface.

The two became the closest of friends. Einstein wrote telegrams of support for the striking workers that Sinclair championed, and Sinclair provided Einstein with a break from celebrity and science, taking him to the cinema to see All Quiet on the Western Front, which had been banned in Germany as pacifist propaganda.

Other than in the preface to Mental Radio, Einstein had never professed any kind of interest, let alone belief, in supernatural beings or extra-sensory powers. "Even if I saw a ghost," he once said, "I wouldn't believe it." But Sinclair was excited by the prospect and thought that this was his best chance to convert Einstein to his cause.

Count Roman Ostoja was a muscular, dark-eyed man who claimed to be a Polish aristocrat, although he was really from Cleveland, Ohio. He had been working the west coast under the stage name of Nostradamus and gained plaudits for being buried underground in a coffin for three hours. He claimed to have studied under "occult masters" in India and Tibet and had wowed Sinclair with his mind-reading.

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