Editor’s Note, March/April 2005


By Amy Lifson | HUMANITIES, March/April 2005 | Volume 26, Number 2

In a scientific publication in 1905, a twenty-six-year-old German patent officer named Albert Einstein proclaimed that space and time were not absolute. His simple equation, e=mc2, would change how humans imagine the universe. "Newton, forgive me," wrote Einstein later, apologizing to his predecessor for refuting his laws of physics that had stood for centuries.

At the one hundredth anniversary of Einstein's theory of relativity, Humanities reminds us that the path to knowledge is often a collaborative effort. Einstein's work was influenced by centuries of thinkers--from Aristotle to Copernicus to Newton--and by an age that propelled many to search for answers. Einstein's circle included established scientists such as physicist Max Plank and mathematician Marcel Grossman, as well as friends outside the academic realm who shared a common interest in the advancement of science. Once Einstein's theory of relativity was formulated, others would spend decades testing its authenticity.

A similar synergy of creativity occurred when scientists, designers, and engineers forged the Industrial Revolution. "The Industrial Revolution is the greatest event in modern history," says Princeton engineering professor David Billington. With the development of the steam engine and modern steel production, ideas that were only dreams in the Middle Ages-- airplanes, portable bridges, cranes lifting toward the sky--became realities of modern engineering. In studying these structures, Billington finds beauty in their economy and innovation. He teaches engineering to humanists and draws them in with aesthetics. "Beauty gets you first," he explains. "We live in a very visual world now, and the students are oriented this way."

A new website on the history of architecture enables students to view some of the world's most beautiful buildings from angles that might be impossible even in person--from the rooftop of a Gothic cathedral or from the midst of the girding of the Eiffel Tower. As students virtually examine these details they reconsider old assumptions, such as the belief that technology drove the designs of Europe's medieval churches. Instead, says Columbia professor Stephen Murray, the grand vision came first and then "theologians, planners, and masons" joined forces to find solutions.

After entering Vanderbilt University at the age of sixteen, American writer Robert Penn Warren blossomed under the influence of "congenial spirits" determined to influence the world of letters. We mark the centenary of Warren's birth by taking a look at his formative college days. Even among his peers, Warren stood out: he was "very brilliant, the smartest boy I knew, extraordinarily alert, knowledgeable in every way," said classmate Andrew Lytle. Their friendship would continue for decades, as would Warren's ties with other literary notables including Cleanth Brooks, Katherine Anne Porter, Ralph Ellison, and William Styron.

Warren and his cohorts witnessed the beginning of the modern literary age, ushered in by the publication of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land in 1922. At about the same time, a modern movement was burgeoning across the Atlantic in Paris, where a group of avant-garde composers called Les Six were fusing American jazz with traditional European sounds. Jazz also influenced the work of composer Harold Arlen, born a century ago, who mixed his old-world Jewish musical traditions with those of other artists at Harlem's Cotton Club. The results are songs that cross racial and generational boundaries, and have become part of our shared American repertoire.

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