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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2557

Einstein’s Private Diaries: non-relativistic observations in Colombo and China

Hemantha Abeywardena writes from London…

Albert Einstein, the greatest physicist of all time, whose name is synonymous with intelligence, has come under server criticism for some of the observations that he made in a private diary during a voyage to the Far East in 1920s.

Dr Einstein, who came up with the idea that space and time are warped, in causing what is known as gravity in his General Theory of Relativity, may not have thought in his wildest dreams that certain entries in his private diaries could potentially warp his own, otherwise illustrious legacy among adoring fans across the world.

The controversial diary entries stem from his travels that spanned over five months in the Far East in late 1922 and early 1923 on board SS Kitano Maru. Dr Einstein meticulously noted his experiences during the voyage with wife Elsa, both on board the ship and offshore.

While en-route to Japan, Dr Einstein and his wife, Elsa, landed in Colombo on October, 22nd in 1922. Then, the couple had visited the city, mingled with the locals and perhaps, had some bad experiences from rickshaw-pullers, when the latter tried to board the couple into rickshaws against their will.

Although, the diaries of Dr Einstein’s cover a wide range of subjects, the diary entries, particularly in China and in Sri Lanka – then Ceylon , have come under intense scrutiny this week: referring to his brief stay in Colombo, he had talked about unbearable stench at ground level, perhaps due to open-air urination or defecation, both by cows and human beings in the early 20s, despite being under the British rule; in addition, Dr Einstein had been less than flattering, when he referred to the locals, as people, who do little, need little - perhaps, about the folks, who used to chew betel, spit it out around them, squat and chat under shade and of course, occasionally relieve themselves out in a corner, as if it was as natural as sneezing or coughing.
He summed up the routine their simple economic cycle of life.


Dr Einstein’s observations about the Chinese are not very pleasant either; in fact, it is much harsher than what he saw in our own not-so-distant ancestors in Colombo: he said that the Chinese are, “industrious, filthy and obtuse.” He went on to say that “they don’t eat while sitting on benches, but squat like Europeans do while relieving themselves out in the leafy woods.”

Then he observed another aspect of the Chinese daily life: “I noticed how little difference there is between men and women; I don’t understand what kind of fatal attraction Chinese women possess which enthrals the corresponding men to such an extent that they are incapable of defending themselves against the formidable blessing of offspring, “ said Dr Einstein.

Before embarking on the voyage to Japan, Dr Einstein had said, “I have an unimaginable longing for solitude, and that's why I'm traveling to Japan (in October), because that entails 12 weeks of rest at sea.”
Judging by his unfavourable comments, it is clear that Dr Einstein must have, much to his horror, found out that the Far East is not the ideal place to seek solitude or solace in his hour of need; his frustration may have been amplified by the unwanted attraction of the locals wherever he went, owing to his fast-growing celebrity status across the world, with the Nobel prize in the offing.

Although, the stuff attributed to Einstein by Ze’ev Rosenkranz, the chief editor of Einstein papers is explosive, it has not triggered off an emotional earthquake in China, despite their sensitivity to national identity; nor did it cause a political tsunami in Sri Lanka on patriotic grounds.

In online forums, most of the Chinese seem to be sympathetic towards the great icon and admit what Dr Einstein observed was true, as China was in the middle of economic upheavals. In Sri Lanka too, people seem to be taking his remarks with a pinch of salt, which is equally a good thing too.

This is not the first time that selective diary entries, slips of the tongue, quotes – or misquotes – of famous people that stirred up human emotions. Even the great Gandhiji was not immune from scrutiny, when politically-incorrect quotes landed in public domain, especially in Africa in recent years.

Einstein’s first wife also incurred the wrath of Einstein’s fans when some of her not-so-private disclosures became public: on one occasion, she referred to a train journey that the pair embarked on from a train station in Berlin in winter, when she found out Einstein shivering in a corner, forgetting to put on his underwear - highlighting his absent-mindedness.

In responding to her observation, the fans refused to accept him being absent-minded; on the contrary, they say he had been present-minded elsewhere in the universe – formulating theories. Nor were they happy about the role of her probing hands on a dark wintry day, on a compartment of a train in checking whether the great physicist had put on his underwear - happy

In fairness to Einstein, however, I have heard that Einstein paid a second visit to Colombo on his return trip from Japan and spent much more time than he did in his first trip. On this trip, he had talked about our folks in an amiable manner, making a positive distinction between them and the Europeans.

Referring to the oppressive, humid climate, however, Einstein wondered how the natives in Sri Lanka could think ahead more than half an hour, though! This observation should be taken into account in the context of the whole purpose of Dr Einstein’s tour in the Far East – seeking solitude for thinking deeply about the subject he loved.

Meanwhile, it’s a relief to observe that Einstein’s remarks have not prompted an ultra-patriotic chap in Sri Lanka to launch a scathing attack on the genius or burn his effigies. Nor are there any signs of urging the authorities in banning the teaching of his famous Theory of Relativity in universities.

All in all, Einstein legacy may have been slightly ‘bruised’ by the revelations; but it will stand the test of time when the tide of controversy subsides in due course, as his contribution to mankind far outweighs a few obvious, human flaws.

- Asian Tribune -

Einstein’s Private Diaries: non-relativistic observations in Colombo and China
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