On 14 December, Radley resident Victoria Bentata Azaz recounted by Zoom how Einstein and many other refugee scholars enriched (especially) science at the University of Oxford in and after the 1930s.
By 1900, Germany was pre-eminent in science, thanks to many dedicated research institutes and the outstanding Technische Hochschulen (specializing in science and engineering). German scientists dominated the first Solvay conference of world-leading physicists, held in Brussels in 1911, attended by the young Albert Einstein (naturalized Swiss), and Frederick Lindemann, British son of a German-born father.
Einstein’s work on ‘special’ and ‘general’ relativity explained motion, light, and gravity by rigorous but perplexing mathematics. Einstein was eccentric and self-effacing, and became much admired in England. In 1919 the British astronomer Eddington made an expedition to the island of Principe to observe stars near the sun during a total eclipse. He found that Einstein’s mathematics correctly predicted the bending by the sun’s mass of light from the stars.
By the 1930s, ‘Aryan’ German scientists were disparaging Einstein’s work as ‘Jewish’ physics, and published a book 100 authors against Einstein. Einstein remarked that, if he had been wrong, one would have been enough.
Meanwhile, until 1919, physics was badly taught and little researched at Oxford. From 1919 Lindemann revived it – facing down the assertion that ‘anyone with a first in greats (classics) could get up science in a fortnight’.
In 1931 Lindemann persuaded Einstein to come to Oxford, and arranged a ‘studentship’ (teaching post) for him at Christ Church. In May 1931 Einstein gave 3 famous public lectures (in German). Some of his equations chalked on a blackboard were (and still are) preserved, including what Einstein later acknowledged were mistakes.
From 1933 Hitler assumed dictatorial power. Scientists (and others) with one or more Jewish grandparents were summarily dismissed. William Beveridge founded the Academic Assistance Council to bring academics fleeing Nazi persecution to Britain. In October 1933, shortly before taking up a post at Princeton, Einstein gave a speech (in English) at the Albert Hall in defence of academic freedom: ‘without such freedom there would have been no Shakespeare, no Goethe, no Newton, no Faraday, no Pasteur and no Lister.’
Lindemann and others attracted many distinguished refugee academics to Oxford. They played key roles, notably in the ‘Tube Alloys’ project to develop the atomic bomb, and in neurosurgery at Stoke Mandeville. They included fascinating eccentrics such as Nicholas Kurti, the ‘physicist in the kitchen’, and Eduard Fraenkel, who gave what was surely the longest ever series of graduate seminars on a Greek play.
Beveridge’s Council is still operating, now as the Council for At-Risk Academics, and Oxford University continues to be enriched by many staff and students from overseas.