Beyond Einstein and Bohr’s science

Play explores physicists’ love of fairy tales

The grandmothers starring in the play
Photo by Len Barron

It wasn’t all equations and formulas for physics giants Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. In the midst of their debates and disagreements on quantum mechanics, they shared mutual philosophies on beauty, children and fairy tales.

Now, 79-year-old Len Barron — who looks quite a bit like Einstein himself — hopes to bring these philosophies to others in his new play, Einstein, Niels Bohr and Grandmothers … A Fairy Tale.

“Einstein and Neils Bohr were raised on fairy tales, so they learned at a very early age to believe in impossible things,” Barron says. “For them, fairy tales are the embodiment of our highest ideals, our sense for the possible. Fairy tales are really a state of mind, and this is what they said about children: ‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want your children to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’”

Barron says he developed admiration for Einstein and Bohr when he started college at CU at the age of 30.

“Up until the time I was 30 I had barely read and I had never written more than a page in my life,” he says. “I was apprehensive, and when I started school I didn’t know whether I would be able to do it, but I knew I had absolute control about showing up every day. I think, of my four years in college, I missed maybe one or two classes.”

But it was not a physics class that inspired Barron’s love for his idols today. It was a geology class.

“My professor was talking about a study he had done on Zion National Park,” he says. “At one point he said he was looking at a rock formation and a thought from Einstein came to mind which he shared with us: ‘Many times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer lives are based upon the labors of my fellow man and woman, both living and dead, and earnestly I must work in order to give as much as I have received and continue to receive.’ There was a stunning quiet in the class, and then he said ‘Why don’t you put a stone in your pocket and take a walk and ponder that idea?’ And I did. That was the first walk I took with Einstein.”

Since that time, Barron has spent his life sharing the ideals and values of Einstein through his writings and plays. But whether he’s speaking at a conference full of plasma physicists or to 500 middle-schoolers, Barron says he’s always put focus on Einstein’s philosophical teachings.

“Both Einstein and Bohr considered beauty to be paramount considerations in their work,” Barron says. “Whatever the inquiry, the solution was to be found in discovering the beautiful. In math and physics in particular, if an idea really wasn’t beautiful, if the equations weren’t beautiful, it couldn’t be right. When things work, it’s beautiful. Not only is it true of physics, in the structure of the stars, but it’s true with everything. When things work it’s because there’s a sense of harmony there, there’s a positive energy. When things don’t work, it ain’t so pretty, whether you’re talking about the stars or personal relationships. Beauty was a crucial part of Bohr and Einstein’s investigations and research, and it’s also true of human relationships.”

In his new play, Barron will feature eight grandmothers, including former state Sen. Dorothy Rupert. Barron says the choice to use grandmothers as narrators adds to the fairy tale environment Barron hopes to create, while engaging younger audiences who may not fully realize the importance and impact of their elders.

“The wisdom and experience of elders were passed on to the young, but that doesn’t happen very often these days, and that’s a great loss to children, along with the comfort and wisdom they get from the sense of continuity,” he says.

Barron says the narration will focus on sharing the teachings of Einstein and Bohr, including their thoughts on education, children, peace and justice, and the reflective properties of walking.

“I wanted to show how useful Einstein and Bohr are in our everyday lives,” he says. “In terms of the content, the focus is not on the genius of these two men, but rather the principles that guided their lives. They are qualities that are available to any one of us in our daily lives: fairness, beauty and playfulness. Imagine every setting at home, at work or in the street, in which these qualities set the tone for the time. Imagine sending your child off to school with fairness, beauty and playfulness filled in the air, the classroom, the hallways and the neighborhood. Imagine that. For Einstein in Bohr, these are the basics of education.”


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