The Max Wyman who corrected Einstein

March 22, 2005: PRINCETON, N.J.: Julia Zarankin, daughter of Boris and Inna and family friend since forever, is running the Canadian Studies program here and has invited me to talk to her class about Canadian culture and the U.S. position on the UNESCO cultural diversity issue.

They’ve put me up at the university’s elegant guest lodge, Palmer House (my Bouquet Room looks out through rose-chintz draperies onto the quiet, treed grounds: a lamp on the desk features a chintz-decorated china dog, whose fragile bisque reminds me for some reason of the Easter eggs I used to get as a child, which is oddly comforting—a charming place to spend the night) and there are pleasant walks through the campus trees and the small town.

I told the class (brilliant, attentive) that I had disappointing news for those who took the trouble to Google my name and thought they had found a Princeton connection. I am not, I told them, the Max Wyman from Canada who wrote to Albert Einstein, here at the Institute for Advanced Study, to correct his paper on the Influence of the Expansion of Space in the Gravitational Fields Surrounding Individual Stars.

That was 1945; the Max Wyman in question was a rising mathematics star at the University of Alberta. He went on to solve equations underlying unified field theory, which in effect ended Einstein’s attempts to merge gravity with electromagnetism, and became president of the U of A. He and I are quite often confused, despite the fact that he is now dead and I was only six years old and 6,000 miles away at the time of his correspondence with the great man.

The university has no Einstein marker (he didn’t want one) though apparently a bust is to be installed later this year. The Princeton Einstein Museum, such as it is, is housed in the back corner of a clothing store on the main street of the town, a little rectangle of space behind the socks and parkas. It contains the largest collection of Einstein artefacts and documents in North America, I’m told by the proprietor.

The collection turns out to be photos, copies of letters and reproduction newspaper reports of his death, all higgledy-piggledy on the wall, and a dusty glass case of first-day mail covers with the Einstein commemorative stamp. I buy a handful of buttons bearing Einstein quotes, the closest thing the place has to a souvenir.

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