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Michel Janssen’s freshman seminar examines Einstein’s scientific theories and takes an unflinching look at his human foibles

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Genius REDUX BY JUDY WOODWARD • PHOTOS BY JON ATHAN CHAPMAN

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INVENTING TOMORROW Winter 2004

SSISTANT PROFESSOR MICHEL JANSSEN WATCHES

as one of his students adds a new colored line to a roughly drawn Minkowski diagram, a geometric representation used to demonstrate spacetime paradoxes of the special theory of relativity. The student’s grip on his marker wavers a bit, and a classmate asks why his space and time axes aren’t drawn from the same point. “Because I’m a sloppy drawer,” is the response. “That’s OK,” quips another student. “Like everything else in this class, it’s all relative.” It’s a predictable line that’s heard frequently in Einstein for Everyone, the freshman seminar taught by Janssen, a faculty member in the Program in the History of Science and Technology. Today the seminar’s 3 first-semester students are getting a taste of the heady possibilities of relativistic space-time. They’re learning about the Twin Paradox (a mind-blowing proposition based on what Einstein termed the “dilation of time”) that identical twins will age at different rates if one twin hitches a round-trip ride on a spaceship. To illustrate the theory’s implications, Janssen describes what he calls a “disgusting male chauvinist pig fantasy,” in which a man married to an enticing young woman induces her identical twin to blast off in a spaceship traveling “at 99 percent of the speed of light.” By the time the spaceship returns, the husband and wife are approaching age 50, but her twin remains almost as young as her sister was on her wedding day. Says Janssen with a straight face, “So I find myself a divorce lawyer and marry the twin. This scenario is perfectly allowed in special relativity.” “That’s awesome, dude,” exclaims one young man in the second row. Other students are equally enthusiastic about Janssen’s unorthodox approach to teaching the foundations of modern physics. “This is the most amazing class,” says future accounting major Katie Simpson. “You come here and you can feel your brain clicking. It’s a great experience to know you’re learning. This is what college is all about.” Freshman Kristine Meyer adds, “I’m really enjoying this class. It’s the only class I smile in.” Their classmate, Isaac Beaver, a mechanical engineering student, confesses that studying Einstein was not his original plan. “My first choice was Psychopaths and Serial Killers,” he says, but that seminar filled before Beaver could register. Nevertheless, he’s pleased with his runner-up selection, the Einstein class. “I always thought the theory of special relativity was interesting when we studied it in high school [physics], but [the teacher’s atwww.it.umn.edu

www.it.umn.edu

titude] was ‘just accept it,’” says Beaver. “We never learned to do the Minkowski diagrams in high school. In college, [relativity] just got a lot weirder.” Freshman seminars are as unique as the minds that shape them. Faculty from a wide range of academic departments design and teach the seminars to showcase the University’s broad intellectual horizons. IT’s offerings have focused on disparate topics ranging from astronomy’s Extraterrestrial Life to a chemistry department offering entitled Water, Water Everywhere, nor Any Drop to Drink. The content of Janssen’s class includes an unflinching look at Einstein the man as well as an introduction to his scientific theories. During the seminar’s first meetings, discussion centers on the work that made Einstein the foremost scientist of the 20th century, but subsequent sessions examine the eventful personal and political life of the thinker who commanded the attention of presidents and the hatred of Nazis. Einstein played an important role in such historical movements as Zionism and pacifism while he also managed a surprisingly complicated private life that included two wives, several mistresses, and at least one child whose existence was kept under wraps. Anyone who enrolls in the seminar expecting only an overview of Einstein’s scientific theories is in for a shock. Required reading includes the book Einstein in Love, and students will end the semester by performing selected scenes from a screenplay about Einstein’s life that Janssen cowrote. Any illusions of Einstein as an ascetic intellectual are dispelled when the class reads aloud such GENIUS REDUX CONTINUED ON PAGE 30 ª

Michel Janssen (above and left) unmasks Einstein in his new seminar. INVENTING TOMORROW Winter 2004

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Inventing Tomorrow, Winter 2004 (vol 28 no 1)  

Raising Funds And Friends: The Success Of Campaign Minnesota Is Measured In More Than Dollars And Cents

Inventing Tomorrow, Winter 2004 (vol 28 no 1)  

Raising Funds And Friends: The Success Of Campaign Minnesota Is Measured In More Than Dollars And Cents