The second day of the quarter is usually checkered with uneventful happenings: a professor assigning the first homework or explaining how painful the next few weeks will be for the class. Normally, getting to see one of the smartest and most famous men in history at Royce Hall is not on the agenda.
On Feb. 15, 1932, German physicist Albert Einstein spoke at UCLA, as reported by the California Daily Bruin, a predecessor to the Daily Bruin. Coverage of the run-up to the event was sparse, with a short article tucked in on the front page of The Bruin on Feb. 12, 1932. The headline was an underwhelming “German Doctor Speaks Monday as Noted Guest,” almost as if the paper wasn’t referring to the man who had won the Nobel Prize in physics about a decade earlier. The article said anticipation for the speech was high among UCLA community members, though.
The paper’s coverage of the event on the day of the lecture was more fitting for a speaker of Einstein’s stature. “Einstein Speaks on Campus Today” read the headline across the front page for Feb. 15, 1932, with a photo of Einstein captioned “Distinguished Visitor” underneath it.
The lecture was given at 4 p.m. on the second day of the new semester in Royce Hall, and Einstein delivered it in German. Dr. Richard Chace Tolman (The Bruin had misspelled his middle name as “Case”), a professor and mathematical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, served as a translator. Presiding over the speech was Dr. Ernest Moore, vice president and provost of UCLA at the time and one of the co-founders of the university.
UCLA’s Sigma Xi club, which consisted of faculty members who were part of the national scientific research honor society, sponsored the lecture. The secretary of the club was then-chair of the astronomy department, Frederick C. Leonard, an astronomer who specialized in the study of meteorites.
At the time, Einstein was a guest at Caltech, participating in research work and eventually completing three terms as a winter professor there between 1931 and 1933. The Bruin reported that the effort to bring Einstein to the UCLA campus began during Einstein’s first visit to Southern California, ending up in the arrangement of the lecture.
The topic of Einstein’s speech was “The Geometrical Interpretation of the Gravitational and Electrical Field.” The speech dealt with how the study of gravitational and electromagnetic fields was influencing scientific thought. It likely also dealt with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which describes gravitational fields using geometry – he had formulated the theory about 16 years earlier.
But reporting of the event in The Bruin was relatively low-key the following day. The Feb. 16, 1932 edition of the paper ran a brief, five-paragraph-long article titled “University Receives Einstein.” It declared the event to be a tribute unequalled in the history of UCLA, which might not have been hyperbole at a university that had only existed for less than 13 years. 2,200 students and faculty members packed themselves into the Royce Hall auditorium – a sizable turnout, especially considering the number of students enrolled at the time was expected to be fewer than 7,000. Students had started gathering in Royce a whole two hours before the scheduled start of the speech, and the auditorium was filled by 3:30 p.m.
The article didn’t go into much detail about the speech’s content, however.
“The noted mathematician’s address was brief and highly technical,” The Bruin reported.
The article added Einstein declared, “Science is seeking a system which will bind together the observed facts to make for the greatest possible simplicity.” The system Einstein was referring to was probably the unified field theory. Einstein had been working on a theory that could describe both gravitational and electromagnetic fields simultaneously during the 1920s. Einstein would eventually spend the last 30 years of his life searching for this solution, to no avail. And about 86 years after Einstein spoke at Royce, scientists are still searching for a unified field theory linking the four fundamental forces, now with the inclusion of strong and weak nuclear forces in addition to electromagnetism and gravity.
It’s unlikely more than a few of the students gathered at Royce that day understood the significance of what Einstein was talking about. However, merely the ability to see Einstein in the flesh, even if he was speaking a language most of them did not know, must have been a surreal experience.
Fast-forward to present-day UCLA, and the only reason you’ll see a student sitting through a lecture in an unknown language is because the multivariable calculus class was required for their major. Unless, of course, the next Albert Einstein is invited to speak at Royce Hall.