Guest Blog: Brian Foster

We welcome guest blogger and physicist Brian Foster this week. With Jack violinist Jack Liebeck, he does a program called “Einstein’s Universe.” Click here to find out more about the upcoming events.

Brian Foster is a professor of experimental physics at Oxford University. His CV is twelve pages chockfull of publications, awards, and grants. His books include Electron-Positron Annihilation Physics. Among other aspects of particle physics, he studies the structure of the charm quark. But Brian Foster is also an amateur violinist. And the intersections appreciates between science and art is the reason we invited him to share some thoughts here at Lofty Ambitions.


It’s a great thrill for Jack Liebeck and me to come to Los Angeles, following in the footsteps of our hero, Albert Einstein. Our lecture “Einstein’s Universe” tries to illustrate his life and work through its two most important elements: his science and his love of the violin.

These two elements weren’t separate watertight compartments in Einstein’s life; rather, each cross-fertilized the other. We have evidence from his wife Elsa of the way in which playing music briefly while he was engrossed in a problem could often trigger a new insight. He frequently said that he had had the most enjoyment in his life from his violin. We too share in that duality. Jack as a true artist on the violin and I as a humble amateur share a love of science that we hope is reflected in our performances.

Einstein's Princeton Home

It has been a journey of discovery for Jack and me to take “Einstein’s Universe” and its companion lecture “Superstrings” across the world, now in more than 170 performances. We have journeyed all across Europe, and as far afield as China and New Zealand, the home of my other hero in physics, Ernest, Lord Rutherford of Nelson, arguably the greatest experimental physicist who ever lived. We have followed in Einstein’s footsteps to Japan, where he allegedly played Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata when he should have been in Stockholm receiving his Nobel Prize. We have also performed the lectures across the United States from coast to coast, from Brown University to Stanford and stopping off, of course, at Einstein’s last home, his beloved Princeton, where we were privileged to visit his house on Mercer Street.

We have met hundreds of people who have drawn inspiration from Einstein’s life and who have expressed wonderment at his work in science. I treasure the letters from young people who have told us that our lecture has inspired them to study physics at school, university and beyond. Their parents and grandparents, too, are touched with wonder at the sheer breadth and daring of Einstein’s scientific achievements. Many of the people we have met on our travels have become friends.

It is therefore a very special feeling for us to bring our lecture to Los Angeles, where Albert Einstein came at a very difficult time in his life. He was in fear of the Nazis who threatened his whole concept of civilization and who were preparing the Holocaust to destroy the rich Jewish tradition of culture and music in Europe in which Einstein had been brought up. Here on the West Coast of the United States, he found a sanctuary and a joy in the climate and people that he always remembered fondly. It is also a pleasure to be able to join in the celebrations of the 150th Anniversary of Chapman University, making it incidentally older than any English University except Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham.

Brian Foster, Jack Lieback, and Students in Belfast

The tradition of liberal arts institutes of learning that Chapman University so ably represents is generally missing in Europe. As a Professor of Oxford University, I am proud to be able to lecture to physics students and Jack, about to become a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, is honored to work with its music students in a master class.

Our visit stems from a conversation last May in an Oxford pub between me and two Los Angeles residents, whom Jack and I met when they attended the first of our Oxford May Music festivals. These festivals take place in the Holywell Music Room, the oldest purpose-built concert hall in Europe, where Haydn rehearsed his “Oxford” symphony. Founded to emulate Einstein’s ethos of bringing together music and science, the Oxford May Music festival in now in its fourth year; one of our friends has traveled from Southern California to England for every festival.

As a regular visitor to Caltech, I know the hospitality of the Angelinos well. This time, though, Jack and I hope that we will be able to bring a flavor of both the science and the music that Einstein adored to a city of which he had only the fondest memories.

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