Albert Einstein’s obscure visit to Sri Lanka in 1922

by Kirthi Tennakone

(January 22, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The most acclaimed scientific celebrity Albert Einstein had visited Sri Lanka in 1922 en route his journey to Japan. Archival information on the subject being scanty and it appears that his visit to Ceylon has not received publicity at that time or subsequently. The fact that Einstein and his wife Elsa were riding on rickshaws in Colombo October 28th 1922 will surprise everyone.

Arrival of Einstein and his wife Elsa in Colombo and Rickshaw Ride

On invitation of Yamamoto Sanehiko, the Manager of a Publishing House in Tokyo, Albert Einstein and his second wife Elsa Lowenthal boarded the Japanese steamer Kitano Maru on October 8th 1922 at Marseilles in France to visit Japan. The ship was destined for stops in Port Said, Colombo, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai before entering Japan at the Port of Kobe. Einstein’s trip was meticulously planned and funded by the host Yamamoto and also sponsored by the Japanese government and the scientific community. The Ship Kitano Maru carrying Einstein and Elsa among the passengers sailed through Suez arriving in Colombo 28th October 1922. Notes Einstein scribbled during the trip describe in some detail how they were escorted to rickshaws and Einstein’s candid impression of what he saw in Colombo.

Einstein says, moment he and Elsa stepped out of the deck, a fine-boned man with a proud look and brown saliva trickling from the mouth, hauled him away exclaiming "all-round two rupee" and sat him on a rickshaw. Einstein, pointing the finger to a near by ship’s official, has protested vehemently as if it had been a fault of this officer , expressing his reluctance to get driven in a carriage pulled by a man. The official had told Einstein, what you said is true, but now you are in the Orient. In the meantime another rickshaw puller got Einstein’s wife Elsa seated and began running. Einstein shouted "stop" and asked Elsa to get down. The official intervened again, once he explained the procedure, both got into the rickshaws and were driven to streets of the Colombo City. A note in the Einstein’s diary dated 28th October 1922 reads "We rode on small one man carriages drawn at trot by men of Herculean strength, yet of delicate built. I was bitterly ashamed to be a party to the abominable treatment accorded to fellow human beings, but the circumstance did not permit me avoiding it". However, Einstein’s wife being naturally more practical had remarked "For these men to earn a living, they need our patronage".

Einstein’s candid impressions of his experience in Colombo

Einstein says dwellers in Colombo living in poverty need little and does little but looks noble exhibiting pleasing bodily features. Unlike in the Port Said the society he saw in Colombo, seemed to be peaceful and serene but certain amount of submissiveness was noticeable. In observing these people closely, one tends to loose the taste for more degenerate, coarse and greedy European attitudes which unfortunately account for their superiority to conceive and manage big things. These inhabitants give the impression that climate eliminates the necessity of thinking about future or past for more than one quarter of an hour and wonders whether same would happen if people in his region of the world were in a similar environment. Einstein described Colombo Harbour as a busy place with workers loading and unloading cargo and divers displaying their courage and comments that they sacrifice physically to satiate others who are mean enough to enjoy . Einstein has also said that he was deeply moved when a slender man with grey beard from the Colombo harbour who came to deliver a collection of cablegrams addressed to him, impassively asked for a tip.

It is not clear how long Einsteins stayed in Colombo and which parts of city they toured. Undoubtedly, on their way from the harbour they should have passed through the affluent business area of Colombo Fort, but make no mention of it and concentrates on what he refers to as the areas where natives lived, reflecting Einstein’s concern for humanity. A question also arises, why they were not officially received upon arrival in Colombo. Presumably, Einstein and Elsa got out of deck and went out for sight seeing. However, judging from the political situation in Europe aftermath World War I and support extended by the British scientific establishment to Einstein, it is difficult to assume that the Colonial Government in Colombo was unaware of Einstein’s visit.

Prof. Einstein interviewed by a reporter from Colombo: Christmas Island Eclipse

Professor Einstein was interviewed by a reporter from Times of Ceylon on board. It is interesting to note that the well informed reporter had questioned him of the result of the experiment conducted in Christmas Island 21st September 1922 at the time of the total solar eclipse to test his Theory of General Relativity. Einstein had stated he was unable to say anything definite about the Christmas Island experiment, as the weather conditions there at the time of the eclipse had been unfavorable. However, he is hopeful that a conclusive result may have been obtained by the astronomers who went to Australia to observe the same eclipse.

Eclipse experiments and ascent of Einstein to worldwide fame

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity predicts that just like material objects, light is also attracted towards massive bodies but to a lesser extent. In 1916 Einstein suggested that this effect could be tested at the time of a total solar eclipse as a shift of the apparent position of a star appearing near the solar disc. Einstein firmly believed the validity of his prediction. Once asked what his reaction would be if the test disproves his theory. Einstein replied, I feel sorry for the dear Lord. Nearly two years before his trip to East, British astronomer and theoretical physicist Sir Arthur Eddington announced that observation of a total eclipse visible to Brazil and West Africa confirmed Einstein’s prediction. Eddington’s proclamation gave much publicity to Einstein, many newspapers all over the world giving front page coverage. On 7th November 1919 London Times ran the headline "Revolution in Science- New theory of the Universe- Newtonian ideas overthrown". Despite public excitement, positive reception of many physics stalwarts at the time and his own confidence, Einstein was concerned of the necessity of further tests to gain acceptance of his theory by the scientific community at large and the Nobel Prize Committee. There was criticism from some circles that Eddington’s measurement is erroneous or biased. The statement Einstein gave to the reporter from Times of Ceylon indicates state of his mind at a decisive moment. At the time Einstein was in Colombo, the 1921 Nobel Prize for Physics had not been announced. Awards are normally announced early October, a delay possibly because the Nobel Committee was anticipating the result of the September 21st eclipse experiment.

From Colombo, Einstein and Elsa went to Singapore reaching the Singapore Port 2nd November 1922. When they disembarked, a crowded of several hundreds greeted him and a grand reception was held in the same day evening in the residence of a wealthy Jewish businessman living in Singapore. While in Singapore, Einstein initiated a campaign to raise funds for the University of Jerusalem.

Einstein disembarks in Shanghai and hears the news of Nobel Prize

Continuing the voyage, Einstein and Elsa arrived in Shanghai via Hong Kong on 13th November 1922 and welcomed by Chinese scientists and dignitaries. At this occasion, the Consul General of Sweden presented a telegram from Stockholm to Einstein, declaring that 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to him. On the same day evening a banquet was held in the residence of the famous Chinese painter Wang Yiting to honour Albert Einstein.

Nobel Prize awarded to Einstein was not for his work on theory of relativity as everyone expected but for explaining the Photoelectric Effect. If the results of the September 1922 eclipse experiments had been finalized earlier, almost certainly the prize would have been for the work on relativity. The team from Licks Observatory in California who went Australia to observe the 1922 eclipse reported a result in quantitative agreement with the Einstein’s prediction but this was in April 1923 as data processing had taken a long time. Einsten’s interview with the reporter from Times of Ceylon indicates that he was anxiously expecting a positive result.

It is said that Einstein was somewhat ill during the long passage from Marseilles through Suez to Colombo and looked after by a Japanese doctor on board .The news of much awaited Nobel Prize relieved Einstein and he happily proceeded to Japan. On arrival in Japan Einstein got a tumultuous welcome and invited to a banquet at the Imperial Palace hosted by the Japanese Emperor and Empress. When he visited the British High Commission in Tokyo, he was greeted with cannon salute. After lecturing in many institutions, Einstein and Elsa went to Palestine and Spain before returning to Berlin. During the return journey also the ship had stopped in Colombo.

In his travel diary crowded with equations and incidental remarks , Einstein wrote he saw nobility among people of Ceylon , a pureness of soul among Japanese and magnificent intellectual and moral caliber among Palestinians. It is said that even after migrating to United States from Germany Einstein often recollects his experience with Colombo rickshaw men. It is heartening to note that the greatest physicist in a casual visit to Sri Lanka in 1922 has sensed the true good nature and reality of ground level society of the country at that time and expressed his candid opinion.

 ( The writer Prof. Kirthi Tennakone, former Director of the Institute of Fundamental Studies is presently in the Faculty of Engineering University of Cincinnati USA  He can be reached at )

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