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Einstein’s blackboard as a mutant artefact

To the experts (historians, collectors, and curators), Oxford’s museum is known for having one of the best European collections of Renaissance and early modern scientific instruments (including the best collection of astrolabes in the World—our seminar’s fetish object). To the general public, however, MHS is better known for possessing a rather peculiar object: Einstein’s blackboard, on which he gave a well-attended talk at Oxford in 1931. It has become to some extent a relic, people coming in just to see it—virtually disregarding all the rest. Why an old blackboard, showing a set of (general relativity?) equations that few understands, has such an alluring—compelling—power of attraction?
To acknowledge such an usual fact, Jim Bennett had the unusual (although highly imaginative) idea of producing an exhibition around Einstein’s blackboard in order to celebrate the centenial anniversary of the special theory of relativity (1905-2005). The Bye, bye blackboard exhibition intended to combine “science, art, celebrity, and nostalgia” by inviting more than a dozen artists, scientists, and scholars to draw anything they wanted on similar blackboards as Einstein’s. The result was one of the most successful exhibitions in the history of the museum.
The obvious questions are: what kind of “instrument” is this? What can we make of it? I would argue that this blackboard is not a scientific instrument (I think this is rather obvious), but an exceptional mutant artefact. Indeed, this blackboard cries out a truth that is too often forgotten, i.e. the significance of an object is frequently associated to sociological factors far beyond its original and intended ontological essence. In the case of blackboards, one writes on it with white or colored chalk, meant to be erased almost immediately as a calculation or the explanation of a concept is completed and/or understood (or not). The nature of knowledge found on such blackboards is thus ephemeral; the intended ontological essence of blackboards is not to preserve knowledge, but rather to ascertain and replicate knowledge over and over again. Its ontological purpose is not passive long-term memory but short-term active replication. (Andrew Warwick has shown brilliantly in Masters of theory how training for the Cambridge mathematical tripos changed with the 19th-century introduction of paper and pencil, which merge both concepts of memory and replication.) Einstein’s blackboard at the MHS, therefore, is an aberration, a socially produced mutant artifact because its ontological essence—its basic “genetic” function—has been fundamentally altered.
The significant and consequential alteration of Einstein’s blackboard did not come from a natural ontological breakdown (inherent principle) but from a sociological onslaught (outside environment)—i.e. preservation of Einstein’s aura of greatness. This sociological alteration has rendered Einstein’s blackboard both stronger and weaker than a plain blackboard. Stronger due to its fame and power of attraction to the museum, which a plain blackboard would obviously not warrant; weaker due to the simple fact that Einstein’s blackboard is no longer a “real” blackboard, it has lost its most fundamental ontological essence. Indeed, if you erase the equations on Einstein’s blackboard in order to recover the original ontological essence of the blackboard—i.e. the replication of knowledge—you completely loose the artifact known as Einstein’s blackboard. The sociological metamorphosis at the origin of this celebrated artifact has completely destroyed the intrinsic nature of this blackboard. It has mutated genetically into something else.
Einstein’s blackboard, in short, has lost its basic ontological essence to become a mutant artifact. Although it is still in principle a blackboard, the MHS’s blackboard has lost its most important attribute: to be able to rewrite on it. Now it has become an object of memory, an object modified at the ontological level by a social desire to celebrate the achievement of a great man. Hence the mutant artefact.