Relativity theory lost on Confucius

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 June, 2011, 12:00am

Physics and philosophy are not unrelated fields and, in fact, can be complementary. Relativity, quantum theory, electromagnetism, waves and infinity are not the easiest of concepts for the uninitiated to grasp, which is where philosophical thinking can come in handy. It helps to understand the world better and to develop skills in argument and reasoning. As valuable as pairing the two may be, though, it is not a reason for muddying the waters, as Shanghai authorities would seem to be intent on doing by insisting that an exhibition on Confucius be merged with a touring Swiss one on Albert Einstein. The organiser is understandably looking to skip the city after the show ends its run in Hong Kong in August and is seeking another place on the mainland to take it. That is a pity. Shanghai is said to be where Einstein learned in 1921 that he had won the Nobel Prize for physics. On the 90th anniversary, it would have been a fitting venue for the exhibit, which presents objects and documents about the great scientist's life and ground-breaking theories. And beyond the historical link, as anyone who has seen the exhibition at the Hong Kong Science Museum can attest, the displays are educational, insightful and entertaining.

Why the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum sees a need to couple it with the thoughts of an ancient philosopher like Confucius can only be guessed at. What is clear, though, is that his ideas have been embraced or discarded by Chinese leaders over the centuries to fit their needs and uses. Mao Zedong vilified him during the Cultural Revolution, but with nationalism and patriotism flourishing, Confucianism is back centre stage as part of a revival of traditional culture. The key principles of tolerance and 'seeking harmony without uniformity' come in as useful ideological tools.

Einstein, like Confucius, has taken on semi-mythical status - but that is where the similarity ends. Ideology and politics are not part of the exhibit. Shanghai's citizens deserve to see it. They will have to miss out unless the authorities change their mind.