Arts and Culture / Magazine Feature

Einstein, scientists’ lives examined in new book

book coverAlbert Einstein spent much of the winter of 1943–44 at his Princeton, N.J., home among friends— philosopher Bertrand Russell, logician Kurt Gödel and Wolfgang Pauli, one of the founders quantum mechanics — while discussing their respective work and the urgency of the scientific world developing around them. 

In 112 Mercer Street (Arcade Publishing, 2007), English professor emeritus Burton Feldman used this informal setting as a jumping off point to shed new light on the lives of each man. 

Feldman describes this juncture between history and biography — as each scientist wrestled with both his personal discoveries and the changes wrought by the development of nuclear weapons in Los Alamos, N.M. He calls it the “pathos of science,” in which the men realized their ideas would be supplanted by their intellectual descendants. 

Feldman’s passion for this work came at the end of his life. After being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002, Feldman devoted what remained of his energy to finishing 112 Mercer Street, a title taken from Einstein’s Princeton address. His work would not have reached the public, however, without help from Feldman’s wife Peggy and his former students Tad Spencer (BA ’98) and Katherine Williams (MTEL ’96).

Feldman died in Jan. 2003 with about half the book’s draft complete, explains Spencer, who was working for the Feldmans at the time. 

So as she neared the end of her own life, Peggy Feldman set about finishing the book. Spencer’s job went from doing odd jobs and managing much of the household activities to working with Peggy to add to the existing draft. 

Eventually, Peggy contacted Williams, an English professor at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) and a long-time family friend. Williams was familiar with interdisciplinary work in the history and philosophy of science and technology, which put her in a good position to pick up the work where Burton left off. 

Williams says 112 Mercer Street “fills in an interesting historical time from a different perspective than we’re used to talking about.” 

While the Feldmans didn’t have children, “he sort of adopted his students,” Spencer says.

As graduate chair of DU’s English department, Feldman spent long hours working with his students, says English Professor Eleanor McNees. 

Since Feldman’s death, the English department created the Feldman Fund, which helps send graduate students to conferences to present their research and discuss new ideas, something Feldman felt was important for both students and research subjects.

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