Einstein’s Chauffeur

Einstein’s Chauffeur


By Dr Tristram Riley-Smith – External Champion to the Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research

This is a story about Einstein’s Chauffeur, who was the spitting image of the great professor.

The chauffeur had attended a score of Einstein’s talks on the Theory of Relativity (always standing at the back of the hall), and one day he boasted that he could give the lecture verbatim. ‘Very well!’ replied Einstein. Next time I will take your place and you will go up front. If you get away with it, I’ll buy you a magnum of vintage champagne.

A week later, Einstein was due to talk at the Royal Society, before the cream of British science. This didn’t seem to phase his chauffeur who exuded confidence as he stepped out onto the stage and recited Einstein’s lecture word-for-word. ‘There’s just time’, he concluded, ‘for one question! Anybody?’

The honour of asking Einstein a question fell to the President of the Royal Society, who was so abstruse that the brows of several Nobel Prize winners wrinkled in the struggle to divine its meaning.

Einstein’s chauffeur paused, staring hard at the President. ‘Do you know’, he said, finally, in a voice filled with a mixture of pity and disappointment, ‘that question is so simple that my chauffeur – standing at the back there – can answer it!

I think of this story whenever I step onto a stage to speak, as External Champion, about the Partnership’s portfolio of research. I have had to deal with such diverse topics as Hybrid Quantum-Classical Communication Networks, The Documentation of Torture and Ill-Treatment in Low-Income Countries, X-Ray Phase Contrast Imaging, The Structure, Causes, and Consequences of Foreign Policy Attitudes, Indium Arsenide Avalanche Photodiodes and Belonging, Deviance and the Problem of Violence in Early Christianity.

As a Social Anthropologist, I am meant to be good with alien cultures, but nothing prepared me for the world of III-V Compounds, Inverse Problems, and Auxetic Materials (the last of these defy logic by getting fatter when stretched rather than thinner!).

Unlike Einstein’s chauffeur, there is no risk of me getting bored by hearing the same theory repeated over and over again.

The Partnership’s universe, with hundreds of researchers working on different aspects of human security, is rich, diverse and full of surprises.

But like Einstein’s chauffeur, I am blessed with a boss, or in my case, a network of clients (the Principal Investigators whose work underpins our Partnership), who I can turn to for advice when getting out of my depth.

My aim, over the coming months, is to share some insights into the life and times of the External Champion as I work to support researchers in their pursuit of impact.

Dr Tristram Riley-Smith is the External Champion to the Partnership. He was appointed to the role in April 2013. He is also Director of Research at the University of Cambridge Department of Politics and International Studies and a Resident Fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy.