Israeli university puts professors on trains

A morning commute seems like a good time to embark on an ambitious train of thought. At least, that was the idea from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which put a professor on a train on Wednesday to lecture commuters.

Passengers on the 9:00 am train from the suburban community of Modiin to Tel Aviv put away their morning tabloids and iPods to listen to a talk from Professor Hanoch Gutfreund on "Einstein's love letters."

The lecture was the first of the university's "scientists on the rails" programme -- an attempt to broaden the appeal of higher education and bring academia to the people.

"The public needs to understand the importance of higher education," said university spokeswoman Orit Sulitzeanu. "Higher education is facing a crisis, its status is eroding and people need to understand it's a strategic asset for the country."

Gutfreund, a former university president, regaled commuters with the details of Albert Einstein's love letters to his two wives, showing how the personal details gave an insight into the life of the great scientist during the period he revolutionised the way we understand the universe.

"We wanted something scientific, but that would also speak to the wider population," Sulitzeanu said, explaining the choice of topic.

The university is also home to the Albert Einstein Archives, the repository of his personal papers.

"I've never given a lecture before where half of the people have their backs to me," said Gutfreund of the talk that was warmly received despite the occasional interruption from the conductor announcing the next station.

"It was wonderful," said Isabelle Tovi, a regular commuter on the line.

"I'd love to attend university lectures, but I just don't have the time," she said, adding that she might consider changing the time of her morning commute to catch the lectures.

Unsure how the move would be received, the train talks have been scheduled for just after morning rush-hour and only in one carriage on the train to avoid antagonising people, said Sulitzeanu.

As the train chugged through tunnels and past the airport, one woman interrupted the professor with a question.

"Will you finish your talk before we reach (Tel Aviv's) Arlozorof station?" she wanted to know.

"Madam, by the time we reach Arlozorof you'll have your BA," came the reply from Gutfreund.

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