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'Wars have retarded the progress of our society by at least 1,000 years. We must find a new way.' : A Lifetime of Paying Homage to Einstein

November 28, 1985|ROBERT McWHORTER | Robert McWhorter is a Long Beach free-lance writer

The Einstein-Steen Sticks and Stones Library isn't like any other in Los Angeles County. Tucked away on a small street in Tujunga, it is the compact, five-room home of 88-year-old Otto A. Steen, retired construction foreman, sailor and pilot, full-time pacifist and Albert Einstein aficionado.

"I took the name 'Sticks and Stones' because that's about all I had when I started," Steen said.

But that was a long time ago. Steen, a slight, bespectacled man, said those who come to his house these days are usually impressed. Steen likes to step back and gauge the reaction on the first-time visitor's face as he or she takes in the visual pandemonium of the living room.

More than 1,000 books fill two floor-to-ceiling rows of shelves against one wall, and by power of mob rule have commandeered nearly every other shelf, counter and table in the room. The walls are a collage of newspaper clippings, photographs, letters, post cards, certificates and portraits reflecting the varied events and interests in Steen's life. Little bare wall is left. But, from the miscellany, two themes emerge: Steen's lifelong work in the peace movement and his interest in the work and philosophy of the late physicist Einstein.

Vine on Ceiling

An outdoor vine that "must have grown in through a crack in the wall, quite some time ago," has traversed the ceiling several times, clinging to the exposed beams. The plant's hanging leaves provide an unruly framework for the 29 portraits mounted along one of the beams depicting, in chronological order, some of history's greatest mathematicians, from Descartes to Einstein. Facing them, near the ceiling on an opposite wall, are 15 more great minds, from Copernicus to Einstein. Altogether, the house contains more than 160 pictures of Einstein.

Although Steen has lived in this house for only 13 years, he said he has been "collecting this junk for 80 years."

The guest bedroom sports similar decor, with the addition of a 4-foot-tall portrait of Einstein hanging from a free-standing rack. Steen uses this and other props for a lecture on the life and work of Einstein that he occasionally gives for community groups. He has also made displays for three Pasadena libraries about the man he often refers to as "the greatest thinker of all time."

Longtime Interest

Steen first became interested in Einstein during the early part of this century, when the physicist's controversial scientific theories began to receive worldwide attention. Steen also liked Einstein's philosophical beliefs, which paralleled his own commitment to work for world peace.

"That," he said, pointing to a framed, handwritten letter, "is from Mrs. Pauling, wife of Linus Carl Pauling, the only man ever to win two unshared Nobel Prizes." In the letter, the scientist's wife thanks Steen for his volunteer work in 1961 for the Conference Against the Spread of Nuclear Weapons.

"I've been doing volunteer work for 50 years. That's one of the reasons I'm broke," Steen said with a laugh. A certificate of completion from the Peace Corps hangs nearby. Steen was one of the oldest people ever to complete the training course, though he was never sent anywhere.

A widower for 30 years, Steen lives alone. His adopted daughter, a former Valley College English literature professor, is a lecturer at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Checks to Charities

Steen picked up a bundle of canceled personal checks. They were all made out to charities, ranging from famine-relief organizations to peace groups.

"Of course, I didn't start writing these yesterday," Steen said. "These checks date back over the past 65 years." There were more than 800 checks.

He laid the checks on a table next to a stack of scrapbooks. The top one contained the envelopes from correspondence that came in from around the world about 20 years ago, when Steen sent 101 letters to peace groups in 101 countries.

"I've been involved in the peace movement all my life, especially since 1921, when Einstein came to this country. He was a great promoter of peace," Steen said.

One of the walls in Steen's bedroom looks like an oversized chalkboard from a math class. Neatly drawn directly on the wall with wide-tipped felt markers are mathematical diagrams, puzzles and formulas.

Circle for Calculation

"Do you know what this one is?" Steen asked enthusiastically, pointing to a circle two feet in diameter and intersected by a handful of straight lines.

"It was used to calculate the speed of light," he said. He traced the lines with his finger, explaining the principles involved. Steen took obvious pleasure in going through a few more of the equations, translating the riddles into simple English.

"But I am not a mathematician," Steen said, sheepishly glancing at pictures of famous men of numbers amid the equations on the wall. "The computations of Einstein are above my head."

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