Albert Einstein: Ingenieur des Universums/Chief Engineer of the Universe. At Kronprinzenpalais, Berlin until 30 September 2005

“Dr Albert Einstein, Chief Engineer of the Universe, School of Advanced Study, Princeton...” An envelope so addressed is one of more than a thousand items now on display at the Kronprinzenpalais in Berlin.

Bright idea: a white room celebrates Einstein's special theory of relativity. Credit: BERNO BUFF > FOTOGRAFIE

Did Einstein consider himself American? Or Swiss? Or German? What should we make of this Jew who first renounced German citizenship in 1896, when he was studying in Zurich, who fled from Berlin and the Nazis in 1933, and whose reputation in his homeland was smeared by many in his own scientific community? Is it not perplexing that Germany has put on the world's most ambitious — and arguably the most impressive, thoughtful and imaginative — exhibition commemorating Einstein's life and scientific achievements, implicitly claiming him as their own?

The exhibition is challenging, and in a world used to dumbing down, it may be seen as an élite indulgence. Only visitors with some background in physics who are comfortable with abstract concepts will be rewarded, but they will find it extremely enriching. It presents Einstein and his science in many different contexts: his life and loves in politically turbulent times, for example, but most pertinently, the state of science when he began his working life.

The first of three exhibition floors in the old palace, converted at a cost of €4 million (US$5 million), is dedicated to setting the scientific scene. A core concept is the history of the development of scientific ideas, elegantly demonstrated in two ground-floor rooms, one dedicated to invisible forces such as magnetism and electricity, the other to the Universe. The rooms display historic instruments, from Galileo's telescope to Otto Hahn's nuclear fission equipment, set among interactive computer terminals that access deeper levels of digital information, including films and sound recordings of some of the scientists. These rooms show how physics concepts developed, one discovery at a time, bringing the visitor to the point at which Einstein entered the fray.

The ghost of Albert Einstein haunts the room of invisible forces at a Berlin exhibition in his honour. Credit: BERNO BUFF > FOTOGRAFIE

The room near the entrance is empty, its space filled only with one of those impossible debates about which scientists like to fantasize. On three of its walls the projected figures of Aristotle, Newton and Einstein discuss gravity. The actors convey the scientists' personalities, as well as their understanding of the physical world. Introducing themselves, Einstein respectfully hails Aristotle as a true researcher, while Newton arrogantly sneers at Aristotle's “belief in fairy tales”.

The second floor is dedicated to Einstein's life, childhood, family, politics, and the social and scientific realities of his world. A second impossible debate takes place, this time between Ludwig Boltzmann, Hendrik Lorentz and Max Planck, frustrated by the apparent dead-end that their physics had reached. The stroke of genius that shifted physics into higher gear — Einstein's special theory of relativity — is celebrated in the central room of the exhibition space. This is lit dazzlingly white and contains only a single central column, an elaborate interactive digital display that illustrates and explains the theory.

The third floor is dedicated to Einstein's legacy, the influence of his work on science and culture today. It is a jamboree of modern experimentation with direct connections to experiments at laboratories such as CERN and the European Southern Observatory.

Nearly halfway through this centenary of Einstein's annus mirabilis, and with Einstein-fatigue already setting in, it is still worth spending hours, or even days, at this exhibition. It has an intellectual depth rarely attempted in exhibitions today, and is well served by its elegant presentation. But visitors will have to sweat for their pleasure. They will need the students (‘explainers’), present in each room for the exhibition's five-month run, to help them find their way through the maze of information.

Poignantly, the exhibition opened a week after Berlin's Holocaust memorial opened to the public nearby. And many of the artefacts on display were provided by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which has a remarkable Einstein collection. Time provides perspective and equilibrium.

Those who pay the exhibition the attention it deserves will note Einstein's opening, gently teasing, gambit to Newton: “I had the honour of standing on your shoulders and thus being able to see a little further”. Einstein also stood on the more modern German shoulders of Boltzmann, Planck and Ernst Mach. But Einstein, so the exhibition tells us, belongs to international science — and this shaper of space-time was shaped by his own space and time.