Albert Einstein is known in popular culture for his famous E = mc2 formula. Scientists know him for revolutionizing physics with his general theory of relativity. But is it possible to know the man behind the big ideas? Yes, thanks to the massive body of written work and correspondence he left behind, which the Einstein Papers Project, currently housed at the California Institute of Technology, is dedicated to collecting, editing, translating and publishing.
The project has provided a huge resource for scholars and the public, with thousands of pages of letters, speeches and handwritten equations from Einstein that provide a glimpse of the scientist at work and the times in which he lived.
Now, those collected papers are available in a free, complete, annotated and translated digital edition. The National Science Foundation’s Biological Sciences, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorates have supported the project for nearly 40 years, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, California Institute of Technology and other organizations have also made vital contributions.
Einstein’s papers cover everything from his childhood grades and struggles to fund work as a young professor to his introduction of the principle of relativity at just 26 years old. They also show his humor, political thinking, feistiness and deep love of music.
The project is now preparing to publish documents covering one of the most interesting periods in Einstein’s life — the decade before he relocated to the United States, when he emerged as a pre-eminent scientist, global celebrity and humanitarian. Having just celebrated Einstein’s 136th birthday, here are a few tidbits from just before that era.
Einstein got to know the country that he’d later call home.
“America is interesting; for all its industry and business it is more easily aroused to enthusiasm than other countries I have unsettled with my presence. I had to let myself be shown around like a prize ox, speak countless times in large and small assemblies, deliver countless scientific lectures. It’s a miracle that I endured it.”
Einstein made his first visit to America in 1921. The visit was controversial, as its primary purpose was to help establish the Hebrew University of Jerusalem — a hot-button issue at the time, although he made sure to deliver several scientific lectures while he was in the country. More than a decade later, Einstein would make another trip to the United States and feel forced to stay, rather than return to a Germany that was witnessing the Nazi party’s rise to power.
He showed that scientific experimentation and discovery are full of setbacks, even for the smartest among us (also, he wasn’t above guilting his kids).
“My dear boys, you are shrouded in silence again, you rascals. I am feeling well, but there’s little news. The experiment on which I had placed so much importance proves nothing for and nothing against the undulatory theory, so all the labors of love were actually in vain.”
In 1921, Einstein had devised an experiment to test theories about light particles that behave like waves, but wound up deeming it a failure. After informing colleagues, he wrote this letter to his sons — Hans Albert, then 17, and Eduard, then 11 — who were away at school. Hans Albert’s reply might be familiar to parents. He hadn’t written recently because “First, I don’t have any news at all; and second, I’ve got quite a lot to do at school now.”
He recognized the importance of engaging the next generation in scientific discovery, and warned against science getting caught up in international politics.
“I believe the most important thing is to awaken in the younger generation a strong love for scientific truth and ambitions, so that the purer atmosphere thus created will gradually drown out the insensitive emotional motives that have brought so much misfortune upon our current generation.”
Einstein was well aware of the political and military divisions that were emerging globally and in 1921 wrote that the “strife among nations and the social strata” was threatening the “internationality of science,” which he called humanity’s most precious good.
Einstein grappled with the same social justice issues that challenge us today.
“But how is it with society and the state? Can it tolerate national minorities without fighting them? There is no state today that does not regard tolerance and the protection of national minorities as one of its duties. Let us hope the state takes these duties seriously.”
During this period, Einstein, who was himself Jewish, became increasingly concerned with growing anti-Semitism in his home country of Germany. He became a leading name in international Zionist groups and an outspoken critic of anti-Semitism. Later, after becoming a U.S. citizen, he campaigned for the civil rights movement.
Then, as now, big, new ideas in science are often controversial. Even Einstein struggled to communicate with those who doubted him.
“I want to note today, to my knowledge, there is hardly a scientist among those who have made substantial contributions to theoretical physics who would not admit that the theory of relativity in its entirety is founded on a logical basis and is in agreement with experimental facts which to date have been reliably established. … I have been accused of running a tasteless advertising campaign for the theory of relativity. But I can say that all my life I have been a friend of well-chosen, sober words and of concise presentation. Highfalutin phrases and words give me goose bumps whether they deal with the theory of relativity or with anything else.”
Today, Einstein is best known for his theory of general relativity, which he first published in 1915. At the time, though, the theory was controversial, both for political reasons and because of its upending of Newtonian gravitational theory. Resistance from the scientific community continued even after British astronomer Arthur Eddington confirmed Einstein’s ideas while observing a solar eclipse in 1919. This 1920 publication from Einstein rebuked a German anti-relativity group, and is among a large body of defenses, explanations and elaborations Einstein authored on his famous theory.
Einstein recommended someone else for the Nobel Prize in Physics.
“When someday future generations will describe the history of the advances made in the physics of our era, they will have to associate one of the most significant advances in our knowledge of the nature of atoms with the name of Niels Bohr. …He is, without a doubt, one of the greatest innovators of our time in the field of science.”
Einstein wrote to the Nobel committee in mid-1922 to recommend Niels Bohr for the award. Bohr and Einstein frequently engaged in friendly verbal sparring over quantum mechanics and other physics issues. Einstein’s papers are full of examples of those debates, and of the warm personal relationship the men seemed to share.
And was nominated himself, as noted by Bohr.
“I would like to congratulate you most warmly on the award of the Nobel Prize. This public acknowledgement cannot mean anything to you, of course, but the associated funds might perhaps bring about some relief in your working conditions. For me it was the greatest honor and joy I could possibly get through external circumstances that I should be considered for the prize award at the same time as you.”
In November of 1922 — just a month before the committee announced the Nobel winners — Bohr wrote this to Einstein, expressing his pleasure that they were both being considered, but noting his discomfort about possibly taking the prize before Einstein. Einstein replied:
“Your affectionate letter reached me shortly before my departure from Japan. I can say without exaggeration that it pleased me as much as the Nobel Prize. I find your fear of possibly getting the prize before me especially endearing — that is genuinely Bohr-like.”
And then they both won at the same time.
“I am very pleased — among other reasons, because the reproachful question: Why don’t you get the Nobel Prize? can no longer be posed to me (I reply each time: Because I am not the one who awards the prize.)
Einstein sent this 1923 letter shortly after being informed that he had won the Nobel Prize for his work in theoretical physics. Einstein’s Nobel was actually the 1921 award. During the selection process for that year, the committee hadn’t been able to find a nominee that met its criteria — largely because it was resistant to give Einstein the award for general relativity, which was still controversial. According to Nobel rules, the deferred prize meant they could reserve it for a year and still award another in 1922. In December of that year, the academy made two announcements: Einstein had won the 1921 award — for explaining the photoelectric effect, not relativity — and Bohr took the 1922 award for his work on the structure of atoms.
The Digital Einstein Papers was launched by Princeton University Press, in partnership with Tizra, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the California Institute of Technology. Additional information about the Einstein Papers Project can be found at einstein.caltech.edu.
- The Digital Einstein Papers: http://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu