If you ever wanted to glimpse into Albert Einstein’s thoughts, now you can.
Last week, the complete catalog of about 80,000 documents written by or
addressed to Einstein—letters, postcards, notebooks, and other papers—was made
available online by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Einstein Papers
Project (EPP) at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
The archive is the result of more than two decades of collecting and
researching. Einstein left a collection of 40,000 personal papers when he died
in 1955; since 1986, 40,000 more documents have been collected—most of them by
the EPP staff—says Diana Kormos-Buchwald, professor of history at Caltech and
director of the EPP.
One of the archive’s highlights is a handwritten manuscript for a 1946
article entitled “E=mc²: On the Most Urgent Problem of Our Time,”
which was published in the magazine Science Illustrated. Explaining
general relativity to a lay reader, the manuscript is one of only three
documents in the world containing the famed “E=mc2”
formula in Einstein’s own handwriting.
The collection includes personal correspondence such as a postcard Einstein
wrote to his mother, Pauline, whose health had been declining. “How I
would like to keep you company again so that you’re not left to ugly
brooding,” he wrote. “I truly wish you good days.” In his
missive, dated September 27, 1919, Einstein tells her of the “good
news” that an expedition in West Africa,
led by astronomer Arthur Eddington, had observed the bending of starlight by
the sun during a solar eclipse; this effect was one of the main predictions of
Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
While many are automatically drawn to these personal letters—especially
those to his lovers—Kormos-Buchwald says that some of the most exciting items
in the archive are Einstein’s notebooks, which illuminate the thought process
of history’s most iconic genius.
One of the most important notebooks, she says, is the so-called Zurich notebook, written
during the winter of 1912 to 1913 and containing notes and calculations that
provide a view into how Einstein developed his revolutionary theory of general
relativity, which he finished in 1915.
Another notebook, from 1918 to 1919, contains Einstein’s lecture notes on
special relativity. On one page, dated November 9, 1918—the day Kaiser Wilhelm
II abdicated the throne—Einstein scribbled, “[Lecture] cancelled due to
revolution.” Also available is Einstein’s high school report card, showing
that he earned good grades, despite the popular myth that he was a bad student.
Einstein’s letters to his colleagues, including Niels Bohr and Erwin
Schrödinger, provide a historical window to the scientific process and show
that Einstein was not a lonesome theorist isolated from others. “It’s a
testament to the very intense scientific exchanges that took place,” says
Kormos-Buchwald. Einstein would sometimes receive up to 20 letters a day and
respond to all of them, a rapid exchange equivalent to today’s email
conversations. “It gives a much more realistic feeling of what it meant to
be a scientist,” she says.
Since being launched on March 19, the website has received more than 21
million hits and almost 700,000 unique visitors, Kormos-Buchwald says. The
archive includes data on each individual document, such as the title, author,
and date. To provide historical context, the EPP has produced scholarly
annotations and translations for some 1,000 records. The database of 80,000
records constitutes a level of detail not available for any other archival
holdings—and certainly not for any other scientist—she says.
Users can request copies of documents they find interesting; high-quality
images of 2,000 documents are now available, and the remainder of the archive
will eventually be scanned and made available to the public. Previously an
important resource for scholars and historians, the searchable database is now
a research tool for everyone, Kormos-Buchwald says. “Everything that we
know,” she says, “everybody else can know now.”