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Einstein’s hand written letters are intensely sought after

Albert Einstein, the most famous scientist of the 20th century and the most iconic figure of a physicist, had lost not an iota of world’s admiration and fascination even after 65 years of his death. The world, it seems, is keen to grab whatever bits and pieces it can get bearing Einstein’s name or attachments at any price.

This was evident from the recent auction of a single-page hand written letter by Einstein in German to a Polish-American physicist Ludwik Silberstein by a Boston based RR Auction house. The interest in this hand written letter of Einstein was so intense that the auction started on the internet on 13th of May, 2021 with lots of internet bidders and concluded on 20th of May, 2021 when two anonymous final bidders slogged it out in a desperate bid to procure it and eventually it was sold for $1.2million (£850,000).

This Einstein’s letter written on 26th October 1946 on the Princeton University letterhead addressed to Ludwik Silberstein, who was a severe critic of Einstein, said cryptically, “Your question can be answered from the E=mc2 formula, without any erudition.” The letter was kept in Silberstein’s personal archives and nearly 70 years later his descendants retrieved it recently and sold it in the auction.

The letter in itself contained no new material of scientific or technical interest that may stir intense interest to anybody. The novelty was purely of Einstein’s hand-written element. In fact, it contained a somewhat incomplete mass-energy equivalence equation, which Einstein produced some 40 years earlier (before he wrote the letter) in 1905 and published in the Annalen der Physik, world’s leading physics journal at that time. The original equation that he produced was

                                    E = m c2 / √(1 – q2/c2

where E is the energy, m is the mass of a body when at rest,

            q is the speed of the body and c is the speed of light.

If the body is at rest, q is 0 and so the term within the square root is 1 and hence the equation becomes E = m c2. This is what Einstein communicated to Silberstein in his letter. If, on the other hand, the body happens to travel at the speed of light (most unlikely) meaning q = c, then the term within the bracket would become 0 and the energy becomes infinite. This indicates that nothing can travel at or above the speed of light.

A photo below where the full mass-energy equivalence equation that Einstein produced in 1905 is shown. This photo was taken by the author of this article when he visited Einstein’s apartment in Bern, Switzerland, which is now a museum, in 2017. At the top part of the photo, the Einsteinhaus (Einstein house, in Bern, Switzerland) is shown in which Einstein rented the second-floor apartment after he got married in 1903. His wife, Mileva Marić, is shown at the lower part of the photo. They lived there from 1903 to 1905. While living in that apartment, Einstein produced the special theory of relativity, the photoelectric effect for which he received the Nobel Prize as well as the above equation, all in 1905!

Einstein alongside his mass-energy equivalence

This was not the only letter that excited the collectors’ imagination of Einstein’s souvenirs world-wide. Eight years later in his life, in 1954 (just one year before his death), he wrote a letter to the German philosopher, Eric Gutkind, that drew even more interest. That letter, though, had material content of interest that expressed Einstein’s religious views. That letter had been sold in an auction at Christie’s in New York in 2018 for the staggering sum of $2.9 million (£2.3 million).

Religious people of all religious persuasions had been claiming that Einstein was a religious man, because of his quotation, “God does not play dice”. The interpretation from this quote, the religious people claimed, was that he believed in God’s absolutism and determinism in designing the universe. But the reality could not be furthest from this truth.

Albert Einstein made that remark as a riposte to the quantum physicists upholding the “Copenhagen Interpretation” that a fundamental particle’s existence is probabilistic in nature. Einstein held the view that a particle would exist or not-exist with absolute certainty, it cannot be probabilistic. His views were very well articulated in his one and half page letter written in German to the German philosopher, Eric Gutkind, “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable but still primitive legends, which are nevertheless pretty childish”. He also said, “No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this”. Thus, his views on religion could not be more forthright than this and this letter had put an end to all those egregious interpretation of religious people.

Hounded by Hitler’s anti-Semitic ideology, Einstein had to leave Germany and eventually settle in America to work at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Princeton University in New Jersey. When he arrived at the Institute, he was asked, what equipment would he require to work properly. “A desk or table, a chair, paper and pencils”, he replied, “Oh, yes, and a large waste basket, so I can throw away all my mistakes”. He was working on the Grand Unified Theory (GUT) of physics, which would merge the four forces of nature into one unified force. He worked on this GUT for well over 25 years without being able to crack it and possibly made lots of “mistakes”. Those “mistakes” were not collected by the Institute, when it was under overwhelming pressure from the WWII events. But if it did, who knows those “mistakes” could give a technical direction to the problem he was tackling and bear handsome fortunes to the Institute in auction sales now.

The bits and pieces of great men (and women) of science and literature might be deemed “mistakes” and worthless now, but in the fullness of time those pieces might turn out to be invaluable gems. For example, when Einstein produced the general theory of relativity, he introduced a term called the “cosmological constant” in his equation to cater for the prevailing perception of static universe. Only a decade or so years later, when universe was found to be not static but expanding, Einstein admitted that the insertion of cosmological constant was the “biggest mistake” in his life. But now with the discovery of dark energy and dark matter, this cosmological constant is throwing a lifeline to the modern-day cosmologists. His admission of “biggest mistake” of cosmological constant itself seems to be a mistake.

Einstein’s contemporary man in the Eastern World, Rabindranath Tagore, the myriad-minded man and a Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1913, wrote a short but simple verse with a profound philosophical significance, which reads in Bengali:

Tagore’s verse:

যেখানে দেখিবে ছাই

উড়াইয়া দেখ ভাই

পাইলে পাইতে পার

অমূল্য রতন !

Translated into English, it could read like this:

                        Whenever you find ashes

                        Sift carefully my friend,

                        Might you even find

                        Gems invaluable.

Einstein was not only a man of great intellect, but also a great showman and a humorous individual. When he met Charlie Chaplin in January 1931, he said to Chaplin: “What I most admire about your art is your universality. You don’t say a word, yet the whole world understands you!”

“It’s true,” replied Chaplin. “But your fame is even greater; the whole world admires you, when nobody understands what you say.”

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist