Just ahead of what would have been the 140th birthday of Albert Einstein, the Hebrew University celebrated on Wednesday the acquisition of 110 documents that once belonged to the renowned scientist.
The handwritten pages – including letters to friends as well as scientific work – reveal a man consumed by his work until the day he died, possessing a quick wit and an ability to recognize the things he still didn’t understand.
The documents arrived in Jerusalem recently to join the university's Albert Einstein Archives
, which is home to the largest collection of Einstein materials, including the thousands of documents the Nobel Prize winner bequeathed to the university.
“We invited you all to celebrate with us Einstein’s 140th birthday,” said Prof. Hanoch Gutfreund, a physicist and academic adviser to the archives, at the event on Wednesday. “For a birthday, we need a present, and I couldn’t think of a more meaningful, precious and appropriate gift. It’s a gift for us, but it’s also a gift for Einstein himself, because we have acquired a magnificent volume of unique material, and it was Einstein’s wish that all his intellectual wealth will finally be at the Hebrew University.”
The trove of documents was purchased for an undisclosed sum by the Crown-Goodman Family Foundation from a private collector in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and donated to the university.
The bulk of the 110 pages is made up of handwritten mathematical derivations, many of them never before studied in depth. The documents also include letters Einstein wrote to his close friend Michele Besso, and a letter he wrote to his son Hans Albert in 1935.
“I read with some apprehension that there is quite a movement in Switzerland, instigated by the German bandits,” Einstein wrote to his son, who was living at the time in Zurich. “But I believe that even in Germany, things are slowly starting to change. Let’s just hope we won’t have a Europe war first... the rest of Europe is now starting to finally take the thing seriously, especially the British.”
In one of the letters to Besso, Einstein admits that – despite contemplating it for 50 years – he still does not understand the quantum nature of light: “Nowadays any fool thinks he knows the answer,” Einstein wrote, “but he deceives himself.”
While the archives already owned copies of most of the new documents, Dr. Roni Grosz, curator of the Albert Einstein Archives, stressed the importance of acquiring the originals.
“While the content was known, to acquire... these papers is a very special day for the archives,” he said. “It strengthens our position as the foremost go-to center of Einstein information and adds prestige to our institution.”
Obtaining the original documents, Grosz said, will allow the university to digitize them and make them widely accessible, as well as to include them in exhibitions both locally and internationally.
Gutfreund added that many of the newly acquired pages are not numbered or ordered, and their context and relevance is still unknown.
“Many of them, we still don’t know what they relate to,” he said. “It will still require significant research, and the importance of having originals... has significant research value,” he added. “It is important to apply present-day technology, and it has already been used on this material to compare ink and paper quality” and to understand where the documents fit into Einstein’s scholarship.
Karen Cortell Reisman of Dallas, Texas – the granddaughter of Einstein’s cousin Lina Kocherthaler – was also on hand at the event on Wednesday, and provided some more personal anecdotes of her famous relative.
Cortell Reisman recounted a story she had heard of the time her newlywed parents traveled to meet Einstein – then her father’s only relative in the United States – on July 4, 1949.
“My very quiet father told my mother, ‘Anne, I don’t want you to talk too much. If Einstein gets perturbed, he will just stand up and go back into his office and go back to work,’” Cortell Reisman said. “And 10 minutes into this first visit, my mother is sitting there pretty miserable, and Einstein does stand up... and he walks over to her and puts his arm on her shoulder and says, ‘Anne, I want you to relax and be yourself. I’m a normal human being just like everybody else.’”
Cortell Reisman said she is always glad to hear of Einstein’s letters and notes being shared alongside his brilliant scientific work.
“I hope we can continue to not only teach Einstein’s brilliance,” she said, “but to continue to share his more human side, his humor, his humility and his grace.”
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