Albert Einstein Einstein photo by Anton Schaller (courtesy of the Archives, California Institute of Technology)

Dear Albert

Caltech’s Einstein Papers Project unveils another volume filled with the great man’s private correspondence

By Carl Kozlowski 07/16/2009

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Ze’ev Rosenkranz has spent the past 21 years studying Albert Einstein’s writings. And not just his immortal scientific works, such as the Theory of Relativity, or his outspoken political and philosophical thoughts.

As part of the Einstein Papers Project — which started at Einstein’s main American career base at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, then was based at Boston University before moving to Caltech in 2001 when the school’s Diana Kormos Buchwald took over — Rosenkranz is just part of a team of researchers and editors whose goal is to read and archive every single piece of Einstein’s correspondence, from his high school years through his death in 1955. The final results are then compiled in a series of books called “The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein,” which published its first volume in 1989 and continues with the 12th volume, being released Wednesday.

“The overall goal is to present in an unbiased fashion the documents from each aspect of his life: scientific, political and personal,” said Rosenkranz, interviewed at the project’s cottage headquarters on Hill Avenue. “The volumes are extremely beneficial because they often reveal where biographers’ biases were in picking selectively what they want to show. We’re not sanctifying him or doing a hagiography, and our previous volumes had some less flattering writings. It always depends on who or what you want to focus on.”

Rosenkranz said that in presenting all available aspects of his correspondence, they’re providing the world with a well-rounded, honest portrait of the scientific genius. One subject the volumes have shone a light on is Einstein’s first marriage, which has traditionally been reported as derailed by Einstein’s being a bad husband. Rosenkranz notes that, as with most divorces, there’s more to the story than people may have realized.

The new volume covers 791 letters written or received by Einstein in 1921, presenting them in full text or in abstract. Surprisingly, the project staff — led by Buchwald — opted not to translate any correspondence written in German or French, with a view to keeping the letters as authentic as possible. More obscure languages, however, are translated in the book, and those interested in receiving a set of fully translated letters can buy an extra paperback booklet that translates everything.

The year 1921 was a particularly momentous one for Einstein, as it was the year he first came to America from his native Germany and delivered his famed Princeton Lectures on relativity. As a result, he was rapidly becoming a celebrity and found that his political views were given greater weight. Suddenly, he was not only giving scientific lectures but meeting with the British prime minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the first Reich president, members of the Reich and Prussian cabinets, and even Soviet officials.

There’s still a decade left to cover before the project staff even touches Einstein’s Caltech period. He worked there for three-week winter terms in 1930-31, 1931-32 and 1932-33, having moved to California to be closer to Mt. Wilson Observatory and the astronomers working there.

Ultimately, he went back East because there were too few physicists in this area working on cosmological issues and because Princeton had established its Institute for Advanced Study largely for Einstein, so that he would have a relatively quiet, distraction-free environment in which to conduct his work.

“There are three areas we cover: his scientific life, his political writings and those about his personal life,” explained Rosenkranz. “The original papers are at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where Einstein bequeathed his literary estate. We drew on more material than just that for each volume, because the material is dispersed in letters sent all over. We scoured through archives or recovered them from heirs of the people he originally wrote.”

The Einstein Papers Project staff works from reproductions of the original letters, since the originals are, in fact, stored in the archives of Hebrew University. While most of Einstein’s official scientific writings have already been published, it is believed that only 10 percent of his correspondence has been published — and even then it is mostly in collections with writings from his scientific peers.

The project traces its roots to the early 1970s at Princeton University Press, after the Einstein estate’s executor signed an agreement to release the available documents. All told, there are between 80,000 to 90,000 separate writings to go through, with more emerging every time a newly released volume draws further publicity. Ultimately, Rosenkranz’s focus on Einstein has resulted in an unusual depth of knowledge about the man.

“He didn’t have a middle name, but Einstein’s Hebrew name was Abraham,” Rosenkranz explains. “The photo of him sticking his tongue out at photographers was just him goofing around on his 72nd birthday, and contrary to what a lot of parents like to think, he was definitely not a poor student in high school. He got good grades, and we have his records from a small Swiss town’s high school to prove it. He didn’t fail the first entrance exam to university because he was stupid, but was too young to take the test in the first place. He took the exam a year later and did just fine.”

“The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein: Volume 12: The Berlin Years: Correspondence, January-December 1921” may be ordered from amazon.com. Its cost is $125. The English translation supplement is available from Amazon for $45.

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