'Scientifically, I haven't achieved much recently'

Albert Einstein’s candid letters to his sister to be auctioned

Collection includes rare acknowledgements of his discoveries’ importance; thoughts on fame and his waning brilliance

Albert Einstein. (AP Photo)
Albert Einstein. (AP Photo)

A trove of documents and letters penned by famed physicist Albert Einstein will be auctioned in May, including unusually candid and self-reflecting letters he sent to his sister Maja, in which he acknowledged that his achievements had “become part of the foundations of our science” and lamented that his “brilliance of younger years is past.”

British auction house Christie’s will present the collection — which includes a previously unseen 1884 photo of Einstein as a five-year-old and the only surviving letter he sent to his father — to the public on April 18-20, The Guardian reported on Wednesday, the 139th anniversary of his birth. The items will be auctioned on May 2-9.

Thomas Venning of Christie’s was quoted as saying the letters offer “unpublished snapshots of Einstein, his private face,” and that they show he “had this incredibly close relationship with his sister.”

According to the report, in one of the letters to his sister, Maja Winteler-Einstein, Albert wrote in 1924 that “scientifically I haven’t achieved much recently – the brain gradually goes off with age, although that’s not so unpleasant. It also means that you’re not so answerable for your later years.” That was at age 45, nine years after he completed the general theory of relativity.

In 1934, Einstein similarly reflected, “I am happy in my work, even if in this and in other matters I am starting to feel that the brilliance of younger years is past.”

The Nobel-winning scientist, who made a string of groundbreaking discoveries in the early 1900s — including the theories of special and general relativity, and the law of the photoelectric effect — continued working until his death in 1955 without more significant breakthroughs.

“It’s quite clear when he’s writing to her, there’s no role-playing at all,” said Venning. “He was very conscious of what was expected of him after he became famous, and you don’t get any of that in letters to his sister. He says some things that I’ve never seen him say anywhere else, and I’ve cataloged many hundreds of his letters.”

In a 1923 letter, Einstein wrote, “I am becoming very much loved and even more envied; there’s nothing to be done about it.”

“He’s not rejoicing in it, he’s just sort of accepting it,” Venning commented. “Einstein was the first scientist to be a world celebrity. Before that it just didn’t really happen to scientists, so he was in this unique position.”

In another letter from 1935, Einstein included a rare acknowledgment of the immense significance of his discoveries, describing physics as “groping in the dark, where each is completely skeptical about what another is pursuing with the highest hopes. One is in a constant state of tension until the end. At least I have the comfort that my main achievements have become part of the foundations of our science.”

Albert Einstein, pictured here at his home in Princeton, N.J., in 1949. (Alfred Eisenstaedt via CC/JTA)

“It sounds unusually big-headed for Einstein – he was an incredibly low-key, humble person, always careful not to say anything that sounded too proud. But I think he felt he could say something to Maja,” Venning told The Guardian.

The physicist could also be seen expressing concern about the Nazi rise to power in his native Germany, after the Reich publicly denounced him and branded his theory of relativity “Jewish science,” causing him to flee the country.

In September 1933, a month before taking up a position at Princeton University in New Jersey, he wondered “what will happen if we come back from Princeton next year? Will we even be able to? What will life be like there? The only unshakable things are the stars and mathematics.”

The Guardian said the documents, from the private collection of Maja Winteler-Einstein and her husband, range in years from 1897 to 1951, and, in topic, “from his hobbies of sailing and playing the violin, to his difficult relationship with his first wife.”

Some of them are expected by Christie’s to sell for up to 9,000 pounds (NIS 43,000 or $12,500).

Last week a letter penned by Einstein in which he discussed one of his groundbreaking theories sold in Jerusalem for over $100,000 as part of a trove of documents that went under the hammer.

That sum — while large — pales in comparison to the $1.56 million that one purchaser paid for a letter from Einstein on the secret of happiness at a Jerusalem auction in October after it was initially valued at some $8,000.

Over the weekend, a violin once owned by Einstein was sold at a New York auction house for $516,500.

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