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Curiosity pays off

Einstein’s letter to a 12-year-old boy from LA up for auction

In 1928 letter, written by Einstein shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize, he replies to a question posed by Arthur L. Cohen about the physics of motion

A letter written by Albert Einstein on December 26, 1928, and addressed to 12-year-old Los Angeles resident Arthur L. Cohen, regarding the laws of motion as they relate to his theories of relativity. (Nate D. Sanders Auctions)
A letter written by Albert Einstein on December 26, 1928, and addressed to 12-year-old Los Angeles resident Arthur L. Cohen, regarding the laws of motion as they relate to his theories of relativity. (Nate D. Sanders Auctions)

A letter addressed to a 12-year-old boy from Los Angeles and signed by Albert Einstein will be auctioned by Nate D. Sanders Auctions on Thursday with bidding beginning at $25,000.

In 1928, 12-year-old Los Angeles resident Arthur L. Cohen, who would later become the founding director of Washington State University’s Electron Microscope Center, sent the renowned theoretical physicist a letter, asking about the physics of motion.

According to his son Phil, Arthur was very passionate about science at that phase of his life, and felt that a major part of the scientific method was to ask good questions.

Cohen believed that a good scientist, such as Einstein, would allow time and thought for such questions regardless of their social or economic status. And he wasn’t wrong.

Replying to young Cohen’s inquisitive letter, Einstein wrote in German: “My dear boy / In your article, you state quite correctly that we are able to experience and imagine motion solely as relative motion.

“The ancients had already known this very well, and even the many opponents of the theory of relativity have had to concede it. Up until the establishment of the general theory of relativity, however, the concept of absolute motion had seemed to be necessary for the formulation of the laws of motion. Disproving this has been the problem of the theory of relativity.

“Your question, how the world might be constituted if it were to contain only one body, cannot be answered conclusively at present. We do not know, you see, whether there might be any space beyond this body. We do know, however, that speaking of its motion would be preposterous.

“But for you it would be better if you began to teach others only after you have learned something useful yourself. / With kindest regards, / [signed] A. Einstein.”

Albert Einstein, during a lecture in Vienna in 1921. (Wikipedia/Public domain)

Dated 26 December, 1928, the letter was written by Einstein shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his theory of relativity.

The letter measures 8.5” x 11”, matted and framed to a size of 16” x 18.5”. It contains chipping at the edges, folds and creasing, as well as light damp staining on its right edge.

Previous letters and notes written by Einstein and sold in auctions in recent months include a letter handwritten by him to a friend, in which he warned of the antisemitism he said was prevalent in US academia, and Einstein’s private notes for the theory of relativity that sold last year for a record 11.6 million euros ($13 million) at an auction in Paris.

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