Hebrew U’s new mass of papers sheds fresh light on co-founder Albert Einstein
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Hebrew U’s new mass of papers sheds fresh light on co-founder Albert Einstein

Research, family letters and an iconic photo reveal his ‘humility, grace and sense of humor’ as what would be the late physicist’s 140th birthday approaches

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Karen Cortell Reisman, Albert Einstein's cousin, cuts a cake on March 6 in honor of the scientist's 140th birthday and the new papers revealed by the Einstein Archives at Hebrew University (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Karen Cortell Reisman, Albert Einstein's cousin, cuts a cake on March 6 in honor of the scientist's 140th birthday and the new papers revealed by the Einstein Archives at Hebrew University (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

What would be Albert Einstein’s 140th birthday is coming up, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is throwing a party, relatively speaking.

The university revealed documents on Wednesday that were part of a parcel of 110 manuscript pages recently donated to its Einstein Archives.

They include correspondence between Einstein and his lifelong friend and colleague, Michele Besso, a personal letter to his son Hans Albert, pages about the physics of the atomic bomb and nuclear reactor, and other research with colleagues.

Part of the trove was a signed copy of the famous picture of Einstein sticking out his tongue, given by Karen Cortell Reisman, an Einstein relative. Einstein had sent her father and other relatives and friends copies of the famed paparazzi snap, with a caption: “This tongue I give the world, not you.”

“We acquired a magnificent volume of unique material,” said Hanoch Gutfreund, a physicist who is the academic adviser to the Einstein Archives and a former president of the university. “It was Einstein’s wish that all his intellectual wealth will be at Hebrew University.”

One of the envelopes that is part of the papers revealed by Hebrew University’s Einstein Archives (Courtesy Ardon Bar-Hama/Einstein Archives at Hebrew University)

The papers offer a plethora of new information about the German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity, shedding light on the findings that led to the creation of lasers, fiber optics and space travel. Others shed light on his close relationships with the friends, family and colleagues he was in touch with throughout his long life.

The newly received 110 papers are a “rare find,” said Roni Grosz, curator of the archives.

They were owned by several collectors in New York before being purchased by Gary Berger, a doctor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Another collector, a member of the Crown-Goodman Family Foundation of Chicago, then arranged the purchase of the papers for the Einstein Archives.

Einstein was one of the founders of Hebrew University. Before he died in 1955, he asked his longtime secretary Helen Dukes, who emigrated from Germany with him to Princeton, New Jersey, to organize his papers into a collection.

The archives reached Hebrew University in 1982, and now include more than 82,000 items, said Grosz.

Roni Grosz (left), Karen Cortell Reisman and Hanoch Gutfreund at the March 6 press conference at Hebrew University’s Einstein Archives (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The new papers augment the existing, vaunted collection. They include a postcard sent from Einstein to his longtime friend Michele Besso, describing a “brilliant idea” that 40 years later became the basis for laser technology. Another letter sent to Besso in 1951 deals with Einstein’s lifelong struggle with quantum physics, as well as religion. Besso had converted to Christianity, but was learning Hebrew.

Einstein wrote, “As a goy you are not obliged to learn the language of our fathers, whilst I as a ‘Jewish saint’ must feel ashamed at the fact that I know next to nothing of it. But I prefer to feel ashamed than to learn it.”

Albert Einstein (left) and his lifelong friend, Michele Besso (Courtesy Ardon Bar-Hama/Einstein Archives at Hebrew University)

“Each one is a gem,” said Gutfreund of Einstein’s letters to Besso.

A transcribed letter to Einstein’s son Hans Albert is moving and personal. In it, Einstein apologizes for not being in better touch. He expresses concern about his other son, Eduard, known as Tetel, who battled mental illness and was a fan of a particular doctor, who the Hebrew University experts assume was Sigmund Freud.

“Something like that” — Hans Albert’s project — “I’m happy to pay for, but not for Tetel’s crazy course of treatment. I am almost positive that the thing with the Viennese doctor is a simple swindle,” wrote Einstein.

The letter from Albert Einstein to his son, Albert Einstein (Courtesy Ardon Bar-Hama/Einstein Archives at Hebrew University)

“For a scientist, it’s important to see how he worked, what he crossed out,” said Gutfreund of the new acquisition of some of Einstein’s work.

In one paper, Einstein had collaborated with Ernst Strauss, a German Jew who studied at Hebrew University before joining Einstein in Princeton, and whose descendant is currently a professor at Hebrew University. Another paper, on gravitational waves, was created with Nathan Rosen, Einstein’s assistant at Princeton who immigrated to Israel in 1953, joined the faculty of the Technion and served as president of Ben-Gurion University.

A limited edition version of Albert Einstein’s leather jacket was created by Levi’s in 2016, and is part of Hebrew University’s Einstein Archives (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Cortell Reisma, who donated the tongue photo, is a professional speaker who came from Dallas, Texas, to mark the occasion of her kinsman’s 140th birthday at the university.

She reminisced about the place of honor Einstein had in her family, of the framed letters from him that hung in her home, and the story of how her mother, Anna, a German immigrant, was introduced to Einstein shortly after their wedding, as the scientist was her father Walter’s only other relative in the US.

Albert Einstein, at home in Princeton, New Jersey, June, 1954. (AP Photo, File)

“I inherited my frizzy hair from him,” said Cortell Reisman. “His letters showed his human side. They were letters that showed his humility, grace and sense of humor.”

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