There’s a new collection of Einstein’s personal letters that are about to be published. They give us a portrait of the young scientist before he revolutionized science. At the time these letters were written, Einstein was insecure, poor and struggling to publish. In other words, he was just like every other post-doc:
In 1915, as Western civilization teetered on the brink, Albert Einstein stood at the threshold of a scientific achievement so bold that it would forever change him and the world.
His general theory of relativity, which described how large bodies warped space and time, would revolutionize people’s ideas about the physical world and guarantee that the rest of his life would be lived in the glare of a celebrity that made heads of state and Hollywood stars go tongue-tied in his presence.
The gem of this new collection, published by Caltech and Princeton University, is a treasure trove of personal letters that have been locked away for almost a century and are now shedding fresh light on the man and his work at this moment of transformation.
Einstein’s stepdaughter Margot donated 130 letters, written in German, from and to his closest friends and family members. Margot, who died in July 1986, had specified that they not be released to the public for 20 years after her death.
These letters portray the greatest thinker of the 20th century at the height of his powers not as a triumphant genius but as a working man struggling to make ends meet while the world around him threatened to devolve into chaos.
This image of a man who could be as insecure as he was accomplished, as spiteful as he was open-hearted, runs counter to two popular notions of Einstein.
One image is the gentle antiwar symbol whose fright-wigged visage smiled down from a thousand dorm rooms. The other is of Einstein the distracted genius too occupied with great thoughts to match his socks.
In fact, according to Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of Time magazine and author of a forthcoming biography, Einstein in 1915 was “awesomely human.”
He would never again be so poor, nor so vulnerable, as he was in the spring, summer and fall of 1915.