To many, he is the greatest scientist who ever lived, but a unique collection
of Albert Einstein's letters and papers reveals a history of struggle and
failure made worse by an apparently shaky grasp of maths.
An archive which goes on sale in London next month with a price tag of US$1.5
million shows how after transforming physics and securing unprecedented
celebrity status with his general theory of relativity in 1916, Einstein
suffered years of frustration as he failed to top that with "a grand theory of
The 15 manuscripts and 33 letters penned between 1933 and 1954 give a glimpse
into a period in Einstein's life when he strayed away from mainstream physics
and grappled with the most fundamental questions in the universe.
"At the time, a lot of his colleagues, the theoretical physicists, felt that
he was completely off the beaten path and so they didn't really take him
seriously," said Howard Rootenberg, of B&L Rootenberg Books in California,
who is handling the sale.
Although manuscripts dealing with Einstein's earlier work and his social and
political views are relatively common, the collection is unique in helping to
document the latter half of his life, when he moved to Princeton University in
New Jersey and embarked on a struggle to unite all branches of physics.
But his work in this period made very little impact on contemporaries and he
never found his grand theory something physicists are still grappling with.
The archive was collected by Einstein's colleague Ernst Gabor Straus, a young
mathematician whom the great physicist selected to help him during his Princeton
"A lot of people think of Einstein as a mathematical genius he wasn't," said
David McMullan, a physicist at Plymouth University.
He said it was fascinating to see breakthroughs not coming easily to
Einstein. "Here we see the greatest scientist who ever lived struggling and
being honest about it."
In one sequence of 16 letters Straus criticizes a line of inquiry that
Einstein is pursuing and eventually persuades him to abandon it. "It would take
somebody with real balls to say to Einstein, 'look, this is wrong'," said Peter
Coles, a physicist at Nottingham University.
The papers have never been studied because they have been held by Straus and
his family since they were written. Einstein scholars were not even aware they
existed until Straus's wife and son decided to put them on the market. They tell
the story of the two men's evolving thought process in the vain search for the
unified field theory, as the grand theory was called.
Einstein hoped to unite the forces of gravity and electromagnetism under one
theoretical framework. But the search turned out to be a series of blind alleys.
"It's a part of Einstein's life that we know comparatively little about,"
said Tilman Sauer, a senior editor at the Einstein Papers Project at the
California Institute of Technology.
"There is a general image of Einstein in Princeton that he was sitting in a
kind of golden cage, having lost contact with mainstream physics and doing
esoteric calculations. These documents paint a much more nuanced picture of
Einstein's later life."