Given the millions of words that have been written about Albert Einstein, the scientist, it’s somewhat startling to be reminded that his scientific claim to fame can be expressed so simply: E=MC2.
But there was another elemental but powerful equation that governed Einstein, the man. As stated in the opening chapter of the 1979 book, “Albert Einstein — The Human Side,” a collection of letters and other “glimpses from his archives:”
“Albert Einstein was not only the greatest scientist of his time but also by far the most famous. Moreover, he answered letters.”
This fact led to a truckload of archives and at least two volumes that bring the man — both ordinary and extraordinary — into focus: The aforementioned “Human Side,” edited by Banesh Hoffmann, a physicist who had worked with Einstein, and Helen Dukas, Einstein’s longtime secretary; and “The Quotable Einstein,” collected and edited by Alice Calaprice, an editor at the Princeton University Press who also has co-edited a collection of letters to and from children, “Dear Professor Einstein.”
When I first heard of celebrating Einstein and Pi Day in Princeton on Sunday, March 14, I immediately thought of Einstein’s “human side.” I had interviewed Banesh Hoffmann shortly after the book’s publication and had corresponded briefly with Dukas, and I had fond memories of Einstein exactly as he is described in the opening paragraph of the Hoffmann-Dukas book — answering letters.
As I recalled the breadth of Einstein’s correspondents, ranging from world leaders seeking advice on international relations to school kids seeking help with their homework, I imagined another element for some future Pi Day — a one-man Einstein show, reading from his letters from a series of interlocutors.
But first I had to refresh my own memory. I sifted through the dozens of yellowed archives in my attic, looking for my original notes on the Hoffmann interview, or the Dukas notes, or the published article itself, which I thought had appeared in People Magazine. I could not find a thing, no reference in the People online archive and not even my copy of the Hoffmann-Dukas book. Eventually I found one at Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street. My own “library” yielded a copy of Calaprice’s “Quotable Einstein” and Denis Brian’s 1996 biography “Einstein — A Life,” which I had used in a 2002 column on the Einstein memorabilia on display at Landau’s store.
I had piece of paper inserted at page 276 of the Brian book. It recounted a 1935 incident in which a 15-year-old Princeton High School student responded to a challenge issued by his journalism teacher: Any student who got an interview with Einstein would get an A in the course. The student found out the route Einstein took from his home to office, and bravely asked him for an interview.
Einstein finally agreed, but the 15-year-old had been so intent on getting the interview that he had failed to prepare any questions. So Einstein suggested some of his own and helped the high school student get his scoop. Among the answers is one that has been quoted often as a sign of Einstein’s reluctance to be a public figure: “My life is a simple thing that would interest no one. It is a known fact that I was born, and that is all that is necessary.”
The 15-year-old turned out to be Henry Rosso, later the proprietor of Rosso’s Cafe on Spring Street [now Chuck’s Spring Street Cafe], which served as my watering hole, living room, and weekend sports bar in the 1970s. In all that time, during the course of much barroom banter, Rosso never once mentioned to me any encounter with Albert Einstein. But maybe he thought it wasn’t a big deal — Einstein always answered everyone’s questions.
And so it seems.
A student wrote to share her concern that she was below average in math and had to work harder at it than her friends. To which Einstein replied:
“Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics; I can assure you that mine are still greater.”
In 1945, to a couple who unexpectedly lost a child [or grandchild], Einstein replied:
“When the expected course of everyday life is interrupted, we realize that we are like shipwrecked people trying to keep their balance on a miserable plank in the open sea, having forgotten where they came from and not knowing whither they are drifting.”
To an Iowa student in 1953 who asked, What is God?
“To assume the existence of an unperceivable being does not facilitate understanding the orderliness we find in the perceivable world.”
To a crewman on a ship that had rescued a kitten in Germany in 1946 and named it Einstein:
“Thank you very much for your kind and interesting information. I am sending my heartiest greetings to my namesake, also from our tomcat, who was very interested in the story and even a little jealous. The reason is that his own name, ‘Tiger,’ does not express, as in your case, the close kinship to the Einstein family.”
To a Rutgers student asking about the purpose of man on earth:
“I was impressed by the earnestness of your struggle to find a purpose for the life of the individual and of mankind as a whole. If you ask for the purpose or goal of society as a whole or of an individual taken as a whole, the question loses its meaning. Nevertheless we all feel that it is indeed very reasonable and important to ask ourselves how we should try to conduct our lives. The answer is, in my opinion: satisfaction of the desires and needs of all, as far as this can be achieved, and achievement of harmony and beauty in the human relationships.”
To a dentist, G. Lebau, who claimed in 1954 that he had a better theory of relativity:
“It is curious, even abnormal, that with your superficial knowledge about the subject you are so confident of your judgment. I regret that I cannot spare the time to occupy myself with dilettantes.” (Einstein’s remarks must have carried some weight. The dentist returned the letter with an apparent apology: “I am 30 years old; it takes time to learn humility.”)
In 1947, to an Idaho farmer requesting some words that his son could live by as he grew up:
“Nothing truly valuable arises from ambition or from a mere sense of duty; it stems rather from love and devotion towards men and towards objective things.”
To a graduate student in psychology, whose Jewish parents objected to his proposed marriage to a Baptist woman:
“If you want to make a decision with which your parents are not in accord, you must ask yourself this question: Am I, deep down, independent enough to be able to act against the wishes of my parents without losing my inner equilibrium? If you do not feel certain about this, the step you plan is also not to be recommended in the interests of the girl. On this alone should your decision depend.”
In August, 1946, to a child who had expressed surprise that Einstein was still alive:
“I have to apologize to you that I am still among the living. There will be a remedy for this, however.”
Einstein does not disappoint. An actor portraying the man could command the stage for several compelling hours, expressing the ideas, big and small, that poured forth just from his letters. One wonders today, how much substance could be derived from the Facebook postings, tweets, and other musings of the most cerebral celebrities. And who among them would take the time to answer any question in such a personal way?
But, as Hoffmann and Dukas noted so succinctly, Einstein answered letters. Thousands of them, no doubt, meaning that thousands more must have come into the house at 112 Mercer. Let Einstein have the last word regarding all that incoming mail, as quoted in the Calaprice book, from a conversation involving his dog, Chico:
“The dog is very smart. He feels sorry for me because I receive so much mail; that’s why he tries to bite the mailman.”