Albert Einstein Letters on Science, Politics and God Could Be Yours

6-13-17 Albert Einstein
German-born Swiss-U.S. physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), author of the theory of relativity, awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921, celebrates his 75th birthday at Princeton University, March 15, 1954. AFP/Getty Images

Several letters written by the iconic, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein will be auctioned off next week. Winner's Auctions and Exhibitions in Jerusalem has listed six lots for its upcoming auction of more than 100 "rare and special items" on June 20. The auction will be held in its offices as well as online with a live video feed.

Most of the letters are addressed to David Bohm, an American theoretical physicist who also explored the nature of thought and intelligence. Bohm was a professor at Princeton University while Einstein served on the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study, also located in Princeton, New Jersey, where Einstein made his home after fleeing Nazi Germany.

"We have sold Einsteins before but not in this league," Gal Wiener, owner of the auction house, tells Newsweek over the phone. Winner's has previously sold a book and a photo with dedications from Einstein, he says. In this case, not only is the content of the letters important, he adds, but also the documents are original typewritten pages with handwritten comments, signed by the famed physicist. "A lot of people appreciate originals."

The letters are from the years 1951 through 1954, not long before Einstein's death in 1955. During this period in the early 1950s, Bohm was living in Brazil. He had been arrested and tried for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but he was acquitted in 1951. He went on to positions at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, the Technion in Israel, and the University of Bristol and Birkbeck College of the University of London in the U.K. He passed away in 1992 and his wife, Sarah Bohm, died in April 2016 in Jerusalem, leaving the letters to be sold by her estate.

"We know where they came from," Wiener says of the letters' provenance and authenticity. "It's very obvious that he should have Einstein letters with him," he adds, speaking of Bohm and, by extension, his widow. "There's no doubt about it in this case."

Einstein wrote to his friend and colleague, unsurprisingly, about physics, with one letter including handwritten equations. Those are a footnote to Einstein's sentence: "I am sending you my book containing an appendix concerning generalized field theory and I will send you very soon a typed copy of some improvements I have found recently." He adds that he is "very astonished about your announcement to establish some connection between the formalism of quantum theory and relativistic field theory. I must confess that I am not able to guess how such unification could be achieved."

6-13-17 Einstein letter
A 1951 letter written by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein addressed to fellow physicist David Bohm is one of several letters up for auction next week. Winner’s Auctions and Exhibitions

But he wrote about other topics, too, expressing concern for Bohm in early 1954 when he was unhappy in Brazil.

What impressed me most was the instability of your belly, a matter where I have myself extended experience. I can also understand that you suffer from the dullness of the intellectual atmosphere which cannot be overcome by the best influence of an intelligent man. What is not socially appreciated does not develop even in gifted individuals. The first difficulty could be overcome by a reliable cook, but not the second one. I can understand now why you so eagerly wish to escape from there.

But he encouraged Bohm to stick it out until he acquired Brazilian citizenship, adding that "from your native country one cannot expect—in the foreseeable time—a more reasonable political attitude." Israel, where Bohm ended up living between Brazil and England, "is intellectually alive and interesting but has very narrow possibilities. And to go there with the intention to leave on the first occasion would be regrettable," Einstein wrote. "Although I fully understand your feeling of frustration I feel that patience combined with an attempt to enjoy your life there as well as possible seems to me the best you can do for the moment."

In another letter a few weeks later, Einstein offers to help him with a new plan. He goes on to offer more encouragement and, in another context, to mention God. "You should not be depressed by the enormity of the problem. If God has created the world his primary worry was certainly not to make its understanding easy for us. I feel it strongly since fifty years."

He mentions God once more, in a copy of a letter he wrote in September 1944 to Max Born, another German Jewish physicist who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1954. "In our scientific expectations we have developed into antipodes. You believe in the dice throwing God and I in a complete order in a world of objective existence which I am trying to catch in a wildly speculative way," he wrote. "I believe firmly, but I hope that somebody will find a more realistic way or a more solid basis than I am given. The great initial success of the Quantum Theory cannot persuade me to believe in the fundamental dice-playing, although I know that the younger colleagues interprete [sic] this as a result of sclerosis. Once it will become manifest which instinctive attitude had been right."

In that 1944 letter, written while World War II was still raging, he also reflected on history and ethics:

Do you still remember that about 25 years ago we once rode together to the Reichstag building in a tramcar convinced that we could effectively help to make the fellows there into honest democrats? How naive we were then as men of 40 years! I can only laugh when I think of it. We both did not realize how much more sits in the spinal chord [sic] than in the cerebrum and how much tighter it sits. That's what one has to keep in mind now if the tragic errors of the past are not to be repeated.

We must not be surprised to find that the scientists are no exceptions (the big majority of them); and if they are different it is not due to their intellect but to their humanity as in the case of Laue. It was interesting to observe how step by step he broke away from the traditions of the crowd under the influence of a strong sense of justice. The medical people have had amazingly little success with their "ethical code," and with the scientists proper with their mechanized and specialized thinking there is still less hope for an ethical result…

The sense of what there should be and what should not grows and dies like a tree, and no sort of manure will have much effect on it. What the individual can do is only to give a clear example and to have the courage to advocate seriously his ethical convictions in the society of cynics. I have tried for a long time to conduct myself accordingly (with changing success).

The letters range in estimated prices from $2,000-to-$3,000 to $15,000-to-$20,000, with opening prices between $500 and $8,000. A 20 percent buyer's premium is added onto the final sale amount. Wiener says the auction house separated the letters into six individual lots to allow more collectors to be able to acquire one. He anticipates bidders to include physicists and other scientists, universities, colleges or museums.

"I'm sure there's a lot of people who would like to have at least one," Wiener says. "To put it in the office. They can put in a nice frame and say, 'Hey, I've got an Einstein letter.'"