Monday, August 6, 2018

Einstein’s wonderful day

‘One of the finest days of my life. Radiant skies. Toledo like a fairy tale. An enthusiastic old man, who had supposedly written something of import about (Goy) El Greco, guides us. [. . .] Small garden with vistas near synagogue. Magnificent painting by El Greco in small church (burial of a nobleman) is among the profoundest images I have ever seen. Wonderful day.’ This is from the private travel diary of one the world’s most famous scientists, Albert Einstein. Although not accustomed to keeping a diary, he started doing so, in his 40s, when travelling. Of six extant diaries, two have been published - and are freely available online as part of The Digital Einstein Papers. However, Princeton University Press has just published a more comprehensive edition of the diary Einstein kept on a tour to the Far East, Palestine and Spain. Never intended for publication, the diary reveals Einstein unguardedly expressing joy, as in the above extract, but also a degree of racism that has been much discussed by reviewers of the new book.

Einstein was born in 1879 in Ulm, in the Kingdom of Württemberg in the German Empire (now in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg). Within a few months, the family had moved to Munich where his father and uncle founded a company manufacturing electrical equipment. Though Jewish by birth, he attended a Catholic school for several years before enrolling in the secondary school, Luitpold Gymnasium. When his father was forced to sell his business, the family moved to Italy, and Einstein continued his education in Switzerland, where he trained as a maths and physics teacher. In 1901, he became a Swiss citizen, and, unable to get a teaching job, joined the Swiss Patent Office. He married Mileva Marić, a fellow student, in 1903 and they had two sons. (However, in 1987, it was discovered that Marić had also given birth earlier to Einstein’s illegitimate daughter but that the baby had either died or been given up for adoption.)

In 1905, Einstein completed his doctor’s degree; he also published several groundbreaking papers, not least one on special relativity including what would become the famous equation E=mc2. International recognition followed swiftly, with an associate professorship at the University of Zurich, and a full professorship at the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague. In 1914, he was appointed director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin (a post he retained until 1932). After several years of separation, he divorced Marić, and married his cousin Elsa Löwenthal. (For an insight into their life together see Harry Kessler’s diaries - Dined with the Einsteins.) In 1922, Einstein was awarded, after some delay, the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics ‘for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect’.

From the 1920s, Einstein was working towards a unified field theory which, apart from gravitation, was also to include electrodynamics. Although he never succeeded in this grand task, he continued to provide lasting contributions to statistical mechanics, special relativity, quantum mechanics, physical cosmology among other branches of maths and physics. He received many honorary doctorate degrees in science, medicine and philosophy from European and American universities, as well as fellowships or memberships of leading scientific academies. He travelled widely, meeting other scientists, and giving lectures. Sailing back to Europe from a trip to the US in 1933, he learned of new German laws barring Jews from holding academic positions, and decided he could not return to Berlin. Other countries, particularly Britain, sought to give him residency. However, he chose to take up American citizenship, and a position at the newly-founded Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, to which he remained affiliated for the rest of his life.

Einstein was an active Zionist. He helped establish the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which opened in 1925, and was among its first governors. Much later, in 1952, he was invited to take up the ceremonial post of President of Israel, though he turned this down. He was also an outspoken advocate for the idea of a world government, and he was a pacifist. However, on the eve of World War II, he famously sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt alerting him to Germany’s potential to develop an atomic bomb and urging the US to begin research into similar techniques. Later, he campaigned to warn of the danger of nuclear arms. Wikipedia says he published more than 300 scientific papers and more than 150 non-scientific works in his lifetime. He died in 1955. Further information is also available at Princeton University Press, the Nobel Prize website,, Encyclopaedia Britannica. There are also many biographies available at Internet Archive and Googlebooks.

There is no evidence that Einstein was a diarist by habit but, in the 1920s, he started to keep diaries when travelling. There are six diaries extant from five trips, the first written during his 1922-1923 journey to the Far East, Palestine and Spain, a second written in South America in 1925, and the other four written during three consecutive winter trips to the USA between late 1930 and early 1933. The first two of the six have been published in volumes 13 and 14 respectively of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, produced by the Einstein Papers Project, and published by Princeton University Press.

The Einstein Papers Project was established in 1986 by Princeton University Press and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem ‘to assemble, preserve, translate, and publish papers selected from the literary estate of Albert Einstein’ (based in Pasadena, California, at the California Institute of Technology). The volumes are published in the original German, but also in English translation. The Collected Works series has only reached the mid-1920s, and so, presumably, it will be some years before the USA diaries are published. All the hardback volumes are also being made freely available online through The Digital Einstein Papers, hosted by Princeton University Press. Thus, both the first two diaries can be found online, buried deep within the volumes (Far East, Palestine and Spain, and South America).

Although the first travel diary has already been published in print and online, Princeton University Press has now published a far more comprehensive edition - The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein: The Far East, Palestine & Spain 1922-1923, as edited by Ze’ev Rosenkranz, senior editor and assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project. According to the publisher: ‘Quirky, succinct, and at times irreverent the entries record Einstein’s musings on science, philosophy, art, and politics, as well as his immediate impressions and broader thoughts on such events as his inaugural lecture at the future site of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a garden party hosted by the Japanese Empress, an audience with the King of Spain, and meetings with other prominent colleagues and statesmen.’

The handsomely-produced book (which can be previewed at Googlebooks) includes photographic images of every page of Einstein’s diary, extensive notes and references, and a long informative introduction by Rosenkranz. He explains, for example, how this diary and other papers were saved from the Germans: on hearing that Einstein could not return to Berlin in January 1933, his son-in-law removed the diary and other papers from Einstein’s office for safe-keeping in the French embassy, and for subsequent transfer by diplomatic pouch to Paris. He discusses why Einstein might have started to keep travel diaries at this point in time, and he argues that the diaries were never written with a view to publication (but, probably, for family members). He also analyses - and tries to explain - several entries in the diary in which Einstein expresses racist opinions. These particular entries, offering an unexpectedly darker side to Einstein's personality, have been widely reported in the press (see the BBC and the Mail Online - but also The New York Times).

Here are several extracts from the diary, courtesy of Princeton University Press. (NB: for simplicity, the annotations that appear in the original have been omitted.)

21 November 1922
‘Chrysanthemum festival at the imperial palace garden. Great difficulty in procuring a fitting frock coat along with top hat. The former from unknown donor via Mr. Barwald, who brought it personally; the latter from Mr. Yamamoto; far too small, so I had to carry it around in my hand the whole afternoon. We were with the foreign diplomats, who were arranged in a semicircle. Picked up and accompanied by the German embassy. Jap[anese] empress stepped around the inside of the semicircle and spoke a few words with husbands and wives from the embassies, with me a few kind words in French. Then refreshments in the garden at tables, where I was introduced to infinitely many people. Garden marvelous, artificial hills, water, picturesque autumn foliage. Chrysanthemums in booths properly lined up like soldiers. The hanging chrysanthemums are the most beautiful. In the evening, cozy evening at the Berliners’ charming japanese home. He, an intelligent political economist, she, a gracious, intelligent woman, true native of Berlin. Lazing about under such conditions is more tiring than working, but the Inagakis help us with touching solicitude.’

29 November 1922
‘While in shirtsleeves received a card from pastor Steinichen announcing his visit to keep me informed about Frau Schulze’s case. Changed and got dressed quickly, partly in his presence. Then the English physician Gordon-Munroe, who was attending Frau Schulze. Verified that wife’s psychosis is due to husband’s maltreatment (employee at the German Embassy). 10:30, tea ceremony in a fine Japanese home. Exactly prescribed ceremony for a meal to celebrate friendship. Glimpse into the contemplative cultural life of the Japanese. The man has written four thick volumes on the ceremony, which he proudly showed us. Then, reception by 10,000 students at Waseda University, founded by Okuma (?) in the spirit of democracy, with addresses. Lunch at hotel. Then lecture. Viewing of the institute. Interesting communication about electric-arc line-shift. At 6:30 reception by pedagogical societies. During farewells, greeting by female seminar participants outside. Sweet, cheerful scene of throngs in semi-darkness. Too much love and spoiling for one mortal. Arrival home dead tired.’

6 March 1923
‘Excursion to Toledo concealed through many lies. One of the finest days of my life. Radiant skies. Toledo like a fairy tale. An enthusiastic old man, who had supposedly written something of import about (Goy) El Greco, guides us. Streets and market place, views onto the city, the Tagus with stone bridges, stone-covered hills, charming plain, cathedral, synagogue, sunset on the homeward trip with glowing colors. Small garden with vistas near synagogue. Magnificent painting by El Greco in small church (burial of a nobleman) is among the profoundest images I have ever seen. Wonderful day.’

The three extracts immediately above are excerpted from THE TRAVEL DIARIES OF ALBERT EINSTEIN: The Far East, Palestine, & Spain 1922-1923 ed. by Ze’ev Rosenkranz. Editorial apparatus and diary translation copyright © 2018 by Princeton University Press. Travel diary, additional texts, and endpaper images copyright © 2018 by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

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