ENGLISH

Time’s arrow: Albert Einstein’s letters to Michele Besso

Thomas Venning, Head of Books & Manuscripts at Christie’s in London, explores the touching correspondence between Einstein and his dear friend of more than 50 years — illustrated with some of the 56 letters offered in two July sales

Cataloguing the letters from Albert Einstein to his closest friend, Michele Besso, was a roller-coaster ride: intellectually exhilarating, funny, endearing — and with an unexpected conclusion.

Michele Besso and Einstein first met as students in Zurich in the late 1890s, and their friendship was cemented during their time working together in the early 1900s in the Swiss federal patent office in Bern. In the evenings after work, the two friends would stroll home together, and many years later Einstein would remember how thoughts of everyday life would fall away as they discussed scientific subjects. When Einstein changed the world of physics for ever in 1905 with four groundbreaking papers, Michele Besso was his only acknowledged collaborator. 

1903. Written just weeks after his marriage to Mileva Maric in January, this letter sees Einstein in a jovial mood, discussing a scientific paper he has just sent off despite being bed-bound with the flu — Einstein as a newly married man. Bern, late January 1903. Estimate $5,000-7,000. This lot is offered in Einstein Letters to a Friend Part I, 6-13 July, Online
1903. Written just weeks after his marriage to Mileva Maric in January, this letter sees Einstein in a jovial mood, discussing a scientific paper he has just sent off despite being bed-bound with the flu — Einstein as a newly married man. Bern, late January 1903. Estimate: $5,000-7,000. This lot is offered in Einstein: Letters to a Friend Part I, 6-13 July, Online

It was because of their close intellectual understanding that Einstein felt able to talk freely and in detail to Besso about the key scientific concepts of his career: special and general relativity, the ‘cosmological constant’, the red shift of spectral lines, ‘time’s arrow’, unified field theory, quantum mechanics and much else. For a non-scientist it was hard — sometimes impossible — to keep up, but the sensation of observing this great mind working at full speed was extraordinary. 


1921. Science in miniature on a picture postcard from Florence, Einstein draws a tiny diagram of an experiment on the deviation of light rays —
An interesting experiment about light emission. Florence, 20 October 1921. Estimate $3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in Einstein Letters to a Friend Part I, 6-13 July, Online
1921. Science in miniature: on a picture postcard from Florence, Einstein draws a tiny diagram of an experiment on the deviation of light rays — 'An interesting experiment about light emission'. Florence, 20 October 1921. Estimate: $3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in Einstein: Letters to a Friend Part I, 6-13 July, Online

The letters also reveal the human side of Einstein: walking in the mountains with his young son, making fun of crusty old colleagues in Berlin, grumbling about being shown off ‘like a prize bullock’ on an early tour of the United States, dying of boredom in a League of Nations meeting. You feel his anguish and remorse as his first marriage breaks down and he becomes estranged from his children. There are plenty of jokes, too, about himself, his fame, being Jewish, getting old — even about quantum physics.

1929. Einstein at his happiest, having locked himself away in his country property for a few weeks. The result is a new idea for a unified field theory, with which he is delighted — His solitary working methods and a new unified field theory. Gatow, near Berlin, 5 January 1929. Estimate $8,000-12,000. This lot is offered in Einstein Letters to a Friend Part I, 6-13 July, Online
1929. Einstein at his happiest, having locked himself away in his country property for a few weeks. The result is a new idea for a unified field theory, with which he is delighted — His solitary working methods and a new unified field theory. Gatow, near Berlin, 5 January 1929. Estimate: $8,000-12,000. This lot is offered in Einstein: Letters to a Friend Part I, 6-13 July, Online

Above all, there is his delight in his work, his relish for a new theory, his sense of elevation when grasping at fundamental truths — which he expresses in one letter as ‘getting closer to God’.

Einstein’s pipe ‘I believe that pipe-smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgement in all human affairs’ (Einstein, 1950) — Einstein, Albert (1879-1955), A billiard briar pipe. Estimate £5,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Valuable Books and Manuscripts on 12 July 2017 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Einstein’s pipe: ‘I believe that pipe-smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgement in all human affairs’ (Einstein, 1950) — Einstein, Albert (1879-1955), A billiard briar pipe. Estimate: £5,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Valuable Books and Manuscripts on 12 July 2017 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Working through these 56 letters was almost like getting to know Einstein himself. What’s more, this was a particularly attractive side of him, the side that his closest friend saw over 50 years. The most striking parts of his personality? His humility, his absolute love of what he did — at one point, he says, ‘I would not want to go on living if I didn’t have my work’  — and his ability, through that extraordinary mind, to see the universe in a perspective that is beyond the rest of us. 


1953. On ‘time’s arrow’ Einstein explains that our subjective experience of time has no objective significance, and that the Big Bang must have happened independently of ‘time’s arrow’ — Einstein, Albert (1879-1955), autograph letter signed (‘Albert’) to Michele Besso, [Princeton], 29 July [1953]. Estimate £80,000-120,000. This

1953. On ‘time’s arrow’: Einstein explains that our subjective experience of time has no objective significance, and that the Big Bang must have happened independently of ‘time’s arrow’ — Einstein, Albert (1879-1955), autograph letter signed (‘Albert’) to Michele Besso, [Princeton], 29 July [1953]. Estimate: £80,000-120,000. This lot is offered in Valuable Books and Manuscripts on 12 July 2017 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Michele Besso died in March 1955, and the very last letter in the correspondence is written to members of Besso’s family a few days later, and just weeks before Einstein’s own death at the age of 76. The letter ends with a famous sentence, which reflects their deep friendship and the scientific understanding they shared, as well as the distance they had travelled since those happy days as patent clerks in Bern: ‘Now he has again preceded me a little in parting from this strange world. This has no importance. For people like us who believe in physics, the separation between past, present and future has only the importance of an admittedly tenacious illusion.’

1955. Einstein’s great letter of condolence to Besso’s son, Vero, and sister, Bice Rusconi — Einstein, Albert (1879-1955), autograph letter signed (A. Einstein), Princeton, 21 March 1955. Estimate £30,000-50,000. This lot is offered in Valuable Books and Manuscripts on 12 July 2017 at Christie’s in London, King Street

1955. Einstein’s great letter of condolence to Besso’s son, Vero, and sister, Bice Rusconi — Einstein, Albert (1879-1955), autograph letter signed ('A. Einstein'), Princeton, 21 March 1955. Estimate: £30,000-50,000. This lot is offered in Valuable Books and Manuscripts on 12 July 2017 at Christie’s in London, King Street

After I had finished cataloguing this letter, I sat staring at my computer for a moment, and then I did something I’ve never done before in nearly 20 years of cataloguing autograph letters. I burst into tears.