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 letters offered in past and upcoming 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. 

1915. Einstein’s eureka moment: a postcard written in a mood of euphoria after he has delivered the last of his four magisterial papers on general relativity. His 'boldest dreams' of general relativity, Berlin, 10 December 1915. 1½ pages, 140 x 91mm. Estimate: $20,000-30,000. This lot is offered in Einstein: Letters to a Friend Part II, 29 November to 6 December 2017, 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. 

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.

1937. In this letter Einstein looks back at the passage of time since he thought up the theory of special relativity in company with Besso more than 30 years previously: That makes roughly 109 seconds, after all, and it seems amazing that one couldn't manage to make more productive use of that time'. Einstein's regrets at the passage of time, Princeton, 9 June 1937. In German, 1½ pages, 278 x 215mm, on paper with blind-stamped address heading Envelope. Estimate: $10,000-15,000. This lot is offered in Einstein: Letters to a Friend Part II, 29 November to 6 December 2017, 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’.

1949. Mathematics for Einstein always came second to creative speculation: here he gives a dazzling exposition of his great ‘theory of everything’ – unified field theory – but concludes with a sense of resignation. 'What is logically simple is so difficult mathematically', Princeton, 16 August 1949. In German, two pages, 278 x 218mm Envelope. Estimate: $20,000-30,000. This lot is offered in Einstein: Letters to a Friend Part II, 29 November to 6 December 2017, Online

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. 

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. Sold for: £52,500 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.’

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. Sold for: £100,000 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.

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