When The New York Times asked Einstein to explain his longed-for Great Discovery ‘in a form as simple as the subject will allow’

In 1929 Albert Einstein was persuaded to try to simplify his latest work, a ‘unified field theory’, for the benefit of readers of The New York Times. The draft manuscript he produced for the newspaper is offered in Shanghai on 23 September

Albert Einstein in 1921. Photo: Emil Otto Hoppé. © Mansell Collection/The LIFE Picture Collection

Left: Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Autograph Manuscript, signed (‘A. Einstein’), ‘Altes und Neues zur Feld‐Theorie’, 1929. Right: Albert Einstein in 1921. Photo: Emil Otto Hoppé. © Mansell Collection/The LIFE Picture Collection

The handwriting on the pages is neat and easy to understand, though the thoughts that the words convey are complex and profound. Each sentence sits tidily on the horizontal lines; clearly the act of writing was not rushed. True, there are some crossings-out in the first paragraphs, but they are few and far between thereafter, once the writer found his flow.

And there is some genuine flair in the penmanship. The slightly outsized capitals (of which there are many, since this text is German) include some pleasing flourishes. The words lean uniformly to the right like reeds in a breeze. It is a creative hand by any measure, curved and inky-dark — like the imagined universe of Albert Einstein, whose signature adorns the final page.

This manuscript, which will go under the hammer in Shanghai on September 23, is the draft of an article that Einstein wrote early in 1929. It consists of 12 separate sheets, the first of them taken from a squared scientific notebook, the rest penned on the back of Einstein’s personal notepaper. His name and his Berlin address — 5 Haberlandstrasse — is on the blank reverse of the written pages.

The versos of two pages also contain some scribbled equations, impenetrable as pre-Rosetta hieroglyphs. This notational writing has some urgency about it: the recurrent Greek lambda is crude and hard-edged, like a Neolithic arrowhead. Mistakes are roughly scrubbed out, as if in frustration. There appears to be a more heightened and difficult thought process underway when Einstein expresses himself in the language of mathematics, his other native tongue.

But what is the substance of the manuscript? It is a text that Einstein had been commissioned to write for The New York Times, his favourite American newspaper. The Times wanted him to explain his latest breakthrough — a seemingly enormous leap forward in the realm of ‘unified field theory’. In the first months of 1929, it looked like Einstein was on the cusp of an achievement that would eclipse his exposition of relativity, which had revolutionised physics 15 years before.

Two fundamental forces were known to physics at that time: electromagnetism and gravity. Both acted on objects in the empty expanses of space — or to put it another way, both manifested as ‘fields’. Moreover, both forces involved attraction between solid masses (though electromagnetism has a repellent force, too). And in both cases, the effect of the force grows weaker the greater the distance between objects.

These similarities led Einstein to surmise that electromagnetism and gravity were aspects of the same universal phenomenon. ‘Unified field theory’ was the name that Einstein coined for the attempt to find mathematical proof of their kinship, to produce one set of equations that would elegantly and definitively account for both phenomena.

Einstein viewed this deep inquiry as the natural extension of his work on relativity — which had, after all, already abolished the Newtonian concept of gravity. Others saw Einstein’s project more sensationally as a one-man quest to uncover a ‘theory of everything’.

The New York Times article was one event in a strange continuum of awe around the personality of Einstein. At the end of the 1920s, he was by far the most famous scientist on the planet, revered not just as an analytical mind but as the soft-spoken conscience of humanity. Einstein was also just approaching his 50th birthday, a day that he was very much hoping to ignore, but which the world was determined to celebrate for him. Unified field theory seemed perfectly timed for his half-century; it was his gift to a world that was about to shower him with gifts.

So the excitement around Einstein’s newest research had been building, and some of that media-detectable radiation emanated from Einstein himself. ‘The thing that I have pondered and calculated all the days and half the nights is now ready before me, compressed into seven pages,’ he wrote to a friend early in January.

Simultaneously, Einstein’s wife Elsa let an acquaintance know that ‘he has worked magnificently and solved the problem which it has been his life’s dream to solve.’ The New York Times, quick off the mark, had already published an article under the tantalising headline ‘Einstein on the Verge of a Great Discovery; Resents Intrusion’.

The longed-for ‘great discovery’ was made public when Einstein submitted his brief paper — now reduced to a mere six pages — to the Prussian Academy in Berlin. Aware that the world was waiting, the Academy printed 1,000 copies, an unusually high number for their dry proceedings. Every copy was snapped up as if it were a blockbuster novel, and 3,000 more had to be run off to meet demand.

One copy of Einstein’s paper was displayed in the window of Selfridges in London, and crowds gathered to peer at it, like the children of Israel gazing on the stone tablets that Moses carried down from Mount Sinai. It was noted with astonishment that Einstein had spent a decade or more arriving at an idea that could be expressed with such brevity — six pages! — and this was seen as further evidence of his ineffable genius.

The trouble was: no one understood it — and that was why The New York Times asked Einstein to explain his theory ‘in a form as simple as the subject will allow’. The finished article is not an easy read by any means, but it is very evident that Einstein is making bold claims for the new ‘unitary field theory’, as the English translation has it.

In the article, he states unequivocally that ‘both types of field’ can be described ‘as manifestations of one comprehensive type of spatial structure’. He goes on to claim outright that ‘the answer that I have attempted to give in a new paper yields unitary field laws for gravitation and electro-magnetism.’

But Einstein had not cracked the puzzle, still less ‘read the mind of God’, as he himself soon realised. There were gaps in the mathematical logic, and his calculations conflicted with some of his own already proven conclusions about relativity. But Einstein continued to search for unification, and never stopped believing it was attainable. The pursuit of it occupied him for the next 25 years, until his death in 1955.

Seven decades on, there is no proven unified field theory. It remains a dream in the ineffable mind of Albert Einstein. But that does not mean that Einstein failed. Because he was not only a scientist striving to describe the world; he was also a kind of artist, painting pictures of the cosmos as he saw it. The epiphany around unified field theory came to him, as masterpieces often do, after a period of illness and crisis. It is an idea that belongs to its time, but it still stands as an epic canvas born of inner struggle.

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The general public, for whom Einstein wrote his newspaper manifesto, appreciated this artistic aspect of Einstein’s achievement. Window-shoppers might have been baffled by his Prussian paper, but those same people instinctively grasped the aesthetic power of his eternal formula — E=mc². Like many great works of art, that equation is beautiful because it is simple, and simple because it is true.

Other sensitive, lyrical souls recognised Einstein as one of their own around this time. In 1926, just as Einstein was giving a name to his theory, the American poet Archibald MacLeish wrote a meditative work entitled Einstein. In the midst of that long poem, he rightly and memorably pictures the creator-physicist making ‘images / patterned from eddies of the air / which are / perhaps not shadows but the thing itself / and may be understood.’

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