Cosmically significant

A rare manuscript written by Albert Einstein and his lifelong friend is one of the most important scientific documents of the 20th century

On 25 November 1915 Albert Einstein announced to members of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin that his general theory of relativity was complete. It encompasses some of the most important ideas in modern physics, expanding the special theory of relativity he published in 1905.

The earlier theory includes his famous equation E = mc2, which quantifies the relationship between the mass of an object and its energy, while the general theory updates and refines the universal theory of gravitation developed by Isaac Newton in the 17th century.

Both relativistic theories assume that the three dimensions of physical space are inextricably intertwined with a fourth – time. It is distortions of four-dimensional ‘spacetime’ that produce gravity, which in turn determines the size and shape of the universe.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Michele Besso (1873-1955), Manuscript on General Relativity, 1913-1914. 54-page manuscript. Sold for €11,656,560 on 23 November at Christie’s in Paris

Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Michele Besso (1873-1955), Manuscript on General Relativity, 1913-1914. 54-page manuscript. Sold for €11,656,560 on 23 November at Christie’s in Paris

On 23 November, nearly 106 years to the day that Einstein forever changed the way we understand the cosmos, Christie’s France and auction house Aguttes will present an extremely rare monograph that played a crucial role in the development of general relativity.

Known as the Einstein-Besso Manuscript, the 54-page document was written between June 1913 and early 1914 by Einstein and his lifelong friend and colleague, the Swiss-Italian engineer Michele Besso, who the physicist had known since they were both students. It includes equations that led Einstein to paint his radical new picture of the universe.

Apart from a manuscript held at the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Einstein-Besso Manuscript is the only surviving work detailing the genesis of general relativity. Featuring 26 pages in Einstein’s hand and 25 in Besso’s, with three pages of entries by both, the manuscript attempts to explain an anomaly in Mercury’s orbit using versions of the equations Einstein would use to prove his theory of general relativity.

The two men sought to confirm that Mercury’s perihelion, the point where the planet is closest to the Sun, changes slowly over time because of the curvature of spacetime. However, both scientists made a couple of mistakes in the manuscript, and Einstein later on realised that the equations were not quite the right ones yet. He would then correct his findings independently later.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Michele Besso (1873-1955), Manuscript on General Relativity, 1913-1914. 54-page manuscript. Sold for €11,656,560 on 23 November at Christie’s in Paris
Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Michele Besso (1873-1955), Manuscript on General Relativity, 1913-1914. 54-page manuscript. Sold for €11,656,560 on 23 November at Christie’s in Paris

Einstein was not one to save early drafts of his work — hence there are few autographed manuscripts from this momentous point in his career — but Besso kept the document safely in his home until his death in 1955, which accounts for its impeccable condition.

‘The manuscript isn’t bound, and there are many different types of loose paper, so you get the impression of a working document that’s full of energy, as if both men would grab the first page they could find to scribble their findings on,’ says Vincent Belloy, specialist in the Books & Manuscripts department at Christie’s Paris. ‘The size of each leaf is generally the same [273 x 212mm] and the pages were arranged in the right order when it was first revealed by the Besso estate in the early 1990s. Of course, it’s not clear if Michele Besso took the manuscript or if Einstein sent it to him, asking him to work through their findings.’

What is certain is that the men had very different methods, as demonstrated by their handwriting styles and how they presented information. ‘What’s interesting is the sense of personality that comes across in these pages,’ says Belloy. ‘You get the impression that Einstein was perhaps more confident in his calculations since his sheets are much lighter in terms of textual content and reserved almost exclusively for calculations. Besso, by contrast, often added written notes in the margin.’