Equated With Genius

March 16, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

People used to write to Albert Einstein just for samples of his handwriting. He often obliged.

So, with all those letters and signatures out there, it might seem odd for someone to pay millions of dollars for another sample of the great genius' penmanship.

But that's almost certain to happen today at Sotheby's in New York. Of course, what's being auctioned there is a manuscript of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, probably written in 1912. It is the oldest such manuscript in existence. When it first went on the block, in 1987, it sold for $1.2 million.

This time, Sotheby's expects the Einstein manuscript to sell for between $4 million and $6 million. This suggests either a great inflation in the value of historical documents or a continuing fascination with the man who taught the world to think of the universe in an entirely different way. Both are probably true.

People wrote to Einstein all the time. Religious zealots tried to convert him: He put them off gently. Young people would ask for romantic advice: He was as sensible as Ann Landers. Editors wanted his opinion on anything; they knew he played the violin, so they'd ask his opinion of Bach or Schubert. For some reason, these queries irritated him.

Listen to the music, he would say "and shut your mouth!"

A young girl wrote him from South Africa and said she would have written sooner but thought he lived in the 18th century and was dead and she had gotten him mixed up with Isaac Newton.

Einstein responded: "Thank you for your letter of July 10th. I have to apologize to you that I am still among the living. There will be a remedy for this, however."

Of all the geniuses that have emerged through history, Einstein alone seems to have escaped the ponderous dignity that weighs down so many great men. There are a lot of jokes about him, unlike, say, Galileo.

There's the one about the janitor in Princeton who washed off all the blackboards one night and left Einstein in tears. When confronted, he said: "Way I see it, I had a job to do, and I was bound and determined to do it right. He wasn't the only perfectionist in the university business."

Then there was the Princeton barber who always ribbed Einstein when he came in for a trim, every four years or so. . . .

These aren't true, of course. They were made up by Ron Hauge, a witty science writer, but they illustrate the license people take with the man from Ulm.

It is true that the most famous scientist of all time had a few idiosyncracies. For instance, he didn't wear socks.

"He dressed sloppy like, usually wore a dark graey overcoat and knitted hat," says Fred Goldsborough, 82, who for years delivered Einstein's mail to him in Princeton. Mr. Goldsborough met Einstein almost every day as the scientist walked to his office at the Institute for Advanced Studies.

"When you spoke to him he would always speak and give you a little salute," Mr. Goldsborough recalls. "He'd just say, 'Howdy, brother.' He recognized you."

Once, children in a fifth-grade class in New York sent him a tie clip and cuff links for his 76th birthday. Thanks, he wrote back, but "neckties and cuffs exist for me only as remote memories."

Never published

The manuscript being auctioned today is full of lined-through deletions, additions and corrections. It was drafted by Einstein for a German publisher who wanted to include it in a collection of papers by esteemed scientists. But World War I erupted before the book could be published, so the project was put off.

After the war, the editor, Erich Marx, asked Einstein not only to update the manuscript, but also for a shorter exposition on his later General Theory. Einstein declined to do either: He was too busy, he said, and also he had reformulated many elements of the Special Theory. Thus, the manuscript was never published. The 72 pages, written in pencil and brown ink, are said to show the progression of Einstein's thought.

The most fascinating thing about Albert Einstein, of course, was his work, though by the time he moved to the United States nearly all of his major achievements were behind him. His two grand theories, on Special Relativity and later on General Relativity, were published before the end of World War I. The first dealt with the laws of high-speed motion, the second with gravity. The rest of his life he spent vainly trying to explain the connection between electricity and gravity.

But as far as Americans were concerned, Einstein was ever in his intellectual prime. He had had the vision to describe how the universe worked. Then, as he aged, one experiment after another validated his descriptions about the atom's inherent power, how high speed can actually slow the progress of time, about gravity's capacity to bend light.

For all this, he was lionized, not only by scientists, but by ordinary folk. This had never happened before to someone whose achievements were so unintelligible to the average person.

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