"Relativity" - The paper that challenged our notion of time and space.
The 46-page manuscript that was recently shown, for the first time in its entirety, at an exhibition at the Israeli Academy of Science in Jerusalem, is certainly one of the most important scientific papers of our times. Since the opening day of the Hebrew University, in 1925, this paper counts among the University's most precious treasures. Whoever, as a representative of this institution, had the privilege to show a page of this document to an official visitor could hardly hide his pride and admiration.
The manner in which this manuscript became part of the Hebrew University's collection is usually told in a few concise words: it was donated by Albert Einstein, member of the Board of Trustees as a kind of dowry. This is not outright wrong. Yet, behind the short explanation there is a much more complex story certainly worth listening to. The following is the narrative:
In autumn 1915, Einstein presented the results of his reflections on a generalized theory of relativity to the Academy of Sciences in Berlin in several steps. By March 1916, a revised version of the paper was completed and Einstein submitted it to the Annalen der Physik. It was published without any substantial changes. We don't know when exactly Erwin Finlay Freundlich asked Einstein for the manuscript. Neither do we know why he wanted to see the original. He might have hoped to be able to pursue Einstein's train of thoughts in the corrections of the handwritten text. Thus his request sprang from an intelligible desire of a colleague who eagerly endeavoured to confirm Einstein's theory at a time it was still under development.
Erwin Finlay Freundlich, a German astrophysicist at the Prussian Royal Observatory in Berlin, was just a few years Einstein's junior. By 1911 he was already engaged in research on the gravitational light deflection as predicted by Einstein. At the time Einstein moved from Zurich to Berlin, Freundlich was looking forward to the solar eclipse of August 1914. This appeared to be a promising opportunity to secure the necessary measurements. With Einstein's support Freundlich was able to equip an expedition to the Crimea where the eclipse could be observed.
The outbreak of WWI, however, set an early end to the undertaking. Freundlich and his collaborators were interned as prisoners of war. Soon released, they were forced to leave their astronomical instruments behind. Only part of the valuable equipment was later returned. Einstein did not hold Freundlich, the man, in high esteem but prized Freundlich, the colleague, whose scientific endeavours he furthered for years with financial and professional assistance. Einstein considered Freundlich " the only colleague in that profession until now to support [his] efforts effectively in the area of general relativity."
This was most likely the reason why Einstein agreed to handing over the manuscript to Freundlich.
Einstein was not one to proudly and carefully retain each and every little note he jotted down. On the contrary: As soon as an article was available in print, Einstein usually threw away the original manuscript. Thus, a good deal of those early documents, including letters, were lost before his secretaries attempted to organize the papers that escaped the wastebasket.
Einstein's second wife, Elsa, only occasionally served as his secretary but soon became his "impresario". She quickly figured out that even the most trivial scrap in Einstein's hand could be commercialized. Moreover, in order to raise funds for her charity work she arranged for her husband to perform publicly or in private circles as a violinist. She even sold postcards with his portrait and his signature.
It may have been Elsa who reminded her husband - who by 1921 had become a "traveler in relativity" - of the valuable document which was to be reclaimed from the colleague Freundlich. Einstein did so personally in summer 1921. Freundlich promised to send the manuscript back but in the end didn’t comply with Einstein’s request. In fall Elsa wrote him a dunning letter. Freundlich did not reply.
Eventually, in December 1921, after another conversation with Freundlich and another unkept promise on Freundlich’s part, Einstein writes down his anger:
"Now you retrospectively contend I had given the manuscript to you, for which there was absolutely no reason. As if this were not enough, you took steps behind my back to sell the manuscript abroad, as you yourself told me. I hope now that you will do your duty without my having to admonish you again."
Now Freundlich feels offended and, being himself unable to communicate any more with Einstein, he turns to Arnold Berliner, the editor of the journal Naturwissenschaften, for mediation. Berliner comes to the conclusion that Freundlich did not do any wrong. "[...] I know about the matter from the day you gave him the manuscript as a gift until the vicissitudes of the last days," he writes to Einstein.
Does Berliner judge the situation correctly? Has Einstein simply forgotten that one day in the past he handed over the manuscript to Freundlich without stipulating its return? Or is Einstein right by reproaching Freundlich "a deceitfulness of the worst kind" ?
We do not know.
At the end of the year 1921 the two physicists had fallen out. Einstein withdraws from the board of trustees of the "Einstein Donation Fund", the body entrusted with the funding of the observatory where Freundlich still hopes to furnish the ultimate proof of Einstein's predictions. "I readily acknowledge Freundlich's merits in furthering objective scientific research, and I don't intend to put a stumbling block in his path. But I will retreat from all our common projects," Einstein writes to Arnold Berliner :
Three months later the "repugnant manuscript affair" has not yet been settled. Although Freundlich meanwhile returned the item, he obviously does not give up his claim to be the rightful owner of the manuscript.
Now Einstein turns to a mediator, the industrialist and philosopher of science, Paul Oppenheim, a friend of both Einstein and Freundlich. To him Einstein submits the following proposal: "You manage the sale of the manuscript. The Jewish University in Jerusalem shall be given half of the proceeds; of the remaining half you may dispose as your conscience tells you." Einstein explicitly stresses that he does not wish to receive a report and that he does not claim any of the money.
Giving Oppenheim full authority to act according to his own ethics, Einstein prudently rids himself of any decision. Oppenheim may agree with Freundlich's view, or not, he may pass half of the money to him, or otherwise dispose of it - Einstein does not want to be involved any longer.
Yet he is deeply convinced - as he cannot forgo adding in a post script - that Freundlich has no right to the manuscript and that his behavior is deceitful and unreliable.
Paul Oppenheim is caught between a rock and a hard place. As a friend of both rivals, he would prefer to restore the shattered friendship instead of pronouncing a Solomonic judgment. These feelings Oppenheim relays to Einstein in April 1922.
Irreconcilable, Einstein provides for a different arrangement: He assigns Heinrich Löwe, a leading figure in the "preparatory Board for the Hebrew University and the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem", to take care of the issue and to sell the manuscript.
The proceeds are, as we learn in July 1923, to be split equally between the following parties:
- the Library in Jerusalem,
- the Einstein Donation Fund,
- a fund securing Mrs. Freundlich’s future pension,
- and Einstein himself who intends to donate the money to charity.
In other words, half of the proceeds are earmarked for Freundlich, while the arbitrator is promised a quarter, and the rest will be administrated by Elsa Einstein.
In 1923, the manuscript is not sold. In 1924, likewise, no buyer is found.
On March 4, 1925, Einstein leaves Berlin for a two-month journey to South America. Although he is a member of its Board of Governors, he will not attend the opening ceremony of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on April 1st.
Prior to his departure, he has penned an address to be published in honor of the ceremony in The New Palestine. But the Zionists obviously expect something more significant. While Einstein is away, they are nagging Elsa.
We do not know what exactly Elsa wrote to her husband, who is by then in Montevideo. But we know his answer dated March 18, 1925: "Do not give away the manuscript, dear Elsa ... The time is not good for selling it."
Einstein knows his own worth. Although in general he does not agree with the way Elsa promotes him, he occasionally is content to facilitate the channeling of funds to charity with little effort on his part.
For this highly contested manuscript, however, he holds: "Better immediately after my death ..." That’s what he writes to Elsa in Berlin, on April 15. She, though, has already handed over the document on March 19. "On behalf of the Board of Trustees of the University of Jerusalem," Leo Kohn, the representative of the University, accepted the manuscript "on the explicit condition to return it without delay to Professor Einstein, in case any inconvenience be caused to him by the University’s acceptance of the manuscript."
What might have caused inconvenience to Einstein?
The only imaginable inconvenience could have been Freundlich’s objection, as he still maintained his claim to the manuscript. As a precaution, Elsa had agreed with Leo Kohn upon a price for the donation, namely, "a sum of 2000 Mark in favor of the ‘Einstein Foundation‘ [the former Einstein Donation Fund] at the disposal of Professor Dr. Freundlich." Elsa contented herself with a payment of 400 Mark that would go to charity.
Probably only after his return from South America, Einstein learned the details of the agreement. But shortly after April 15, he knew that the manuscript was on its way to Jerusalem. Being faced with this fait accompli his reaction was- as expected- a pragmatic one:
"I am glad that I now got rid of the manuscript and I thank you for doing me this favor; better than burned or sold."
My thanks for help go out to Andrea Bachar and Chaya Becker