Lot 315

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Albert Einstein
Old Lyme, CT, September 14, 1935
A. Einstein Helps Colleague With Theory of Relativity Study Re: Difficulty in Developing Gravitational Equations: "cooled my confidence below the freezing point"
A 2pp typed letter in German signed by physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) in green ink as "A. Einstein" on the top of the second page. September 14, 1935. Written at the White House, the Einsteins' rented summer vacation home in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Typed on either side of a single leaf. Einstein has added a mathematical equation (a full line in manuscript incorporating multiple variables, including "Rik") at the center of the letter, and expanded upon another equation involving "k" and "E" in the first paragraph. He has also inserted about six additional mathematical or typographical edits in both black and green ink within the last paragraph. Expected wear including even toning, flattened transmittal folds, and some extra wrinkles. Isolated closed tears along the central horizontal fold and at the upper left hand corner. Minor isolated paper loss at the upper right hand corner. Scattered soiling and grubbiness mostly affecting the right edge. Else near fine. 8.5" x 11." Provenance: Sotheby's, November 26, 1980, lot 157. Accompanied by a full German transcript and full English translation.

Albert Einstein wrote this letter to the brilliant Hungarian-Jewish physicist Cornelius (also Cornel) Lanczos (1893-1974), then working at the University of Indiana. The letter relates to the two scientists' ongoing quest to more fully understand and articulate the theory of general relativity, something that was a lifelong pursuit of his. The longer of the two equations presented in the letter refers to "Rik," an abbreviation for the Ricci tensor. This concept in differential geometry was developed by the Italian mathematician Gregorio Ricci-Curbastro (1853-1925). The Ricci tensor is used to visually represent how the volume of something in curved space changes due to the presence of curves, or arcs; and to quantify and document how the volume of something performs differently in curved space compared to in normal three-dimensional space. In general relativity, the Ricci tensor represents volume changes caused by spacetime volume, or gravitational tides.

Einstein was interested in the Ricci tensor in its relation to general relativity; one of the three "classic tests" of general relativity is trying to calculate the perihelion (closest point of orbit to the sun) of the planet Mercury using the equation Rik = 0, which are essentially vacuum conditions not permitting the presence of an electromagnetic field. Einstein experimented with Rik = 0 when attempting to calculate the density of the Milky Way in 1931. The Ricci tensor enabled physicists and astronomers to better conceptualize how bodies and gases behaved in the universe.

Einstein's letter also mentions the "Maxwellian case" and "Maxwell's Field," referring to influential Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). Maxwell developed equations explaining the behavior of electromagnetism, and, for the first time, he recognized that magnetism, electricity, and light are different forms of the same phenomenon. Maxwell's work greatly impacted Einstein's theories.

Einstein wrote, translated in part:

"Upon further study of your work, I have truly enjoyed the beauty of the entire construction and your presentation. The fact that the pure Maxwellian case is excluded is actually in appearance only; for in k2 = k1 + E you can set E to be infinitely small. In the limit transition, no equation is lost.

The first field equation reminds me of a pain I felt in previous efforts, which led to similar additions to the gravitational equations as is the case with you (in the first approximation);

[formula beginning Rik = …]

If this is a true relationship for Maxwell's field, the right-hand side does not disappear for an electrostatic, centrally symmetrical field. Consider especially the 14th, etc., component. One then obtains the curious g14, g24, g34, which cooled my confidence below the freezing point, namely something like xa / r, thus something non-decreasing with r. The fact that one obtains ga41 at all in such a static case really bothers me, considering the dynamic nature of these components according to the phenomenological theory. Didn't this cause you serious concerns?"

Albert Einstein vacationed from June - September 1935 at Old Lyme, Connecticut, where he rented the "White House." While there, Einstein visited the castle of famed Sherlock Holmes actor William Gillette, and boated along the Connecticut River and southern coastline. Einstein, a notoriously bad but nevertheless enthusiastic sailor, ran aground on a sandbar near Old Saybrook, Connecticut in August 1935, and was stranded until he was rescued by some local teens. The humor was not lost on contemporary newspaper journalists, who delighted in Einstein's contradictions. For, while Einstein was able to probe the mysteries of the universe, he couldn't fail to get stuck in a river.

Cornelius Lanczos's career was hugely influenced by Einstein's work, and the two became friends and close work associates. Lanczos had boldly dedicated his 1921 doctoral thesis, "Relation of Maxwell's Aether Equations to Functional Theory" to Einstein, and three years later, in 1924, he provided an exact solution to the Einstein field equation. Lanczos worked as Einstein's assistant in 1928-1929, later splitting up his time between the United States and Europe pursuing other research opportunities. Lanczos took a particular interest in the theory of relativity; about one third of his scientific publications related to the subject. After Einstein's death, Lanczos wrote and lectured extensively about Einstein's work.

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.


  • Sotheby's, November 26, 1980, lot 157.
  • Dimensions:
  • 8.5" x 11"
  • Artist Name:
  • Albert Einstein
  • Medium:
  • TLS

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