University Archives


A. Einstein Superb Scientific Letter on Planets and Principles of Nature

EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Typed Letter Signed, “A. Einstein”, in German, to Vaclav V. Kalcik, on Institute for Advanced Study letterhead, 1 p., Princeton, 4 to., January 13, 1942.

Einstein's letter, translated in full:

"Dear Mr. Kalcik,

I have looked at your manuscript and admired the extraordinary energy with which you have pursued your peculiar thoughts. Because I am overwhelmed with work, I cannot assure [you] to thoroughly follow your line of thoughts.

But I have one thing to mention to you: It does not seem possible to me that anything fundamental about the laws of nature can be inferred from the planetary constellation. Imagine a shell shot vertically upwards from one location at a velocity of about 20 km per second. Such a body would orbit the sun as an independent planet, and its trajectory could have been arbitrarily directed by us. In principle, it is possible (although not practical) to change the orbit elements arbitrarily by analogous methods. Thus, it seems to me that I can say with certainty that, for these orbit elements, no fundamental laws could be applied, out of which conclusions can be drawn about the fundamental laws.

The heavy workload does not make it possible for me to follow your line of thoughts in more details. Please, accept my apology for it.

Sincerely Yours
A. Einstein

Your manuscript will follow by a separate mail."

In response to the content of his correspondent’s manuscript, Einstein here tersely dismisses the argument by analogizing a planet to a shell shot out of a cannon. Since such a projectile can be directed as one wishes, Einstein argues that it is possible to affect the orbit of the planets through similar “arbitrary actions”, therefore “there can be no principal law from which one could draw conclusions about the elementary laws [of planetary orbits].” The argument that the distribution of the planets in our solar system is the result of the working of a higher intelligence goes back at least as far as Plato, and was perhaps most famously argued in the modern era by Kepler. Einstein’s argument here suggests that he saw the present order of the solar system more as a matter of chance, rather than as a product of divine design.

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