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Albert Einstein on the search for greater meaning: “Using such apothecary’s methods one cannot reveal any of God’s secrets, I think.” A Swiss chemist’s work leaves Einstein cold, but Schrödinger “has the scent of a deeper truth.”
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ALBERT EINSTEIN. Autograph Correspondence Card Signed, to Michele Besso, May 1, 1926, Berlin. In German. 1 p., 4¼ x 5⅞ in.

Inventory #25045       Price: $90,000

Complete Translation[1]

                             1 May 1926

Dear Michele,

            I read that paper[2] right away at the time, but I don’t think that anything more profound lies behind it. There is, naturally, a rough connection between a decrease in volume and energy, and from here one can try to come nearer to the empirical phenomena by introducing further parameters. But this happens in such a way that neither rhyme nor reason can be made of it. It is very reminiscent of Traube. Using such apothecary’s methods one cannot reveal any of God’s secrets, I think. Schrödinger did a couple of wonderful studies on quantum rules (Ann d Physik).[3] That has the scent of a deeper truth. Let it be explained to you.

            I’m coming to Switzerland in July. End of July is LN meeting in Geneva.[4] Then I’m going somewhere in the mountains with Tete. So I’ll visit you, or else we can meet.

            Warm regards, also to Anna and Vero, your


Historical Background

Early in 1926, Michele Besso sent Einstein an early draft of a paper by Swiss chemist Gottfried Beck on quantum mechanics. Beck had initially submitted the paper to the Swiss scientific journal Helvetica Chemica Acta, which rejected it as too speculative. On April 25, 1926, Besso wrote to Einstein about Beck’s paper. After discussing the details, he writes, “This surely is an amusing thing; I was surprised that you didn’t write me anything about it. Here, too, reality is once again simpler than the theoretical conceptions would lead one to expect.”[5]

Three months later, Einstein wrote to Besso regarding Beck’s paper: “it is obviously particularly painful to use the quantum condition together with the equations of motion here, because the validity of the latter appears to be irreconcilable with the validity of the former.” Einstein was skeptical that Beck’s equation “has any reality left within it in the face of quanta. I vigorously doubt it.” However, Einstein found the construction of the left side of the equation “surely contains a deeper truth.” Einstein declared to Besso, “I cannot make myself glue two things together (like the left- and right-hand sides of this equation) that have nothing to do with each other logico-mathematically.”[6]

Michele Besso (1873-1955) was born in Zurich, Switzerland, into an Italian Jewish family. He was a close friend of Albert Einstein when they worked together at the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich and at the patent office in Bern, where Einstein helped Besso get a job. Besso met his future wife Anna Winteler through Einstein in June 1897. In 1898, their son Vero was born in Winterthur, Switzerland. Einstein referred to Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. Besso died in Geneva, just over one month before Einstein died in Princeton, New Jersey.

Johann Gottfried Beck (1900-1992) received his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Bern in December 1925. He worked as an assistant to Heinrich Zangger at the Institute for Forensic Medicine at the University of Zurich.

Isidor Traube (1860-1943) was born in Hanover, the son of a wealthy German-Jewish merchant. He received his doctorate in organic chemistry in 1882. He founded capillary chemistry and conducted advanced research on liquids, helping to define the concepts of surface tension and critical temperature. In 1882, he joined the faculty of Technische Hochshule in Berlin and became a professor of chemistry there in 1900. Unacceptable to National Socialists, Traube was barred from his laboratory, and he left Germany in 1934. Through the aid of British colleagues, he was provided with a laboratory at the University of Edinburgh. During his long career, he was a persistent and stubborn controversialist in opposition to various theories.

Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) was born in Vienna, Austria. He was a commissioned officer in the Austrian fortress artillery during World War I. After the war, he advanced through the academic ranks to become a full professor in 1921 in Breslau (now Wroclaw), Poland. That year, he moved to the University of Zurich, and in 1927 to the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. He received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933, and left Germany, as he opposed the Nazis. After brief positions in a number of places, he settled in Dublin, Ireland, in 1940, where he remained until retiring in 1955. During his career, Schrödinger developed a number of fundamentals of quantum theory, including the wave equation. He also published many works in various fields of physics. Although Schrödinger was an atheist, he believed his scientific work was an approach to the godhead in a metaphorical sense.

Eduard Einstein (1910-1965) was born in Zürich, Switzerland to Albert and Mileva Marić Einstein. In 1914, his parents separated, and his mother returned to Zürich with Eduard and older brother Hans Albert, who were both deeply affected. Eduard was interested in music, art, and poetry. Unlike his father, Eduard was a good student. He had started to study medicine and psychiatry, but in 1930, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was first institutionalized in 1932; it is not clear if his treatment (particularly electroconvulsive therapy) did more good than harm. Albert fondly referred to Eduard as “Tete” (for petit), and they corresponded regularly but never saw each other after a heart-breaking final visit in 1933. Marić and Eduard’s Swiss citizenship undoubtedly saved Eduard from Aktion T4, the Nazi euthanasia program, and perhaps both of them from the Holocaust. His mother cared for Eduard until her death in 1948, and Eduard thereafter lived mostly at a psychiatric clinic in Zurich, where he died from a stroke in 1965.

[1] Diana Kormos Buchwald., The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume 15 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), Doc. 271.

[2] An early draft of Gottfried Beck, “Zusammenhänge zwischen Bildungsenergie, Kontraktion und Polymerisation bei chemischen Reaktionen.” Zeitschrift für anorganische und allgemeine Chemie 156 (1926): 288–300.

[3] Erwin Schrödinger, “Quantisierung als Eigenwertproblem” I and II, Annalen der Physik, 384, Issue 4 (1926): 361-76; 384, Issue 6 (1926): 489-527.

[4] The League of Nations was headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, and Einstein was a member of the League’s International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation.

[5] Buchwald, Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume 15, Doc. 265.

[6] Buchwald, Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume 15, Doc. 348.

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