Letters to Solovine: 1906-1955

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Even children have asked: Who am I? How should I live? What does life mean?Almost everyone seeks the answer to these questions at one time or another. This rewarding series for young adults presents four well-known thinkers and their ideas on these profound issues. Published by Carol Pub. Group on 1987/01/02

    Letters to Solovine1906 – 1955 ? Albert Einstein ?

    ? Contents ? Preface by Neil Berger ? Introduction by Maurice Solovine ? “I often think of …” ? “I have again moved …” ? “I offer my heartfelt …” ? “Your apologies, though very …” ? “I was elated over …” ? “I am very glad …” ? “I am very glad to …” ? “The contents and method …” ? “A further characteristic of …” ? “Against the concept of …” ? “Thank you for the …” ? “I am not eager …” ? “I am returning the …” ? “Many thanks for the …” ? “Much work and the …” ? “How glad I will …” ? “I expect to arrive …” ? “Hearty thanks for having …”

    ? “Included herewith are the …” ? “It was wonderful in …” ? “You do not have …” ? “You will receive by …” ? “Today I am giving …” ? “I have looked everywhere …” ? “I needed some time …” ? “My field theory is …” ? “Herewith the contract with …” ? “You impatient scoundrel!” ? “By the end of …” ? “I am firmly convinced …” ? “I could not manage …” ? “Nothing again concerning the …” ? “I still hope to …” ? “If this were true …” ? “I believe it would …” ? “The Title Evolution de …” ? “The misfortune which you …” ? “I was very glad …” ? “I am very happy …”

    ? “You alone would suffice …” ? “I am getting along …” ? “The good Lord seems …” ? “The exchange of letters …” ? “I was deeply moved …” ? “I sent you a …” ? “Enclosed herewith is the …” ? “I received your letter …” ? “Many thanks for your …” ? “I can not concur …” ? “In the German text …” ? “I thank you sincerely …” ? “I am sending the …” ? “I received your delightful …” ? “As always, I was …” ? “There lies the weakness …” ? “In your letter you …” ? “I did not take …” ? “In your short active …” ? “First let me thank …” ? “I had to laugh …”

    ? “I am going to …” ? “It seems that, under …” ? “Bravo! I thank you …” ? “I am extremely sorry …” ? “The exorbitant price …” ? “I have just recovered …” ? A Biography of Albert Einstein ?


Preface by Neil Berger


    THE “AKADEMIE OLYMPIA” (known today as the Olympia Academy) was formed in early 1902, soonafter the Romanian student Maurice Solovine answered an advertisement that Albert Einsteinplaced in a Bern newspaper for private lessons in physics. Solovine wanted to be tutored inmathematics and physics, and Einstein needed money. This volume documents the lifelongfriendship that developed from that meeting. The ten-page introduction by Solovine outlines theearly history of the Olympia Academy and explains how Einstein lost a paying student and gaineda philosophical partner. The Olympia Academy eventually included Einstein, Besso, Solovine, andthe brothers Habicht, among others. It is all the more fascinating that this group held itstime-consuming meetings during the period in which Einstein turned out many of his famouspapers. Perhaps most important to relativity theory were the discussions that centered onMach’s critique of the Newtonian concepts of absolute space and time.

    The correspondence documented here started when Solovine left the group in 1906, and continueduntil February 27, 1955, less than two months before Einstein’s death.

    These letters attest to the great importance that Einstein attached to this group and indicateobliquely how important Einstein’s study of philosophy was to the development of his physics.In the letter dated April 3, 1953, slightly more than fifty years since its founding, Einsteincreated a touching ode to the Olympia Academy and sent it to Solovine. This was a result ofreceiving a card sent from Paris by Habicht and Solovine addressed to the president of theOlympia Academy.

    Einstein’s social life and obligations are well documented here, as are his trials andtribulations with his ongoing work. There are letters where he expresses self-doubt about hiswork, as well as others where he is enthusiastic about a new line of reasoning. Other letterscomment about his family and the lives of his friends. As a famous person, Einstein felt it washis obligation to secure support for his friends, and he frequently comments upon payments androyalties and how he hopes to help them.

    These letters to Solovine, Einstein’s dear and close personal friend, paint a very humanportrait of the greatest physicist of all time.

    Neil Berger,

    Associate Professor Emeritus of Mathematics

    University of Illinois at Chicago

    October 2010

Introduction by Maurice Solovine


    WHEN I WENT TO Berne as a student at the beginning of the century, I had not decided on thesubjects that I wished to study. Since philosophy, though unworthy of the distinction today,still held claim to the study of the most exalted problems, I felt strongly inclined towardthis subject, but simultaneously I had a burning desire to learn about concrete things, withthe result that along with courses in Greek philosophy, literature and philology, I alsostudied mathematics, physics, and geology as well as a course in physiology in the Faculty ofMedicine. By dint of hard work, I managed to acquire during the first year a body of knowledgewhich was far from enough to bring complete satisfaction but which allowed me to untangle thejumbled ideas that filled my head and to become aware of the paths and procedures through whichthe mind achieves positive results. My course in experimental physics had been absorbing, butthe professor seemed to delight in speaking disdainfully of physical theories. He used to saythat physical theories are more or less arbitrary constructions based on hypotheses and thatthe discovery of new facts undermines them and causes them to collapse, while facts which arecarefully studied experimentally and shaped analytically stand as a definitive acquisition ofphysics and contribute to its continuous elaboration.

    But what I found most absorbing were these theories, for they gave me an overall view of natureand a firm basis for the study of philosophy, but I felt incapable of understanding thembecause of a deficiency in mathematics; still, I tried hard to grasp as much as I could. Thediscovery of radium caused considerable agitation since it was thought to reverse the principleof the conservation of energy.

    Having bought a newspaper and started to walk down the streets of Berne one day during theEaster vacation of 1902, I came to a place which said that Albert Einstein, a former student ofZurich Polytechnical School, would teach physics for three francs an hour. I mused: “Perhapsthis man could explain theoretical physics to me.” I made my way to the house mentioned in the

    Herein!advertisement, walked up to the second floor and rang the bell. I heard a thunderous “” and soon saw Einstein appear. The hallway was dark and I was struck by the extraordinaryradiance of his large eyes. After I had gone inside his apartment and taken a seat, I told himthat I was studying philosophy but wanted also to delve into physics so as to acquire athorough understanding of nature. He confessed that he, too, had leaned toward philosophy whenhe was younger, but that the vagueness and arbitrariness that characterizes philosophy hadturned him away from it and that he now concentrated exclusively on physics. For two hours wetalked on about all sorts of questions and felt that we shared the same ideas and a mutualattraction. As I started to take leave of him, he went along with me and we continued thediscussion in the street for about half an hour and agreed to meet the following day.

    When we saw each other again, we renewed our discussion of certain questions that we hadbroached the preceding evening and the physics lesson was completely forgotten.

    And when I came to him on the third day, he told me, after we had talked for a while: “As amatter of fact, you don’t have to be tutored in physics; our discussion of problems that stemfrom it is much more interesting. Just come to see me and I will be glad to talk with you.” Iwent back many times, and the better I became acquainted with him, the stronger my attachmentgrew. I admired his singular insight and his surprising mastery of physical problems. He wasnot a brilliant orator and did not use striking imagery. He outlined his subjects in a slow,even tone but in a remarkably lucid manner. To make his abstract thought more easily understoodhe sometimes used examples drawn from common experiences. Einstein was a skilled mathematicianbut he often spoke out against the abuses of mathematics in the hands of physicists.“Physics,” he would say, “is basically a concrete, intuitive science. Mathematics is only ameans to express the laws that govern phenomena.”

    As we were talking one day, I asked him: “Don’t you think that it would be a good idea forboth of us to read one of some great thinker’s works, and then discuss the problems dealt within the work?” “That’s an excellent idea,” he answered. I suggested then that we read a

    scientific work by Karl Pearson and Einstein eagerly accepted. A few weeks later, ConradHabicht, whom Einstein had known in Schaffhouse and who had come to Berne to finish his studieswith a view to teaching mathematics in the lycée, took part in our discussions. Our dinnerswere models of frugality. The menu ordinarily consisted of one bologna sausage, a piece ofGruyére cheese, a fruit, a small container of honey and one or two cups of tea. But our joy wasboundless. The words of Epicurus applied to us: “What a beautiful thing joyous poverty is!”

    Einstein was a candidate for a license at the time I knew him and was impatiently awaitingappointment. He had to give private lessons in order to live, and pupils were not easy to find;rates were low. One day when we were discussing ways of earning a living, he told me that theeasiest way would be to play the violin in the streets. My answer was that if he had reallydecided to do that, I would begin to learn the guitar and accompany him.

    Our material status was certainly unenviable, but we shared an uncommon penchant for studyingand explaining the most difficult problems of science and philosophy. Together we read, after

    Analysis of Sensations and Mechanics which Einstein had browsed throughPearson, Mach’s

    previously, Mills’ Logic, Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature, Spinoza’s Ethics, some of

    Helmholtz’ memoirs and lectures, some chapters from André-Marie Ampère’s Essay on Philosophy,

    Reimann’s On the Hypotheses Which Serve as a Basis for Geometry, some chapters from

    Avenarius’ Critique of Pure Experience, Clifford’s On the Nature of Things in Themselves,

    Dedekind’s What Are Numbers?, Poincaré’s Science and Hypothesis, which engrossed us and held

    us spellbound for weeks, and many other works. We also read literary works such as Sophocles’Antigone, Racine’s Andromaque, Dickens’ Christmas Tales, most of Don Quixote, etc. Our

    meetings were sometimes highlighted by Einstein’s playing some musical selection on hisviolin.

    Unfortunately, it is impossible for me to set down the long, animated discussions provoked bythe works which we read together. We would read a page or half a page—sometimes only asentence—and the discussion would continue for several days when the problem was important. Ioften met Einstein at noon as he left his desk and renewed the discussion of the previousevening: “You said…, but don’t you think…?” Or: “I’d like to add to what I saidyesterday.…”

    The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth witnessed the flowering ofresearch on the bases and principles of the sciences. We devoted weeks to the discussion ofDavid Hume’s eminently penetrating criticism of conceptions of substance and causality. BookIII of Mills’ Logic, which deals with induction, also held our interest for a long time.

    Einstein favored the genetic method in the examination of basic ideas. To explain those ideas,he would call upon what he had observed among children. He also talked about his own works fromtime to time, and this revealed a brilliant mind and great originality. In 1903 he publishedhis remarkable work entitled Theories der Grundlagen der Thermodynamik; in 1904, his

    Allgemeine molekulare Theorie der Wärme; and in 1905, his admirable monograph entitled

    Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper, in which he outlined his theory of relativity. It is worth

    noting that no one except Max Planck has grasped the extraordinary significance of this work.

    The extent to which Einstein could become absorbed in an interesting problem is suggested byour experience with caviar. In our strolls through the arcades of Berne we passed by adelicatessen where we saw, among other rare foods, some caviar on display. On seeing it, Iremembered how much I had enjoyed it at home as a youth. It had been moderately priced there inRumania, but in Berne it was too expensive for me to buy. This did not prevent me fromextolling the merits of caviar in Einstein’s presence. “Is it so good as all that?” heasked. “You just can’t imagine how delicious it is,” I answered. One day in February, I saidto Habicht: “Let’s plan a big surprise for Einstein. Let’s serve him some caviar on hisbirthday, which comes on March 14.” Whenever Einstein ate an unusual dish, he would becomeeffusive and describe it in glowing terms. We were pleased by the thought of seeing him waxecstatic and use the most far-fetched words to express his satisfaction. When March 14 came, wewent to his apartment to dine together. I pretended that I was putting bologna sausages and theregular fare on the table; actually, I put the caviar in our three dishes, and then went over

    to speak with Einstein. That evening, he happened to start talking about Galileo’s principleof inertia, and whenever he dealt with a problem, Einstein forgot completely about the earthand its joys and sorrows. When we sat down at the table, Einstein consumed bite after bite ofcaviar without saying anything about it, continuing his discussion of the principle of inertia.Habicht and I looked furtively at each other in amazement, and when Einstein had eaten all thecaviar, I exclaimed: “Say, do you know what you have been eating?” “For goodness sake,” hesaid, “it was that famous caviar.” And after a minute of stunned silence, he added: “Itdoesn’t matter. There’s no point in serving the most exquisite delicacies to hicks; theycan’t appreciate them.”

    But we were still determined to have him enjoy caviar. A few days later we brought him asizable portion of caviar, and to avoid having him treat it with shocking indifference, we

    : “Now we are eatingintoned to the theme of the third movement of Beethoven’s Symphony in F

    caviar…now we are eating caviar.…” While eating, Einstein remarked: “I admit that it’s afine dish, but you have to be an accomplished epicure like Solovine to make so much fuss overit.”

    What stamped our Academy, as we jokingly referred to our meetings every evening, was theburning desire to broaden and deepen our knowledge and our affection for each other. I followedthese meetings with intense interest, and amazingly enough, Einstein was as intenselyinterested in them as I and would not allow me to be absent. The one time that I missed ameeting cost me dearly.

    Berne was outstanding in that leading violinists, cellists and pianists who were touring Europefrom East to West, North to South, or vice versa, always gave one or two recitals there. Wealways made it a point to attend some of the recitals. One day I saw from the billboard thatthe widely-acclaimed Czech Quartet was going to give a recital. The program was veryinteresting; they were to perform quartets by Beethoven, Smetana and Dvo?ák. On arriving atEinstein’s place for our regular meeting that evening, I told him the good news and told himthat I intended to reserve three seats. “It seems to me,” he said, “that it’s better togive up that idea and read Hume, who is extremely interesting.” “Good,” I assured him.“It’s a date.” But I passed by the recital hall on the day mentioned in the announcement andwas so affected by the sight of the program that I went into the vestibule mechanically andasked the lady in charge of ticket sales if any seats for the evening were still available.

    Glancing at the seating chart, she called out the available seats in the different categories.When she finally added that she still had two specials, that is, seats for those without muchmoney, I lost my head and bought a ticket.

    As our “academic” meeting was supposed to be held at my place that evening, I rushed home toprepare dinner. Knowing that they were fond of hard-boiled eggs, I added four to the meal andplaced them on a dish which I covered with a white sheet of paper on which I had written:Amicis carissimis ova dura et salutem (hard eggs and a greeting to very dear friends).

    I then advised the lady in charge of the lodging house to tell them that I begged them toexcuse my absence, an urgent matter having obliged me to leave. When she told this story, theyunderstood. They conscientiously ate everything on the table. Then, knowing how I detestedtobacco in any form, they began to smoke like persons possessed, Einstein his pipe and Habichthis thick cigars. They put the butts and smoldering pipe dumpings into a saucer and dumped thetable, chairs, dishes, forks, cups, teapot, sugar bowl and a number of books on the bed;finally, they pinned to the wall a sheet of paper on which they had written: Amico carissimo

     (thick smoke and a greeting to a very dear friend).fumum spissum et salutem

    After attending a musical event, I usually stroll around for a little while mulling over what Ihave heard and memorizing the themes, variations, etc. That was what I did after the recitalgiven by the Czech Quartet. I walked slowly through the streets until around one o’clock inthe morning. When I returned home and opened the door to my room. I thought that I wouldsuffocate because of the heavy tobacco smoke. I threw the window wide open and began to removefrom the bed the heap that reached almost to the ceiling. When I finally went to bed, the

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