Einstein’s Papers Go Online: Letters to Mistresses, Mom and a Bit of Science

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Albert Einstein in Princeton, New Jersey in 1944.

A few months ago Shimon Peres, the octogenarian president of Israel, had the possibly brilliant, possibly ridiculous idea of building a museum in the shape of Albert Einstein’s head. The walk-in cranium would stand on the campus of Hebrew University, the tertiary institution the famous genius helped to found, and to which he bequeathed his papers and belongings upon his death.

It’s unclear whether Peres‘ idea will go anywhere — the expressed enthusiasm of university officials might have been merely polite – but it’s now possible to root around inside Einstein’s noodle. His collected papers went online Monday, as the Jerusalem university digitizes the complete archive of the man Peres termed “the most famous Jew in history since Moses.”

(READ: Albert Einstein, TIME Person of the Century.)

“Part of the idea of a university is the universe,” university president Menahem Ben-Sasson said at the opening, and the 80,000 documents on hand do run the gamut –  a far more colorful continuum than the one Einstein posited is shared by time and space.  There are scientific writings, including the pages on which he formulated his theory of relativity. “(E = mc2)” in a spidery hand, black ink on off-white paper, the words in German. There are intensely personal writings, too, including love letters written to his second wife, Elsa, while he was still married to his first, Mileva.

The private and the public come together, fittingly enough, on a post card.  On Sept. 27, 1919 the great man wrote his mother. “Great news,” he began, and passed along word that his General Theory of Relativity had been proved — by an English astronomer measuring deflection of starlight during a solar eclipse, demonstrating a bend in things.  “Maja writes me, to my dismay, that you’re not only in a lot of pain but that you have gloomy thoughts as well,” he goes on. “How much I would like to keep you company again so that you aren’t left to such nasty musing….” He has just replaced Isaac Newton in the pantheon, but writing to “Liebe Mutter!”  (Dear Mother!) half the note is commiseration.

The man TIME named the most significant figure of the 20th Century was a mensch. A onetime mistress, Betty Neumann, who at 23 was 21 years his junior at the time of their affair, wrote him 15 years later asking for help getting to America.   Einstein obliged, penning an affidavit that helped save her from the Nazis. “It was a rich personality and a very warm personality,” says Leonard Polonsky, whose foundation funded the site. “This kind of material is not scientific. It’s human material. It has a value. I’m very interested in the young people coming up. They need to see he’s a person, he’s not a freak…The fact that he might have what we considered frailties is wonderful.”

Even so, before putting them on display, university officials asked a law professor about the privacy rights of the people named on the pages. The professor said it’s fine so long as no one’s still alive to take offense.  “If you let enough time go by,” says Hanoch Gutfreund, the former university president who heads the Einstein archive, “then it’s kosher.”

Not everything is going online immediately, however.  The papers described here were on display Monday in glass cases at the Harman Science Library on the university’s Givat Ram campus.  But the website is doing a gradual roll-out, with only 7,000 pages (or about 2,000 documents) going up on the site immediately. That’s essentially everything up to 1921.  The rest – Einstein died in 1955 — will come online as it is translated in English and saved as a PDF, though it’s possible to see what’s in the pipeline: all the documents are listed and categorized.  For copyright reasons, they will be available for reading but not for downloading.

Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images

Scholars have been able to handle most of this stuff in person for years, of course.  The actual documents are stored on campus, in the relatively snug Albert Einstein Archive. The papers are boxes stacked by number (Box 33 contains correspondence from Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bertrand Russell, Albert Schweitzer, George Bernard Shaw and Chaim Weizmann.) There’s also a room entirely lined with books, including a wall taken from Einstein’s Princeton, N.J. living room. It includes “The Geography of Hunger,” “The World of Albert Schweitzer,” two volumes of Goethe and a complete set of Charles Dickens.

“We don’t know for sure which books he really read,” says curator Roni Grosz, noting that the Nobel Laureate shared the shelves with his family.  But it’s a fine thing to take the volumes down and leaf through them, or just skim the titles on the other shelves, gathered from his office library: “Faust,” “Wonderful Australia in Pictures,” “Low’s Cartoon History 1945-1953,” Dostoyevsky’s “Der Idiot.” Better still are the artifacts, including Einstein’s comb – lightly used, both by the look of it and his famous head of hair.

The great man’s politics are on display as well. “Einstein was convinced that the future of humanity would be better served if it was based on an intimate community of the nations rather than aggressive nationalism,” says a note card in the exhibit.  In Middle East, that meant the genius was an enthusiastic and early advocate for the founding of Israel, but one who right up to the 1948 war that established it as a Jewish state argued for sharing sovereignty with the Arabs already there. Never mind that they fought the Zionist settlers nearly from the start. In a 1930 letter to the English-language newspaper Falastine, Einstein suggested that a committee of laymen – four Arabs, four Jews – could work things out if they met secretly and with good will.

“It’s great, it’s romantic, it’s beautiful,” says Gutfreund, with an indulgent smile. “Maybe one day, if nothing else works, this is the way to go about it.”

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