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Examining the Einstein Paper’s Project at Caltech

The Einstein Paper’s Project at Caltech is a granular examination of the great scientist’s life and legacy.

By Daniel Tozier, Photo courtesy of The Leo Beck Institute

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein died in Princeton, N.J., on the morning of April 18, 1955. Today, he lives on in a modest, brick-faced, cottage-style house right here, in Pasadena, Calif. Among the blades of green grass in the front yard sits a small blue sign bearing the words, Einstein Papers Project. From this converted home space, Einstein’s work continues, with the help of historian Diana Kormos-Buchwald and her team of researchers.

­The Einstein Papers Project began in Boston in 1986 with the purpose of collecting and publishing Einstein’s annotated notes, journals and personal correspondences in a series of 30 volumes titled “­ e Collected Papers of Albert Einstein.” When operations moved to Caltech in 2000, Kormos-Buchwald took on the role of general editor and director and has since overseen the production of eight volumes. She describes the process as “long, but interesting.” Each volume covers approximately two years of Einstein’s life and examines hundreds of documents, culled from an ever-expanding collection of some 90,000 individual items. Once a selection is finalized, it is transcribed, translated and researched so that it can be presented alongside its historical context.

With these volumes, we are able to go beyond understanding any one single theory, and begin to grasp how, on a fundamental level, Einstein’s mind worked. What ­ first brought about an idea? Who did he discuss ideas with and how did they influence him? What inspired his brilliance?

We’re also given a glimpse into Einstein the person, beyond the frizzy-haired caricature. Kormos-Buchwald’s eyes light up when she talks about Einstein, the human being.

“There are landmark moments that are well-known to biographers and historians, but it’s all the in-between that is important. … He was the normal employee, he was a parent, he was a lover, he was somebody who dined with prime ministers and queens.  e variety, the richness of his life is extraordinary.”

Volume 16, expected to be released in 2020, will dive into a much darker period, not only for Einstein, but the world. With Adolf Hitler’s power growing, it becomes clear that Germany is longer a safe place to call home for many of its citizens. In October 1932, Einstein and his wife flee the country, and by January of the following year, they are safe in Pasadena as Hitler is sworn in as Chancellor of Germany.  Throughout this period, Einstein writes to colleagues and students still in Germany, offering them hope and encouragement.

For Kormos-Buchwald, reading these letters and learning how their stories end, is diffcult.

“Because when I do research on these various correspondents, who are not very well-known people, I ­ find out that they committed suicide or died in concentration camps, and when you know the end of the story, as a historian, you have to be very careful not to project ahead. … My goal is to keep them vibrant and interesting and not in the shadow of their ultimate fate.”

For a man who died 63 years ago, Einstein still has quite a lot to say. If you’re interested in diving in, the ­ first 14 volumes are available at no cost at einstein.caltech.edu. Eventually, the entire collection will be available digitally. Until then, Kormos-Buchwald and her team will continue their work, giving Einstein a voice. We’d like to think he’d be happy at his new home. As he once wrote in his travel diary, “Here in Pasadena, it is like Paradise. Always sunshine and clear air, gardens with palms and pepper trees and friendly people who smile at one and ask for autographs.”

 

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