The Intimate Life of A. Einstein

Letters written during a tumultuous year and unsealed this week offer a rare glimpse inside the heart and mind of the 20th century's greatest genius

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BETTMANN / CORBIS

SECOND WIFE: Einstein with his cousin and wife Elsa (pet name: Else), in 1921

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I will try to be with you for a month every year so that you will have a father who is close to you and can love you. You can learn a lot of good things from me that no one else can offer you. The things I have gained from so much strenuous work should be of value not only to strangers but especially to my own boys. In the last few days I completed one of the finest papers of my life. When you are older, I will tell you about it ... I am often so engrossed in my work that I forget to eat lunch.

Einstein also took time off from furiously revising his equations to engage in an awkward fandango with his competitor Hilbert. Worried about being scooped, he sent Hilbert a copy of his Nov. 4 lecture. "I am curious whether you will take kindly to this new solution," Einstein noted with a touch of defensiveness.

Einstein presented his second paper the following Thursday, Nov. 11. He still had not found the right equations, but he felt he was getting closer. Once again, he sent the paper to Hilbert. "If my present modification (which does not change the equations) is legitimate, then gravitation must play a fundamental role in the composition of matter," Einstein wrote. "My own curiosity is interfering with my work!"

The reply that Hilbert sent the next day must have unnerved Einstein. He said he was about ready to oblige with a "solution to your great problem." He had planned to hold off discussing it until he had explored it further. "But since you are so interested, I would like to lay out my theory in very complete detail this coming Tuesday," which was Nov. 16. He invited Einstein to come to Göttingen and have the dubious pleasure of personally hearing him lecture. Then, after signing his name, Hilbert felt compelled to add what must surely have been a tantalizing and disconcerting postscript. "As far as I understand your new paper, the solution given by you is entirely different from mine."

Einstein wrote four letters on Nov. 15, a Monday, that suggest that the stress he was under was starting to take its toll. To his son Hans Albert, he wrote that he would like to travel to Switzerland around Christmas and New Year's to visit him. "Maybe it would be better if we were alone somewhere," such as at a secluded inn, he suggested to his son. "What do you think?"

He also wrote his estranged wife a conciliatory letter that thanked her for her willingness not "to undermine my relations with the boys." And he reported to their mutual friend Zangger: "I have modified the theory of gravity, having realized that my earlier proofs had a gap ... I shall be glad to come to Switzerland at the turn of the year in order to see my dear boy."

And finally, he replied to Hilbert and declined his invitation to visit Göttingen the next day. His letter did not hide his anxiety: "Your analysis interests me tremendously ... The hints you gave in your messages awaken the greatest of expectations. Nevertheless, I must refrain from traveling to Göttingen for the moment ... I am tired out and plagued by stomach pains ... If possible, please send me a correction proof of your study to mitigate my impatience."

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