Rare Einstein Manuscript That ‘Almost Miraculously’ Survived Is Expected To Fetch Millions At Paris Auction

By Washington Post
Posted on 11/22/21 | News Source: Washington Post

Albert Einstein typically threw out drafts of his paradigm-shifting work.

But thanks to the Nobel Prize-winning scientist’s friend and collaborator, a rare, working manuscript “almost miraculously” survived to the present – and it’s expected to fetch millions at an auction in Paris on Tuesday, according to Christie’s, which is holding the sale for the Aguttes auction house.

The 54-page document, handwritten jointly by Einstein and Swiss engineer Michele Besso – his lifelong friend and only acknowledged collaborator – documents preparatory work for Einstein’s general theory of relativity, an idea that changed human understandings of the universe and has been described as the most beautiful theory in physics.

“As one of only two surviving manuscripts documenting the genesis of general relativity, it provides a remarkable insight into Einstein’s work and a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the greatest scientist of the 20th century,” Christie’s said on its website.

With an estimated worth of between $2.4 million and $3.5 million, it is the most valuable Einstein manuscript to be offered at auction. Christie’s described it in a news release as “one of the most important scientific autographs ever to come to auction.”

Most of the document was composed in June 1913, when Einstein was living in Zurich. It consists of calculations etched largely in ink on yellowed leaves of foolscap and squared paper, with 26 pages in Einstein’s handwriting, 25 pages in Besso’s and three containing entries from both scientists.

The famous German scientist was working with Besso to test his theory of the relationship between gravitation and the space-time curvature by examining the anomaly of the planet Mercury’s orbit.

Replete with errors, crossed-out equations and corrected calculations, the pages slated for the auction block Tuesday showcase what Christie’s called a “crucial stage” in the relativity theory’s development.

The scientists’ calculations in the manuscript were incorrect, and Einstein and Besso paused their work in June 2013 when Besso had to return home to present-day Italy. Besso tried to continue on his own in early 1914 but ultimately gave up on the project.

It is thanks to Besso that the document survived, Christie’s said, because Einstein was known for discarding his working drafts. French auction house Aguttes purchased the manuscript at a Christie’s public auction in 2002.

The manuscript “lifts the veil on a thought in the making,” Étienne Klein, research director at the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, said in the auction catalogue. “A glimpse behind the curtain of the wizard, so to speak, with its trials, its errors, its hesitations, its certainties.”

Einstein later reworked the calculations and published the theory of general relativity under only his name in November 1915. The contribution upended understandings of gravity, space and time, opening up explorations of gravitational time dilation, light deflection and gravitational waves. It was one of the breakthroughs that helped make Einstein’s name synonymous with genius in popular culture.

Einstein won the Nobel Prize in physics for 1921. He died in 1955 at age 76.