Albert Einstein is the world’s most recognizable, best known and universally loved scientist. He embodies the essence of genius and although he passed away 66 years ago, he is still among the top earning dead celebrities, right up there with the world’s best known actors and rock stars who died with traditional digital royalties. He also established the world’s best known formula: E= mc2. So when a handwritten letter appeared at auction in which Einstein wrote the famous formula in his own hand, it was logical that it should sell for a grand amount. It did, becoming the fourth Einstein letter to sell for more than $1.0 million.
The only known privately held example containing the famous E= mc2 equation, the one-page letter was handwritten by Einstein to Polish-American physicist Ludwik Silberstein, dated October 26, 1946. Ultimately, it sold for $1,243,707 at Boston-based RR Auction.
The letter reads (translated): “Your question can be answered from the E= mc2formula, without any erudition. If E is the energy of your system consisting of the two masses, E0 the energy of the masses when they approach infinite distance, then the system’s mass defect is E0 – E / c2.
“In your case, (E0 – E)pot = k m2/r. On account of the kinetic energy, however, the total energy deficit is only half as large, in accordance with the virial theorem. Therefore, if is the mass of the total system, 2m – M = 1/2 k/c2 m2/r on the first approximation, that is, if the influence of the finiteness of the radius of the masses is ignored. I am convinced that this (or a formula corrected with respect to the radius of the masses) cannot help in shedding light on atomic constants. For that one must first have a theory that contains the correct unification of gravitation and electricity.”
According to archivists at the Einstein Papers Project at Caltech, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, only three holograph examples are known of Einstein’s famous equation, and none of those are in private hands. This example, the fourth, was revealed to the public for the first time in this auction.
We have written many times in the last 20 years about Einstein’s extraordinary feats on the auction block – he has an auction multiplication factor (the amount that ordinary objects sell for compared to similar items with no provenance) greater than either Steve McQueen or Elvis Presley and perhaps only second on the all-time list to Marilyn Monroe. His letters regularly appear in the top scientific documents sold each year, and have previously sold for $2,892,500, $2,096,000, and $1,560,000.
The auction offered many historically significant items from the personal collection of Ludwik Silberstein, a prominent mathematician and physicist who wrote one of the first English textbooks on the Theory of Relativity.
The collection included four letters from Einstein, twelve handwritten letters by Max Planck, and correspondence from other Nobel Prize winners such as J. J. Thomson, Hendrik Antoon Lorentz, and Albert Michelson.
These papers offer a window into the birth of science as we know it today, as theories were developed, tested, refined, and argued over by the greatest minds of the 20th century.
Not surprisingly, three Albert Einstein letters topped the high sales, with a letter including Gravitational Field Equations selling for $152,920 and another typed Einstein letter with handwritten equations on the Spacetime Metric selling for $66,898.
The historical significance of these letters is beautifully articulated in the RR Auctions catalogue.