Everybody has a favorite Albert Einstein quote, whether it’s the one comparing relativity to being with a pretty girl or the one defining insanity as doing the same thing and expecting a different result (which, actually, probably wasn’t him).
Now, you can read Einstein’s papers online and pick out your own. The first 13 volumes of digitized Einstein papers went online in December, with others to follow, for a total of 30 volumes made up of 30,000 annotated documents.
“Anyone with an Internet connection will be able to share in the letters, papers, postcards, notebooks and diaries that Einstein left scattered in Princeton and in other archives, attics and shoeboxes around the world when he died in 1955,” wrote Dennis Overbye in the New York Times when the project first went online.
As with similar projects ranging from Charles Darwin to Mark Twain, the Einstein Papers Project—which intends to digitize all of the Nobel prize-winning physicist’s work, including correspondence—is being put together by a variety of organizations. They include the California Institute of Technology, where he served as a visiting scientist in the early 1930s; Princeton University, where he worked from 1933 until his death; and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to which Einstein, who was Jewish, had bequeathed his library.
Einstein’s papers are particularly challenging because, first of all, many of them are written in German, which has interesting orthography. (The documents are presented online in both their original language and in English translations.) Second, like the Archimedes Palimpsest, much of the work is scientific and can be difficult for ordinary mortals to understand.
That said, Einstein was also human, and some of the things he wrote, anyone could understand. “‘Both of us, alas, dead drunk under the table,’ Einstein wrote, referring to himself and his wife Mileva Maric, in a 1915 postcard sent to his pal Conrad Habicht,” describes the National Geographic. And then there was the awesome fan letter he wrote to Madame Marie Curie.
And while Einstein often cultivated the appearance of a modest person, such as through his quote “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious,” his letters make it clear that he expected at some point to win the Nobel Prize—to the extent that he used the money he would receive from it as a bargaining chip to be able to divorce his wife.
Digital access to archives such as Einstein’s will enable people other than researchers to use them, notes Einstein biographer Walter Isaacson in the Wall Street Journal, even as he lamented that future researchers wouldn’t be able to experience the zeitgeist of visiting Einstein’s house and touching his actual documents.
“But my brooding soon gave way to marveling about the benefits that will come when millions of curious people, with new technologies in hand, get to dive into the papers of historical figures,” Isaacson writes. “Putting scholarly archives online for people around the world to explore will be our era’s most transformative innovation in historical research. That will reinforce a basic truth about the digital age: By empowering everyone to get information unfiltered, it diminishes the role of gatekeepers and intermediaries. Scholars and experts will still play an important role in historical analysis, but their interpretations will be challenged and supplemented by the wisdom of crowds.”
What’s particularly interesting about the digitized Einstein project is that it’s also supporting a project that’s the reverse of the usual: Developing a computer font that looks like Einstein’s handwriting. In other words, you, too, can produce documents that look like they were written by a Nobel prize-winning genius.
The Write Like Einstein project, by German typographer Harald Geisler and the Harvard-trained physicist turned dancer Elizabeth Waterhouse, is one of several similar projects, including fonts for handwriting of Cezanne, Picasso, and Dr. Sigmund Freud. Funded by Kickstarter, the Einstein font is intended not so much because they think all documents should look handwritten by him, but simply to call attention to the value of handwriting.
“Geisler and Waterhouse are really asking deeper questions about the diminishing (or evolving) role of our flawed, variable penmanship as a conduit of thought in today’s pixel-perfect landscape,” writes Anne Quito in Quartz. Thinking may actually be related to the movement of the hand while writing, she writes—err, types.
Meanwhile, the Einstein Papers Project is up to 1925, when Einstein was 46 years old—not long after he won the Nobel Prize. The organization intends to continue publishing books of Einstein’s letters and other documents, followed by posting the books online about a year and a half after each is published. So we can expect lots of other interesting Einstein quotes.
In the meantime, we can rely on “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
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