Digitizing Einstein

By Ellen Gilbert

Taking note of an important new resource: Einstein papers go digital

The December 2014 announcement of the launch of the Digital Einstein Papers (einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu) was greeted with huzzas from scientific circles as well as the popular media. “They have been called the Dead Sea Scrolls of physics,” began one article about the project by New York Times science writer Dennis Overbye. They will, he said, enable readers to “dance among Einstein’s love letters, his divorce file, his high school transcript, the notebook in which he worked out his general theory of relativity and letters to his lifelong best friend, Michele Besso, among many other possibilities.”

John D. Norton, a University of Pittsburgh professor of history and philosophy of science who wrote his dissertation on the history of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, weighed in on the project from the academic world, declaring, “The best Einstein source is now available to everyone, everywhere through the web. This is a great moment for Einstein scholarship.”

The official announcement, released on December 4, tidily summed things up: “The Digital Einstein Papers is an unprecedented scholarly collaboration that highlights what is possible when technology, important content, and a commitment to global scholarly communication are brought together.

JOINT EFFORT

When Einstein died in 1955, he left behind a trove of letters, notebooks, diaries, papers, postcards, notebooks, and other archival material in attics and shoeboxes around the world. Princeton University Press and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to whom Einstein bequeathed his copyright, almost immediately embarked on “the Einstein Project,” a quest to collect and assimilate all the documents. The first volume of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, published by Princeton University Press, sponsored by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and supported by the California Institute of Technology, appeared in 1987, and thirteen volumes of the series, which is currently edited by Diana Kormos-Buchwald, a professor of physics and the history of science at the California Institute of Technology, have been printed so far. When completed, the series will contain more than 14,000 full text documents and will fill an expected thirty volumes.

Along with Tizra, a digital publishing platform, these same institutions are also responsible for the online project, with additional support from the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. endowment, the California Institute of Technology, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Arcadia Fund, U.K.

THE ELECTRONIC ENVIRONMENT

Paper vs. electronic? There is no end in sight to the arguments that can be made for digital, like wider accessibility and wonderfully flexible search capabilities, as opposed to print volumes, which have, for many, greater aesthetic appeal and whose readability is not contingent on the availability of specific equipment.

The digital pages of Einstein’s Collected Papers “look” identical to the print versions, say its producers. “One of the reasons we chose Tizra is that we wanted to preserve the look and feel of the volumes,” said Kenneth Reed, digital editions manager at Princeton University Press. “You’ll see the pages as they appear in the print volumes, with added functionality such as linking between the documentary edition and translation, as well as linking to the Einstein Archives Online, and the ability to search across all the volumes in English and German.” Other practical considerations came into play; “when you actually look through the content, there are a lot of equations, a lot of physics, a lot of detailed work that’s gone into the printed page,” Reed notes. “To duplicate that—creating XML and HTML—would be very labor-intensive and costly and take years to develop.”

“Einstein belongs to the world,” Reed adds. “I’m excited for the open access part of this—that this is a scholarly text that will be available for the world. It’s a way to preserve the texts.” Additional material will be available on the website approximately eighteen months after the print publication of new volumes of The Collected Papers. “Eventually,” say its creators, “the website will provide access to all of Einstein’s writings and correspondence, accompanied by scholarly annotation and apparatus.”

Looking ahead, Kormos-Buchwald is pleased that the online papers “will introduce current and future generations to important ideas and moments in history. I very much hope that historians will access the papers, because Einstein is a major figure in German academic life, intellectual life and eventually political life. He’s become a public persona.”

With a long history of publishing books by and about Einstein, Princeton University Press has a particular stake in the digital project. “We are delighted to make these texts openly available to a global audience of researchers, scientists, historians, and students keen to learn more about Albert Einstein,” says press director Peter Dougherty. “This project not only furthers the mission of the Press to publish works that contribute to discussions that have the power to change our world, but also illustrates our commitment to pursuing excellence in all forms of publishing—print and digital.” Reed describes the project as a “first foray” into online publishing for the Press. Other candidates for future digitization include the Press’s similar series of collected writings of Thomas Jefferson, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, and Henry David Thoreau.

BRILLIANCE AND HUMANITY

While there is undoubtedly “a lot of physics” in the Digital Einstein Papers, there are many documents that testify to the casual, slippers-wearing persona that has always been part and parcel of the Einstein mystique. “This material has been carefully researched and annotated over the last twenty-five years and contains all of Einstein’s scientific and popular writings, drafts, lecture notes, and diaries, and his professional and personal correspondence up to his forty-fourth birthday,” says Buchwald. “Users will discover major scientific articles on the general theory of relativity, gravitation, and quantum theory alongside his love letters to his first wife, correspondence with his children, and his intense exchanges with other notable scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, and political personalities of the early twentieth century.”

There are those who will want to read “On a Heuristic Point of View Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light,” the paper on the hypothesis of energy quanta for which Einstein received the Nobel Prize. Recent college graduates struggling with today’s tough employment scene, though, may be reassured to see that although he graduated from university in 1900, the notice of Einstein’s first job, an appointment as a technical clerk at the Swiss Patent Office, dates from June 1902.

For inspiration there is “My Projects for the Future,” a high school French essay, in which the seventeen-year-old Einstein comments that “young people especially like to contemplate bold projects.” Speaking of “bold projects,” he undertook in the future, there is the telegram that reached Einstein, then travelling in the Far East, telling him that he had won the Nobel Prize. Any element of grand surprise, however, is tempered by reading a clause regarding the prize’s disposition in a preliminary divorce agreement from Mileva in 1918, indicating that he had long been expecting the award.

There are the Four Lectures on the Theory of Relativity held at Princeton University in May 1921 during his first trip to the United States, as well as letters to friends like Heinrich Zangger, a professor of forensic medicine at the University of Zurich, to whom Einstein complained about the vicissitudes of being famous, “worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow.” He tells scientist Max Planck that he is unable to attend a scientist’s convention in Berlin because he is “supposedly among the group of persons being targeted by nationalist assassins,” and mixes the personal and professional in a letter to his mother, Pauline, in which he shares the news that his prediction of gravitational light bending was confirmed by a British eclipse expedition in 1919.

“It is exciting to think that thanks to the careful application of new technology, this work will now reach a much broader audience and stand as the authoritative digital source for Einstein’s written legacy,” observes Kormos-Buchwald. Indeed, one is struck by the fact that producing The Digital Einstein Papers (or any other online enterprise, for that matter) is possible at all is largely because of Einstein himself. As recounted by his biographer Jurgen Neff, Einstein’s publications during 1905 (his annus mirabilis) set in motion “a theoretical revolution with technological implications that have had a major impact on mankind today. It has given rise to the high-tech world of microelectronics, cellular phones, digital photography, computers, chips, the Internet, superconductivity, nanotechnology, and modern chemistry.”