Friday, April 17, 2015

Secrets from the Einstein Archives

Even today in the internet age, nothing matches the special thrill of browsing through boxes of historical materials. In contrast to their image as stuffy places fragranced with moldy papers, archives and libraries are secret theaters full of some of the most riveting dramas. They house materials as funny, sad, or jolting as anything Broadway and Hollywood have conjured up.

I vividly remember sitting in Firestone Library in Princeton some years ago, browsing through materials from the Albert Einstein Duplicate Archive, when I encountered a curious exchange between Einstein and Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger. While the bulk of Einstein's original letters and writings are housed at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, copies exist throughout the world, including at Princeton. The Einstein Papers Project, currently based at Caltech, has published a number of volumes of work from the first half of his career and digitized some of that material. However, the box of correspondence I was examining had yet to be published.

In it, I was startled to see a folder of press releases and press clippings from early 1947, in which the two physicists were battling over the importance of a "theory of everything" that Schrödinger had proposed. Schrödinger's boasts and Einstein's put-downs were as sharp as anything said in the famed boxing rivalry between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier. The material was truly riveting. How did the close colleagues end up in such a heated press war?

The jolting notion that two Nobel Prize winners would end up in an international press battle spurred me to take a sabbatical leave from my university and document Einstein and Schrödinger's friendship, their quest for a unified theory of nature, their mutual fight against quantum incompleteness (that let to the famous Einstein Podolsky Rosen thought experiment and Schrödinger's cat paradox), and the unraveling of their partnership. I discovered a tale with much humor and pathos that offered considerable insight into the promises and pitfalls of scientific collaboration. After many months of further research the result was a book, "Einstein's Dice and Schrödinger's Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics".