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".