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Albert Einstein in America, 1921

July 1, 2009  • Walter Isaacson

Albert Einstein’s exploding global fame and budding Zionism came together in the spring of 1921 for an event that was unique in the history of science, and indeed remarkable for any realm: a grand two-month processional through the eastern and midwestern United States that evoked the sort of mass frenzy and press adulation that would thrill a touring rock star. The world had never before seen, and perhaps will never again, such a scientific celebrity superstar, one who also happened to be a gentle icon of humanist values and a living patron saint for Jews.

Princeton University Press, as volume 12 in its Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, is publishing his correspondence for this amazing and critical year of his life. It includes the full text of 169 letters he wrote this year along with 180 that he received. Also included is a detailed calendar of his year that draws on information from hundreds of other documents. All told, the volume presents an exquisite and rich tapestry of Einstein’s initial involvement with the Zionist movement and with the United States, which 12 years later would become his home.

Einstein had initially thought that his first visit to America might be a way to make some money in a stable currency in order to provide for his family in Switzerland. “I have demanded $15,000 from Princeton and Wisconsin,” he wrote his friend and fellow scientist Paul Ehrenfest. “It will probably scare them off. But if they do bite, I will be buying economic independence for myself – and that’s not a thing to sniff at.”

The American universities did not bite. “My demands were too high,” he reported back to Ehrenfest. So by February of 1921, he had made other plans for the spring: He would present a paper at the third Solvay Conference in Brussels and give some lectures in Leiden at the behest of Ehrenfest.

Continue reading in the Princeton University Press blog.