“I have indeed become some sort of authority, but not enough, so that I would not realize when I say something foolish.”
AN IMPORTANT LETTER REVEALING INSIGHT INTO EINSTEIN’S THOUGHTS NEAR THE END OF HIS LIFE; A VARIATION OF HIS FAMOUS QUOTE ABOUT HIS FEARS OF HAVING BECOME AN “AUTHORITY”.
By 1930, after a decade of being celebrated for his scientific achievements, notably the confirmation of his General Theory of Relativity, Einstein was an international celebrity and almost universally regarded as a scientific genius. Einstein was never quite comfortable with his new status as part of the scientific establishment, still reluctant to admit that he was no longer a revolutionary, working to overturn the foundations of science. “To punish me for my contempt of authority,” he wrote to a friend in 1930, “Fate has made me an authority myself.” (quoted in Isaacson, Einstein, 317).
In a humble admission just three months before his death, in this letter Einstein writes a variation of his famous quote on “authority”; declining to contribute to a book on astronomy and astrophysics because he has “become some sort of authority” and “would not realize when I say something foolish.”
Context of the letter, written to Dr. Arthur Beer, 10 January 1955:
“In the early 1950s, Beer planned… a voluminous and thorough survey of present-day astronomy… which he intended to dedicate to F.J.M. Stratton, on the occasion of his 70th birthday. Frederick John Marrian Stratton (1881-1960)… was one of the pioneers of astrophysics and was General Secretary of the International Astronomical Union from 1925 to 1935 and of the Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) from 1937 to 1952.
“Beer’s ‘Stratton Project’ grew into a gigantic enterprise, and it is no wonder that its appearance was somewhat delayed. It ended up as an impressive two-volume panorama of astronomy, astrophysics and related fields of the mid-twentieth century, and almost everyone of fame in astronomy was represented. As Beer says in his introduction: ‘Ultimately 215 authors joined to produce the 192 contributions: 179 of them are astronomers, 36 physicists, geophysicists, mathematicians, and historians. They cover the span between the ages of twenty-four and ninety-one, and the more significant one between twenty-six nations.’ Some potential authors, like W. Grotrian and E.P. Hubble, died before they could provide their manuscripts. Einstein was also asked to contribute, but he wrote: ‘Overloaded with work and other obligations, it is impossible for me … I also completely realize that I cannot contribute anything of special value to the book.’ (Einstein, 1954). At the end of 1954, Beer again tried to obtain Einstein’s support, and asked him just to provide a motto, a single line, in order to underline the fact that the book was a serious example of internationalism. Einstein's early reply (1955) [the offered letter] came just three months before his death, and it reads: ‘I don’t lack good will. But something is opposed to my contribution, namely that I cannot say anything sensible. I have indeed become some sort of authority, but not enough, so that I would not realize when I say something foolish.’ And this is why the book appeared without a contribution by Einstein.” (Hilmar W. Duerbeck and Peter Beer, “Arthur Beer, Einstein and the Warburg Institute”, in Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp.93-98; 2006).
The letter, in German, typed on Einstein’s blind-stamped Mercer Street letterhead is dated 10 January, 1955 and reads in full [translated into English]:
Dr. Arthur Beer
Dear Dr. Beer,
Thank you for your letter of December 29th. I don’t lack good will. But something is opposed to my contribution, namely that I cannot say anything sensible. I have indeed become some sort of authority, but not enough, so that I would not realize when I say something foolish.
Unfortunately, nothing can come of it, and I hope that my reasoning will convince you.
With best regards
[signed] A. Einstein
Typed Letter Signed. Text in German. One 8.5x11 inch sheet of Einstein’s Princeton, NJ, Mercer Street letterhead. Text on recto only. Usual folds, a few stray marks. In outstanding condition.
A REVEALING LETTER BY EINSTEIN SHOWING HUMILITY AND HIS AWARENESS OF THE IMPLICATIONS OF HIS STATUS AS A FIGURE OF AUTHORITY.