Einstein Sleuthing

by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

I stumbled upon a perplexing puzzle as we were fine-tuning our upcoming show with Buddhist teacher and author Matthieu Ricard. Krista had included a quote in the script by Albert Einstein that needed to be fact checked. This seemed pretty straightforward…at first.

Albert Einstein is one of those famous people who gets quoted a lot, sometimes inaccurately. My colleagues at SOF were already familiar with this from producing two companion programs about Einstein back in 2007.

Following is the quote from Einstein as it appears in The Quantum and the Lotus, a book Matthieu Ricard wrote together with astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan:

"A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

Plug this quote into Google and you get hits galore, including references to this 1972 New York Times article. But if you look at the typed version at the beginning of this post, you’ll notice some differences — specifically the last two sentences. So where did the quote come from exactly, and in what context did Einstein originally write or say these words?

My search led me to Dear Professor Einstein, a collection of Einstein’s correspondence that features a version of the quote in question, which closely matches the copy we obtained from the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Through Facebook, I contacted the book’s editor, Alice Calaprice, who explained that Einstein had penned his famous words in 1950 to Robert S. Marcus, a man who was distraught over the death of his young son from polio. Calaprice concurred that people often misquote Einstein — and that primary sources are the key to setting the record straight. “When we don’t have originals to prove otherwise,” wrote Calaprice, “falsehoods are sometimes inadvertently repeated even by scholars.”

Handwritten Draft of Albert Einstein's Letter to Robert S. Marcus (February 12, 1950)

To that end, Barbara Wolff, an archivist at the Albert Einstein Archives, sent us the actual image of the handwritten versions of Einstein’s letter in German and English below. I wonder about who translated Einstein’s words and whether some meaning may have gotten lost.

As I’ve resurfaced from all this Einstein sleuthing, I’ve been pondering my responsibility as producer to verify the quote’s accuracy. But, as I look at Einstein’s handwritten letter with its scrawls and cross outs, I’m reminded that language and ideas are not fixed like cement. Still, it’s my job to get it right.

What’s funny is that after all this effort, we debated ditching the quote altogether. Matthieu Ricard is such a rich voice, did we really need to bring Einstein into the conversation? In the end though, we corrected the quote, and kept Einstein, “sounding more than a little bit Buddhist,” as Krista put it, in the final script read.

Special thanks to Barbara Wolff and the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, which holds copyright for these archival materials.

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