Brilliant buddies

Fifty years ago, on 18 April 1955, Albert Einstein died; hence it is timely to welcome this new edition of his correspondence with Max Born. Both men were renowned physicists, both were awarded a Nobel prize, both were born in Germany of Jewish parents and forced into exile by Hitler. They shared many interests, including music, Einstein playing the violin, Born the piano, when they both lived in Berlin many years ago. Although they sometimes strongly disagreed on scientific as well as political issues, their amicable correspondence reveals a deep-rooted friendship that stretched across half a century.

The present book, edited by Born’s son Professor Gustav Born, of the William Harvey Research Institute at London University, follows the previous edition of 1971, itself a translation by Born’s daughter Irene Newton-John, mother of the popular singer Olivia Newton-John, of the original German edition of 1969. The latter also contained several German poems by Max Born’s wife Hedwig, generally known as Hedi. The translation of these letters as well as Born’s commentaries, many of them full of technical scientific detail, was no mean achievement and deserves the highest praise. The 1971 edition also contained some fine photographs of Einstein, of Max and Hedi Born, and of the assembled members of the Fifth International Solvay Congress of Physicists. This also figured on the dust jacket of the original German edition and is reproduced in miniature on the jacket of the present book. The two English editions also include the 1924 drawing of Einstein by Max Born’s brother Wolfgang.

In addition to the original foreword by Bertrand Russell and the introduction by Born’s one-time colleague Werner Heisenberg, the new edition is introduced by Gustav Born and features a lengthy new preface, by Diana Buchwald and Kip S. Thorne, which emphasises the valuable testimony of the letters to the development of modern science as well as portraying the writers’ views on contemporary political and philosophical concerns.

The tone of the letters is friendly throughout, although Einstein, long settled at Princeton University in the United States, reacted rather vehemently when the Borns decided in 1953 to return to live in Germany. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Einstein had emigrated to the US and never returned to Germany, while the Born family had moved to Britain. After some years in Cambridge, Max Born was appointed Darwin’s successor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. On his retirement Max and Hedi decided to move to the picturesque German spa resort Bad Pyrmont where they had spent some time as a young engaged couple many years earlier. Einstein abhorred the idea, even when advised of the pressing financial reasons for the move from parsimonious Scotland to repentant Germany, where Born had been reinstated at Göttingen on full salary as Professor Emeritus. For Hedi the move to Pyrmont was especially welcome, as she had joined the Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1938, whose German headquarters were located at that pleasant resort, not far from Göttingen where her brother Rudi and his family still lived.

On scientific issues the two men also had their differences, especially on the subject of quantum mechanics, but even when their different views appeared in print, as for example on the question of determinism, their friendship was not affected ‘in the slightest degree’. As Born wrote in 1953: ‘My feeling towards you is that of a cheeky urchin who can get away with certain liberties without offending you.’
Both Max Born and his wife were deeply concerned for the safety and welfare of other refugees, not least fellow scientists. Their letters often read like a catalogue of well-known names, including Nobel laureates, for the period of the two world wars and the Nazi horror years in between, among them Niels Bohr, James Franck, H. A. Lorentz, Max Planck, and Erwin Schroedinger. One who gained notoriety of a different sort was Klaus Fuchs, Born’s colleague in Edinburgh, a very quiet man and a devoted communist who was later to pass atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

Born speaks of ‘the voluminous correspondence’ he carried on, not only with Einstein, but with many people all over the world, on the subject of help for exiled scientists. If Einstein seemed more reserved, especially after the death of his second wife Ilse, ‘who was more attached to human beings than I’, it was because he felt that he could not recommend mediocrities without sacrificing his own credit in the scientific world. ‘It is sad,’ he wrote, ‘that one is forced to treat human beings like horses where it matters only that they can run and pull, without regard to their qualities as human beings.’

Not surprisingly, the correspondence between two highly intelligent men preserved in these pages reflects many of the problems and uncertainties of the first half of the 20th century. Born notes the irreversible accumulation of ugly feelings of anger, revenge, and hatred in Germany after World War I, with the probability of major catastrophes resulting therefrom, as indeed happened. Fortunately both he and Einstein escaped the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, only to be confronted by the equal horror of nuclear fission. As Born was to write to Einstein in November 1953, ‘The Americans have demonstrated in Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki that in sheer speed of extermination they surpass even the Nazis.’

Among the fascinating and erudite disquisitions on relativity, quantum mechanics, principles of optics and other such topics, there are occasional references to the Born family, their children Irene, Gritli and Gustav, especially in the letters to Einstein from Hedi Born. In July 1923 Einstein paid tribute to Hedi’s ‘contribution in physics, music, poetry and prose, as well as in cosy conviviality’, and several years later she asked for his opinion on her play A Child of America, to which he responded as ‘a quite successful satire on the contemporary scene ... witty and amusing throughout’.

Hedi Born was a gifted, sensitive, talented woman, at times decidedly headstrong, but thoroughly generous and lovable. She happened to have been my father’s sister. 

The Born-Einstein Letters 1916–1955: Friendship, Politics and Physics in Uncertain Times, Max Born. New edition by Gustav Born. Macmillan, 2005. isbn 1 403 94496 2, rrp $49.95

Professor Ralph Elliott was born in Berlin, educated in Germany and Scotland, served in the British Army in World War II, and has taught English language and literature, mainly medieval, in British and Australian universities. He is currently honorary librarian at the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, Canberra.



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