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Albert Einstein pictured alongside the letter containing his famous equation, which sold for $1.2 million

Einstein letter commands $1.2M at RR Auction

Albert Einstein pictured alongside the letter containing his famous equation, which sold for $1.2 million
Albert Einstein pictured alongside the letter containing his famous equation, which sold for $1.2 million

BOSTON – A letter in which Albert Einstein writes out his famous equation, “E = mc2,”–the only known example in private hands–sold for $1,243,707 during RR Auction’s May 13-May 20 sale.

The one-page letter was written in German by Einstein to Polish-American physicist Ludwik Silberstein and dated October 26, 1946. The relevant reference translates as:

“Your question can be answered from the E = mc2 formula, without any erudition. If E is the energy of your system consisting of the two masses, E0 the energy of the masses when they approach infinite distance, then the system’s mass defect is E0 – E / c2.

In your case, (E0 – E)pot = k m2/r. On account of the kinetic energy, however, the total energy deficit is only half as large, in accordance with the virial theorem. Therefore, if is the mass of the total system, 2m – M = 1/2 k/c2 m2/r on the first approximation, that is, if the influence of the finiteness of the radius of the masses is ignored. I am convinced that this (or a formula corrected with respect to the radius of the masses) cannot help in shedding light on atomic constants. For that one must first have a theory that contains the correct unification of gravitation and electricity.” Silberstein notes the dates of receipt and reply at the top, also writing “E = mc2.”

The 1946 Einstein letter, penned in German and shown in full
The 1946 Einstein letter, penned in German and shown in full

According to archivists at the Einstein Papers Project at Caltech, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, only three holograph examples are known, and none of those are in private hands. This example—the fourth—was revealed to the public for the first time with news of the auction.

“It’s an important letter from both a holographic and a physics point of view,” said Bobby Livingston, Executive VP at RR Auction. “Einstein says to use the formula ‘without any erudition,’ and he’s correct. The world knows E = mc2 as the most famous equation in the world.”

Detail showing the equation in Einstein’s handwriting; the letter is in German.
Detail showing the equation in Einstein’s handwriting

Additional highlights from the sale include another Albert Einstein letter containing gravitational field equations, which sold for $152,920, and an Albert Einstein typed letter with handwritten equations on the spacetime metric, which sold for $66,898.

Other featured items included letters by Max Planck—often defending Einstein’s theory of relativity —and other Nobel Prize winners, including Thomson, Bragg, Michelson, and Lorentz.

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