Blinded by Science: Letters from the Greatest Minds in Physics

Swann’s November 26 Autographs auction offers letters from some of the greatest minds in 20th-century physics written to mathematician and theoretical physicist Paul Hertz. Hertz (1881-1940), a relation of the better-known Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, made important contributions to the foundation of mathematics and statistical mechanics while working in Göttingen, Germany prior to World War II. 

In 1910, Hertz’s work in theoretical physics brought him in contact with Albert Einstein. When the two first exchanged letters, Einstein had been publishing papers on thermodynamics and electromagnetic radiation. Hertz was interested in Einstein’s interpretation of the laws of thermodynamics, and in a paper published in 1910, Hertz criticized Einstein’s views. In August of that year, Einstein wrote a postcard to Hertz, inviting him to discuss their disagreement in person, thus beginning a correspondence that touched on some of the most important moments and ideas in Einstein’s life.

Lot 79 is a group of five Autograph Letters Signed by Einstein written from 1910 to 1915 as he was completing his general theory of relativity, and they contain Einstein’s response to Hertz’s proposed solution to what has become known as the “hole argument.”

Lot 80 contains three items from Einstein to Hertz. In two of them Einstein criticizes Hertz for being a coward, in the third he offers a profuse apology. From the earlier two letters: “I must say, however, that this kind of circumspection, or not standing up for one’s rights, is to blame for the whole political plight. . . Resign from the association immediately, for you have that kind of bold attitude that the power holders so love about Germans.” From the apology: “I cannot bear knowing that I have offended you. You must excuse me, taking into account that I–as you yourself correctly state–have devoted myself to the understanding of people less diligently than to that of nature.” It is unclear what set Einstein off.

Lot 81 is a group of 17 letters from physicists and other scientists to Hertz on subjects including thermodynamics, the nature of electrons, black-body radiation and relativity, written from 1906 to 1952. 

From Arnold Sommerfeld, 16 May 1906: “Have you noted that you can use my proposition to prove that the accelerated motion requires less force than the delayed motion?” 

Max von Laue, 25 October 1906: “[T]he statement that black-body radiation cannot be compensatively changed into nonblack cannot be based on the impossibility of this machine.” 

Hendrik Lorentz, 26 June 1907: “. . . From your formula . . . I derive the following value for the conductivity of the chlorine . . . in electromagnetic CGS units . . . . The formula . . . is not valid if one assumes that the water molecules take up a considerable part of the space and that the ions ricochet off them. . .”

Max Planck, 15 October 1910: “. . . What pleased me . . . is your strong emphasis on the concept of time ensemble. I share your belief that this is the only satisfactory starting point for the mechanical definition of thermodynamic magnitudes. . .”