Albert Einstein wrote famously that imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge, he said, was limited. "Imagination encircles the world."
It was the force of his own imagination that made Einstein the towering scientific figure of the 20th century. On Monday, at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, the custodians of his writings announced the launch of a new digital archive they hope will help spread the intellectual curiosity that made the German-born physicist the world’s most famous scientist.
“Knowledge is not about hiding, it is about openness,” Hebrew University President Menahem Ben-Sasson said at the launch of a new public website that archivists hope will soon provide easy access to all of Einstein’s personal and professional writings.
The archive, which is made of more than 80,000 documents spanning Einstein’s 76-year life, includes manuscripts of his scientific and nonscientific writings, his correspondence with scientific and nonscientific colleagues, and writings with friends and family.
Einstein willed all of his writing and intellectual heritage to Hebrew University, which he helped found in 1925.
The university says the entire collection has been digitized, but initially, the website will allow viewers access to 2,000 select documents. In the next year, archivists say, they expect more than 30,000 documents to become available.
The new website builds on a previous archival website started in 2003. It unifies Einstein's papers that had been collected by the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University and the The Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology, where Einstein was a visiting professor in the winter terms of 1931, 1932 and 1933. In conjunction with Princeton University Press, the Einstein Papers Project has so far published 12 volumes, including the physicist's writings and correspondence up to 1921.
The most famous document to be made available online is the original 1916 manuscript for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The groundbreaking scientific work overturned Newton’s theory of gravity and introduced the concept of the four-dimensional space-time continuum.
Other notable scientific documents include the 1946 manuscript outlining Einstein’s famous formula E = mc2 and about 14 notebooks of lectures that Einstein gave while he was in Germany and Switzerland.
With the website, users can examine each page of these and many other famous documents in high-resolution detail, and parts of individual pages can be perused up close.
“In this way, the content of the archives can be explored via a new user-friendly interface customized for this goal,” project manager Dalia Mendelsson explained.
The archival database is searchable by subject and date, and in coming months will provide an increasing number of English translations for the documents written in German, Mendelsson said.
But beyond making the original documentation of Einstein's scientific theories widely available, the university is also making thousands of pages of the scientist’s personal papers available as well. Some of them do not paint an overly flattering portrait of the bushy-haired scientist whom so many people came to love and admire.
To be included in the online collection are some two dozen love letters Einstein wrote to his second wife, Elsa Lowenthal. They were sent while he was still married to his first wife, Mileva Maric.
Professor Hanoch Gutfreund, head of the Hebrew University archive, acknowledged that Einstein’s well-known penchant for maintaining relations outside of marriage presented a dilemma when deciding which personal papers to initially make available on the website.
Before Einstein’s papers were first posted on the Web, he sad, he consulted with legal experts at the university and was advised that since all of those named in the letters had passed away, it was permissible post them publicly.
“If you let enough time go by, it’s kosher” Gutfreund explained.
The personal papers also reveal more details about Einstein’s thoughts about nationalism, Zionism and the creation of a Jewish state.
In one 1930 letter written to the editor of an Arab newspaper, Einstein suggests that the increasing violence between Jews and Arabs could be solved by convening secret meetings of representatives of both groups whose dialogue could “ultimately lead to a state in which differences could gradually be eliminated.”
Gutfreund says making the collection widely available online not only serves to introduce Einstein’s revolutionary science to a whole new audience, but will expose a new generation to a man “who more than anyone else in the first half of the 20th century expressed his views on every issue that was on the agenda of mankind.”
“That is something that was unique about Einstein,” Gutfreund said
Hebrew University officials are hoping for tens of millions of visitors in the website’s first week.
Dr. Leonard Polonsky, a British philanthropist who helped finance the Einstein project, initiated a similar program at Cambridge University with the papers of Sir Isaac Newton. That website attracted 29 million hits during its first 24 hours online.
The Einstein papers, Polonsky says, help reveal the scientist’s “intellectual exploration and development and his relationship with other thinkers of his time.”
“Much of this is going to be exposed in this material, so it is something quite grand,” he said.