Sunday, November 10, 2013

Recommending Albert Einstein

Over at Letters of Note, Shaun Usher featured recently two letters of recommendation for Einstein written by Henri Poincaré and Marie Curie for a professorship in theoretical physics at ETH-Zurich. Einstein was 32 when the letters were written (1911), some six years after his Annus Mirabilis ("the extraordinary year") that saw the publication of his landmark papers on photoelectricity, Brownian motion and special relativity; his other major paper on general relativity would arrive some five years later.

The letters themselves are awesome little gems. Poincaré gets straight to the point with these opening lines:

Mr Einstein is one of the most original thinkers I have ever met. In spite of his youth, he has already achieved a very honourable place among the leading savants of his age. [...]

Curie, too, is quite effusive in her praise:

I have often admired the papers published by Mr. Einstein on issues dealing with modern theoretical physics. Moreover, I believe that theoretical physicists agree that these papers are of the highest order. In Brussels, where I participated in a scientific conference in which Mr. Einstein also took part, I was able to appreciate the clarity of his mind, the extent of his documentation and the depth of his knowledge. If we consider that Mr. Einstein is still very young, we are right to have great hope in him, and to see him as one of the leading theoreticians of the future. [...]

But both of them end their letter by highlighting the benefits to the institution:


The future will show more and more the worth of Mr Einstein, and the university intelligent enough to attract this young master is certain to reap great honour.


I think that the scientific institution willing to give Mr. Einstein the work he desires, either by appointing him an existing chair or by creating for him the chair in the conditions he deserves, could be greatly honored by such a decision and would certainly be providing a great service to science.