Einstein’s Letter Simplifying the Theory of Relativity

By 1952, the words “Albert Einstein” were synonymous with the word “genius.” Einstein was routinely stopped on the street by people asking him to explain “those theories,” which changed humanity’s perception of the universe and became pillars of modern physics.

One inquisitive follower of Einstein’s work was Dr. Waldron Gardiner, a pathologist in San Francisco, who wrote Einstein on July 8, 1952 to seek further clarification on his theories and their “cosmological implications.”

Dr. Gardiner asked Einstein to help him understand why the physicist believed light from the star system Alpha Centauri was already four years old whenever Gardiner peered at it in the night sky.

Einstein replied in 48 hours by succinctly and specifically explaining how Dr. Gardiner query could be answered by gravity’s influence between general and special relativity, which the physicist theorized 40 years prior. Einstein’s reply was written mere months before he turned down an offer to serve as the new President of Israel and two years before he passed away.

Although letters by Albert Einstein appear regularly at auction, those in which he specifically discusses aspects of his theories of relativity are extremely rare. Heritage is proud to offer both Dr. Gardiner’s original letter and Einstein’s reply together at auction for the first time.

Available in Heritage Auctions’ Manuscripts auction on October 25, 2018 in Dallas, Einstein wrote the following reply to Dr. Gardiner:

Your difficulty stems from the fact that you do not distinguish between general and special theory of relativity, the latter being a limit case, where you neglect gravitation. In the latter case there are special coordinate systems (inertial systems) and with respect to such system the concept of simultaneity has a sharp meaning and can be defined empirically by light signals. In general relativity the space and time coordinates have no direct physical meaning so that also the concept of simultaneity of spatially distant events has no physical meaning. Physical meaning can be attributed to this concept only in certain special cases which are characterized by certain symmetry qualities. Such case is not realized in nature. But in those idealizations which we use to represent expanding space there are coordinate systems representing space-time in the mathematically simplest form. With respect to such coordinate systems simultaneity has meaning but the definition of simultaneity as defined in special relativity theory is out of place here.

Although Einstein letters appear regularly in the market, those in which he specifically discusses aspects of his theory of relativity are rare. This letter — offered to the public for the first time — explains in detail the difference between general and special theories of relativity.

Visit our manuscripts department to learn more about this and other highly sought manuscripts in the October auction.

Posted by Heritage Editorial

This article was written as a collaborative effort by multiple experts within the category at Heritage Auctions.

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