Unpacking Einstein

In 1930, Albert Einstein wrote in his travel journal about how exciting he found Caltech upon his first visit. Today, his words—a treasure trove for science—live here. His journals—along with 88,000 other notes, research findings, scientific and general writings, professional and personal letters, photographs, and more—make up the “big data” documentary core of the Einstein Papers Project.

Under the leadership of Caltech professor of history Diana Kormos-Buchwald, the team’s research on this vast resource demystifies Einstein’s discoveries, revealing the scientific processes, the day-to-day intricacies of insights large and small, and the seemingly insurmountable questions that arose and were resolved by the scientific community over Einstein’s 55-year career.

A collaboration among Caltech, The Albert Einstein Archives at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Princeton University Press, this massive undertaking eventually will contain 33 printed volumes. Caltech has published eight of the 15 completed volumes since taking over the project from Boston University in 2000. The project also publishes an English-language translation edition, and makes the entire edition available online for free.

The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein is the springboard for what Kormos-Buchwald hopes will be even deeper scholarly analysis of the development of modern science and its context. With each document, she and her team get closer to understanding the science not only of Einstein, but also of an entire generation.

“We put the flesh on the bones of science,” she says. “What it means to be a scientist today and what it has meant in the past.”

The project’s editorial group is nimble and interdisciplinary. Each collaborator is highly specialized in an array of fields, including German language and history, U.S. history, the history of science, physics, astronomy, mathematics, and more. They eagerly recruit undergraduate students to conduct research.

“We put the flesh on the bones of science.”
- Diana Kormos-Buchwald

“Caltech is unlike any other place because it never duplicates people—strength in sheer numbers is not the Caltech ethos,” Kormos-Buchwald says. “The Einstein Papers Project is a lab in which we divide research tasks; each of us has their own field of expertise—it’s like playing in a small but superb orchestra.”

The humanities at Caltech play a vital role in investigating the development and practice of science. And especially in the case of Einstein, history has never been more relevant.

“Deep, fundamental scientific discoveries take a long time,” Kormos-Buchwald says. “Nothing is the creation of a single individual—not even of an Einstein, who predicted gravitational waves 100 years ago. Their existence was just recently confirmed by LIGO. This came about as the result of concerted theoretical and experimental research, of stunning engineering, of funding, of doubts and false starts, and of the dedicated work of hundreds of scientists. The same applies to the humanities.”

The Einstein Papers Project proves the importance of scholarly historical research into the people behind theories and instruments—serving as a powerful model for Caltech’s aspiring scientists and engineers.

Giving Priorities