You Should Write More Letters

May 18, 2008 | 8 comments
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You never know what they’ll be worth someday: “Einstein Letter on God Sells for $404,000.”

The auction attracted immense interest, including a bid by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Strange that it is this letter, in which Einstein voices rather dismissive views about religion and the Bible, which has generated all this interest, not a letter on one of his remarkable insights into theoretical physics.

One of Einstein’s more famous observations was that “God doesn’t play dice.” He was expressing his unhappiness with the implications of quantum mechanics rather than commenting on God, but perhaps his willingness to use divine metaphors in his public statements about physics may help explain his unusual popularity.

8 Responses to You Should Write More Letters

  1. Dan on May 18, 2008 at 8:36 am

    But Dave, what would Einstein’s letter be worth to him? Would it have sold for $404k in his lifetime? It’s nice and all for it to be worth thousands of dollars decades after my death…but, well… :)

  2. Tatiana on May 18, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    I think this auction is interesting, and it’s very interesting that Einstein thought religion was childish. Richard Feynman, one of my heroes, thought the same way. I wonder if somehow their experiences of divine grace are not channeled through the medium of science instead of religion. However, many other scientists are deeply religious, so I’m not sure if that holds up.

    As a scientist who’s religious, I look at these men, who’ve comprehended so much of the divine, with a hope and faith that they’ll understand even more after their deaths. Surely eyes so open to the beauty and mystery of the universe will be open to the fullness of its glory as well.

  3. Ardis Parshall on May 18, 2008 at 6:54 pm

    “Surely eyes so open to the beauty and mystery of the universe will be open to the fullness of its glory as well.”

    I really like that, Tatiana.

  4. Bill MacKinnon on May 18, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    Harry Truman was a man who thought long and hard about the letters he wrote and how posterity would deal with, if not value, them. Because he knew he had a temper, he had a habit of putting some of his more controversial letters in his desk drawer and waiting a day to decide whether or not to mail them. Some stayed there and are now the stuff that fascinates historians. One letter that unfortunately made it out of the drawer and into the White House mail room was written in the late 1940s to Paul Hume, the music critic for the Washington “Post.” Hume had just written a column critiquing in fairly unflattering terms the concert just given in Washington by Margaret Truman, the first daughter. HST was enraged at Hume’s comments and hand-wrote him a letter saying so. The president also included in this note an invitation for Hume to meet him in a Washington alley some night armed with, as Truuman phrased it, “a beefsteak for your eye and an athletic supporter for down below.” A delighted Hume promptly published the letter and later auctioned it off for $10,000 to benefit the U.S. Marine Corps’ widows and orphans fund. (Can anyone calculated what $10,000 in 1947 dollars would be worth today?) Miss Truman subsequently gave up her singing career and switched to writing murder mysteries.

  5. queuno on May 18, 2008 at 9:08 pm

    Miss Truman subsequently gave up her singing career and switched to writing murder mysteries.

    A better world, apparently.

    As a scientist who’s religious, I look at these men, who’ve comprehended so much of the divine, with a hope and faith that they’ll understand even more after their deaths. Surely eyes so open to the beauty and mystery of the universe will be open to the fullness of its glory as well.

    There’s something to be said for the eyes of spiritual understanding, which show us that our ability to measure is limited.

  6. Mark B. on May 18, 2008 at 10:24 pm

    There’s a better reason for writing more letters (and I’m surprised Ardis, researcher extraordinaire that she is, didn’t mention it)–they are the stuff of which history is made. And our generation’s illiteracy is creating a black hole–how can we ever dig up all those telephone conversations that have vanished into the ether, or emails that have been lost in the hard drives of computers that can no longer be read.

  7. clark on May 18, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    If one reads Feynman’s two volumes of anecdotes it’s clear why he doesn’t like religion. His dislike of philosophy in understandable as well when you find out his introductory philosophy class was on Whitehead’s process thought. However often Feynman is very naive on both. (Adopting uncritically a view of instrumentalism ala Dewey) Of course I still like Feynman and he’s still a hero of mine despite his mysoginist ways.

    Einstein is, if anything, more interesting since his ‘God’ is the god of Spinoza.

  8. Bill MacKinnon on May 18, 2008 at 11:12 pm

    Ah, but Mark B., to the rescue of historians like the Fair Ardis comes that noblest invention of them all, the computer printer and ream after ream of pristine paper to capture its output. I’m convinced that more trees have been sacrificed to the concept of the paperless office than anyone could have imagined in the early 1990s.

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