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I stumbled upon a perplexing puzzle as we were fine-tuning our upcoming show with Buddhist teacher and author Matthieu Ricard. Krista had included a quote in the script by Albert Einstein that needed to be fact checked. This seemed pretty straightforward…at first.

Albert Einstein is one of those famous people who gets quoted a lot, sometimes inaccurately. My colleagues at SOF were already familiar with this from producing two companion programs about Einstein back in 2007.

Following is the quote from Einstein as it appears in The Quantum and the Lotus, a book Matthieu Ricard wrote together with astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan:

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Plug this quote into Google and you get hits galore, including references to this 1972 New York Times article. But if you look at the typed version at the beginning of this post, you’ll notice some differences — specifically the last two sentences. So where did the quote come from exactly, and in what context did Einstein originally write or say these words?

My search led me to Dear Professor Einstein, a collection of Einstein’s correspondence that features a version of the quote in question, which closely matches the copy we obtained from the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Through Facebook, I contacted the book’s editor, Alice Calaprice, who explained that Einstein had penned his famous words in 1950 to Robert S. Marcus, a man who was distraught over the death of his young son from polio. Calaprice concurred that people often misquote Einstein — and that primary sources are the key to setting the record straight. “When we don’t have originals to prove otherwise,” wrote Calaprice, “falsehoods are sometimes inadvertently repeated even by scholars.”

Handwritten Draft of Albert Einstein's Letter to Robert S. Marcus (February 12, 1950)

To that end, Barbara Wolff, an archivist at the Albert Einstein Archives, sent us the actual image of the handwritten versions of Einstein’s letter in German and English below. I wonder about who translated Einstein’s words and whether some meaning may have gotten lost.

As I’ve resurfaced from all this Einstein sleuthing, I’ve been pondering my responsibility as producer to verify the quote’s accuracy. But, as I look at Einstein’s handwritten letter with its scrawls and cross outs, I’m reminded that language and ideas are not fixed like cement. Still, it’s my job to get it right.

What’s funny is that after all this effort, we debated ditching the quote altogether. Matthieu Ricard is such a rich voice, did we really need to bring Einstein into the conversation? In the end though, we corrected the quote, and kept Einstein, “sounding more than a little bit Buddhist,” as Krista put it, in the final script read.

Special thanks to Barbara Wolff and the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, which holds copyright for these archival materials.


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19 Comments

This is fascinating.

I do appreciate the statement that "language and ideas are not fixed like cement". Bears repeating.

Nancy -- Two points. First, "going back to the roots" of every good idea is essential. It reduces (but does not eliminate) the erosion and corrosion of the idea over time that results from shifts in perspective and political pressures. It also helps us see the degree and nature of how our perspectives have changed over time. The result is that the original idea is preserved for a while longer into the future, and the idea triggers fresh insights as we compare "as it was" to "as it is." Second, I would be disappointed if the SOF editorial decision was to dodge the issue by omitting the reference. I have come to expect and value Krista's "tactful honesty" as a hallmark of the entire SOF effort. Remaining silent upon discovering such a distortion only perpetuates it.

My Grandfather, Dr Rudolf Ehrmann, was Einstein's physician and close personal friend. For instance, he was one of three physicians to sign the death certificate of Einstein in 1955. Of the many letters from Einstein that have come down to us, the difficulty presented in now reading them is often context, translation and handwriting. Einstein sometimes wrote as part of an ongoing conversation. His German also loses subtlety, nuance or humor when translated. Lastly his handwriting is very difficult to physically see as he wrote so finely.

Namadeva a buddhist priest writes that babies come into the world understanding the truth that Einstein describes about the universe but shortly forget it as they incorporate the false concept of separation that humans have agreed to embrace for some unkown reason.

I just wish I was smart enough to understand it but either way thank you for sharing your post and it is fascinating stuff. I love the comment about his handwriting, that is touching.

Your being "understands it" & knew it to be right in a way that was "touching" acknowledge the light you experience it is of value & joy.

I don't see a difference between what Einstein said and many Hasidic masters who have said that, "All is God."

What you see is yours. Someone else might see something else. To deal with each other, compassion is very useful. Einstein lives!
And, God has many names.

I don't see much difference between what Einstein said and the Hasidic masters who have said that, "All is God."

I take “Optical delusion” as a malaprop implying the misapprehension is forced from within. I posit that individuality is merely a powerful illusion or component of life, caused by the nature of our direct awareness, and consciousness only of our own thoughts and sensations. This limited native awareness is reasonably based on the obvious limitations of our individual nervous systems. Most people are not even aware of their own ‘colonial’ nature; that our bodies are only about 90% human by mass, and 10% human by number, the balance being microbes of many types, essential to healthy life and benign.

Your fact checking, Nancy Rosenbaum, while it may not be obvious, was/is invaluable.

What Einstein said is consistent with what the Buddha taught, while Matthieu Ricard’s quote, though consistent with what he teaches, is not consistent with what the Buddha taught.

‘Buddhism’, as the Buddha taught it, has many offshoots, reinterpretations made to fit the cultures that adopted them.

Thank you for Einstein's actual quote; his genius truly was prolific.

What consistently characterizes Albert Einsteins writing, much more palpable in the original German, is his painstakingly forthright striving to express his understanding of the truth. We never detect even a trace of ideology or ulterior motive.

So unlike the god botherers and purveyors of the supernatural who shamelessly cherry-pick then hijack, take out of context, distort, even alter Einsteins observations to bolster their vacuous faith flogging preachments.

This is a beautiful quite from a brilliant man.

People need to hear this more than ever: we have a crude and superstitious meme embedded in society, that success in life is predominantly an outcome of self-will, which allows the rich to blame the poor for their own predicament instead of facing hard facts about social inequality. Einstein knew that we are part of a dynamic, living universe. Enlightenment is the reorienting of the individual in tune with the Whole, and allows a healthy wholesome kind of thriving, instead of the monstrous, cancerous desire to dominate and control everything, which holds human beings in thrall the world over.

The actual practice of this is of course daunting, but I believe fully worth it at every stage.

It looks like we're really talking about two letters -- the one you have a photocopy of, above, and the one the New York Times (also known as "the newspaper of record") vetted and printed in 1972. There's no reason at all why Prof. Einstein, if he liked the first two sentences of a letter he'd written to one person, couldn't just go ahead and repeat those two lines when writing to someone else. According to the New York Times, the letter they printed a passage from was written to a Rabbi, who had written to Einstein when he found himself unable to console his nineteen-year-old daughter over the death of her sixteen-year-old sister. It seems clear that these two quotes come from two different letters. It's great that you were able to identify the specific source of one of them. It would be great if someone could find as detailed information about the other!

My friend Beryl Sokoloff filmed the construction of the Picasso Sculpture "Sylvette" on the Princeton campus.  He told a story that while there, the Physics lab consulted the concrete artist Karl Nesjar  as well as himself to help them pick out something of Einstein's that would look pleasing aesthetically to be engraved in stone somewhere on campus. They were given access to his office and with assistance finally picked out some beautiful undecipherable notational writing. It was delivered to the physics department for decoding and ended up being a note for a pizza delivery he wanted.  

That is a wonderful story! While researching this show, I visited the Einstein Archives at Princeton. While reviewing his many papers, I was struck by his scientific notational doodling, if you will, on all types of correspondence and receipts. Little did I know that it might've been an order for Chinese takeout!

Wow.  Seeing the actual images of the letters is great.  In a web search I found discrepancies in the Einstien quote and this post certainly clears things up.

I am a HUGE fan of the show and Krista.....and I love this visual connection with the brilliance of Einstein. I have always loved the quote and had never imagined the conversation from which it emerged. It is wonderful enough to read the typed letter and remember through letters I've received that were from a typewriter how much the character of a person can come through even with the mark of a machine. But then to get to see his thinking and his handwriting on the paper is a new level of connection to him. Thank you!