A rare manuscript with early calculations that led to Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity will be auctioned in Paris on Tuesday.
The 54-page document is said to raise up to $ 3.5 million, but it could have gone down in history had it not been for a decision made by one of the physicist’s friends and colleagues.
The manuscript was kept by the Swiss-Italian engineer Michele Besso, who worked on the calculations with the Nobel Prize winner.
Einstein’s genius was not inclined to save early drafts of his work, Christie’s auction house explained on its website, which made the document all the rarer and potentially more valuable.
This includes the preliminary work that contributed to the discovery of Einstein’s famous theory, which has shaped our view of the cosmos since its first publication on November 25, 1915 and forever changed our understanding of gravity.
“It was one of the most important documents on Einstein’s path to general relativity,” Prof. Hanoch Gutfreund, former president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told NBC News on Tuesday in a telephone interview.
Einstein helped found the university that houses the Albert Einstein Archive.
Gutfreund said the manuscript was critical to Einstein’s “intellectual and scientific journey to general relativity”.
“He developed this theory, he almost got it right, he misinterpreted it, he put it aside,” he said. But eventually Einstein would get it right and make his early work a “very important step” in his discovery.
Christie’s also called the site “one of the most important scientific documents of the 20th century”.
The pages are filled with sprawling calculations and crossed-out symbols, mostly written in ink.
26 of the pages appear to be written by Einstein’s hand, while 3 contain entries by both the physicist and Besso, with the remaining 25, according to Christie’s, being written by the latter.
“The manuscript is unbound and there are many different types of loose paper that gives the impression of a working document full of energy, as if both men were taking the first page they find to scribble down their findings. Vincent Belloy, a book and manuscript specialist at Christie’s Paris, said in a statement shared by the auction house.
The duo set out to explain an anomaly in Mercury’s orbit using elements of the equations that Einstein would later list in his general theory of relativity.
But the couple would eventually realize that their equations, while on the right track, weren’t quite right. Einstein independently corrected his work and led to his theory of relativity.
Belloy added that it was still unclear how Besso got the pages and whether he “took the manuscript or whether Einstein sent it to him and asked him to work through her findings”.
In any event, Besso kept the manuscript in “pristine” condition in his home until his death in 1995.
Astrophysicist Etienne Klein said the manuscript played an important role in forever changing “the narrative behind the birth of an incredible theory”.
In an interview shared online by Christie’s, Klein said the manuscript shows that Einstein’s discovery was not born overnight but was the conclusion of years of process.
It shows that “the foundation was laid” for the discovery years before Einstein would unveil his revolutionary theory, he said.
Bid for the monograph that Christie’s auctioned in partnership with the French auction house Aguttes, is expected to open at 12:30 p.m. ET.
In the meantime, a letter from Einstein describing “extreme anti-Semitism” in America, where he fled in 1933 to escape persecution in Nazi Germany, has also been posted should be auctioned on Tuesday in Jerusalem, Israel.
In the letter, which was written to the Austrian-Jewish painter Bruno Eisner, Einstein describes the feeling “very lonely” and claims that “there is an enormous (degree) anti-Semitism here, especially in science.”
In May, a letter in which Einstein wrote down his famous E = mc2 equation sold through Boston-based RR Auction for more than $ 1.2 million – three times the expected amount.
For his part, Gutfreund said he had long hoped that the manuscript that led to general relativity would be given to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which he believed was Einstein’s wish.
“I wish we had the original, but the price seems too high for us to even compete,” he said.
“I hope that whoever buys it takes care of it properly and is willing to share it with everyone,” added Gutfreund.
“I hope it goes into good hands.”