Margriet van der Heijden discovers previously unknown letters from Einstein

21 February 2019

AUC lecturer and science journalist Dr. Margriet van der Heijden recently discovered three previously unknown letters written by Albert Einstein to the Russian-born, Leiden-based physicist and mathematician Tatiana Afanassjewa. The letters were identified by Dr. van der Heijden at the end of 2018 in the archive of the Rijksmusuem Boerhaave in Leiden. The subject of the messages revealed Einstein’s thoughts on Afanassjewa’s manuscripts for a book about thermodynamics and serve as further evidence of the long friendship between the two.

Tatiana Afanassjewa: a female pioneer in statistical mechanics

Born in Kiev and educated in St. Petersburg and Göttingen, Tatiana Afanassjewa studied mathematics and sciences at a time when it was atypical for women. She researched and wrote about diverse topics in statistical mechanics and thermodynamics and was ahead of her time with her ideas about the didactics of mathematics. In 1904, Afanassjewa would marry Paul Ehrenfest, an Austrian physicist whom she met while studying at the University of Gottingen. After a brief stint in St. Petersburg, the two would move to Leiden where Ehrenfest was to be appointed as a professor at the University of Leiden.

Einstein & Afanassjewa’s friendship

It was through Ehrenfest that Afanassjewa would first meet Albert Einstein. In her article on the discovery of the letters, Dr. van der Heijden describes Einstein’s admiration of how Afanassjewa defied conventional expectations of women at a time and continued to write, study and actively participate in the discussions and debates surrounding developments in various fields of physics. With the Ehrenfest-Afanassjewa household becoming a renowned informal salon to deliberate about ground-breaking theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, top minds from the worlds of sciences and mathematics visited with increasing frequency. Albert Einstein was one of their visitors and revered the relationship between Ehrenfest and Afanassjewa.

Thirty years of correspondence and support

Dr. van der Heijden goes on to describes how this friendship (forged in the early 1910s) existed for more than thirty years until the time of found letters. The late 1920s and 1930s were trying times for Afanassjewa and her husband. With increasing pressure in an era plagued by anxiety, Ehrenfest would eventually succumb to committing a murder-suicide, taking his own life and that of their youngest son. Throughout the strenuous years of war and hunger, Einstein continued to offer his support for Afanassjewa from a distance, even having food parcels sent to her home (which she selflessly redirected to Paris, where the situation was increasingly dire).

Three letters found in Leiden by Dr. van der Heijden

In 1947, Afnassjewa would send Einstein, who was living in the US and working at The Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, a manuscript for a book that would eventually become Die Grundlagen der Themodynamik. Dr. van der Heijden recounts how Afanassjewa requested his assistance in having the book translated into English. In the three letters discovered in Leiden (two typed and one characteristically handwritten), Einstein expresses how he is impressed by her work and offers some advice and words of support but unfortunately did not know an adequate publisher for the task. 

After a brief period of silence, Afanassjewa would eventually re-establish contact with Einstein in 1948 and they would continue to write each other intermittently on topics ranging from family life and health to physics and mathematics until his death in 1955. A year after his death, Afanassjewa self-funded the publishing of her book through Brill Publishers in Leiden, which included some of the changes Einstein suggested while omitting others. 

Upcoming double biography & exhibition

Dr. Margriet van der Heijden’s discovery of the letters came during her research for an upcoming double biography about the life and work of Tatiana Afanassjewa and Paul Ehrenfest. The forthcoming book reflects the interest of Dr. van der Heijden, who is a trained physicist specialising in scientific communication and turning often complex topics into engaging, understandable prose. The letters will be part of an upcoming exhibition in the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave where they will be on display to the public.  

Einstein Letters Margriet van der Heijden AUC

Photo courtesy of Ehrenfest estate (right)

Published by  Amsterdam University College