Saturday, April 19, 2008

Johns Hopkins and Einstein--mistake?

Einstein talks with Hideki Yukawa, 1949 Nobel Laureate in Physics and John A. Wheeler, a Hopkins alum

A quirk in history and a judgement by Johns Hopkins's administrators that may have been a huge mistake. I wonder some 80 years later if Johns Hopkins's historians shake their heads and wonder what the administrators were thinking.

Einstein wasn't worth the money.

In a scribbled copy of a telegram sent in spring 1927, Johns Hopkins President Frank J. Goodnow posed the possibility of recruiting Albert Einstein to teach physics.

"Shall [Johns Hopkins] offer 5 thousand for semester. Answer," Goodnow sent after meeting Einstein in Berlin.

"Goodnow," came the reply from Hopkins provost and former physics professor Joseph S. Ames. "Do not think Einstein for one year worth $10,000. Money needed elsewhere badly."

Einstein had won the Nobel Prize six years before. His theory of relativity and other scientific principles had revolutionized Newton-born classical physics, making way for the modern field of quantum mechanics. Einstein was already an international star, given a hero's welcome at New York's harbor in 1921, and lauded with medals and honorary degrees from Columbia, Princeton, and other elite universities.

But, as told in letters filed in an acidfree folder in the archives at Milton S. Eisenhower Library, a move to lure Einstein to Hopkins failed. It seems the university also was making a play for renowned physicist Erwin Schrodinger, a founder of the new study of "wave behavior."

Schrodinger got the initial offer. And--after writing to ask about tenure, pension, teaching workload, and vacation days--he apparently didn't take the job. Goodnow then made a formal pitch to Einstein, who had become a target of Nazi-led anti-Semitism.

"I find in talking over with my friends that they were, as I supposed, very anxious to have you with us," Goodnow wrote on July 12, 1927.

The reply came back Sept. 7, typed in German in heavy round letters and signed simply "A. Einstein." The physics professor wrote that health problems prevented him from accepting. He further explained in words that would haunt Ames: "I could not offer enough to justify, it seems to me, such a great financial offer."

"Dear Goodnow," Ames wrote bluntly a few weeks later, forwarding Einstein's reply to the president at his farm in Norfolk, Connecticut. "He thinks that you offered him too much money."

In the 1920s, these letters were filed away in the administrative folders of the Office of the President, along with other work-a-day exchanges. The yellowed copies, bearing the finger smudges of Einstein, Goodnow, or Ames, lay hidden among memos about the physics lab construction budget.

Ishai Moorevillev wrote:

The year was 1927. America was rolling in money and the stock market crash was two years away. In Germany, Albert Einstein was emerging as the world's leading physicist. In Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University President Frank Goodnow was making an all-out effort to recruit the Nobel laureate and most-recognized scientist of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, things didn't work out as planned.

In January of 1927, the Board of Trustees granted President Goodnow full authority to bring Einstein to Hopkins using any means available. Einstein had won the Nobel Prize in 1921 and would have brought the Hopkins Physics department much greater recognition.

Goodnow was authorized to offer Einstein $10,000 for an academic year appointment or $5,000 for a semester. His full-year salary would have been equal to over $100,000 in today's terms, quite a lot of money for a professor during that time.

Given that Johns Hopkins was modeled on the German university system, emphasizing graduate-level research, it looked like it would be a perfect match for Einstein.

After Goodnow exhausted various contacts to convince Einstein to come to America, he eventually went to visit Einstein in Berlin. At that time Germany had not yet fallen to the reign of Adolf Hitler, who would be elected chancellor in 1933.

The provost of Johns Hopkins at the time was Joseph Ames, a man who would succeed Goodnow as president of the University in 1929. While Goodnow tried to recruit Einstein, Ames was in the process of trying to recruit Gerhard Schršdinger, another famous German scientist, to come to the university. That attempt would also eventually fail.

In an undated postal telegraph from 1927, Ames gave Goodnow his unabashed opinion on the faculty recruits. It read as follows: "Einstein coming possible but uncertain . . . I really prefer Schršdinger. Do not think Einstein for one year worth $10,000. Money needed elsewhere badly."

Upon his return to the United States, Goodnow sent a formal invitation to Einstein on July 12, outlining the salary offer and giving him the option of a semester or full-year stay. "On coming back to the United States I find in talking over with my friends that they were, as I supposed, very anxious to have you with us if possible next year or a part of it," wrote Goodnow.

Einstein responded in a letter dated Sept. 7, 1927 (which now lies in the University's archives), with a polite denial of Goodnow's offer. He cited his poor health, as well as his inability to justify the high compensation that Hopkins had offered. Typed in German on his personal letterhead, the reply featured Einstein's perfectly fashioned signature in script.

A translation in the University's archives made at the time of receipt of the letter reads as follows:

To the President of Hopkins University, Baltimore:

I thank you for your friendly visit as well as for your genuinely magnanimous offer. In view of the many demanding procedures to which I would have to submit when traveling to America, I find myself, unfortunately, for health reasons unable to accept your invitation. Also the scientific results which I have achieved are too well known to the professional people so that I could not offer enough to justify, it seems to me, such a great financial offer.

With the assurance of my great respect, I am your devoted, A. Einstein.

While few people realized the full extent of Einstein's genius at the time, Johns Hopkins had failed to land the man behind the theory of relativity and other influential breakthroughs.

Ironically, Einstein did eventually moved to America in 1932, opting to stay after Hitler's election in Germany.

Though he was again pursued by many universities, including the California Institute of Technology, he chose to make his home in Princeton, N.J., where he would spend the rest of his life as a professor affiliated with the Institute of Advanced Study. He died in 1955. Whether or not Hopkins ever sent him another offer is not known.

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