LONDON — A rare manuscript by Albert Einstein that changed the course of modern science was just sold for 10.2 million euros (almost $11.5 million), beating all predictions.
The 54-page, handwritten document outlines calculations that led to his theory of relativity. One of two existing copies went on sale at Christie’s auction house in Paris on Tuesday evening. It was expected to fetch $2.4 million to $3.5 million. The manuscript was being sold as part of a judicial sale, and had to be handled by a special judicial commissioner. It was bought over the phone by an anonymous buyer.
“This is without a doubt the most valuable Einstein manuscript ever to come to auction,” Christie’s said in a statement ahead of the sale.
The iconic German physicist co-wrote the manuscript with a lifelong friend, the Swiss engineer Michele Besso, in Zurich from June 1913 into early 1914, according to Christie’s, which is hosting the sale on behalf of Aguttes auction house.
Although this copy isn’t the final draft, the Einstein-Besso manuscript shows the trial and error that went into the calculations. When equations about the relativity of rotational movements proved correct, Einstein excitedly wrote in the margins of one of the pages, “Stimmt!” That’s German for, “It works!”
While the document contains mistakes, it ultimately led to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which states that gravity is not a force happening between objects in space but rather a deformation of space and time geometry. The final theory was published in 1915, about a year after the Einstein-Besso manuscript.
The manuscript consists of 26 pages of Einstein’s handwriting, 25 pages of Besso’s and thjree pages that appear to have been written together. Some portions are crossed or torn out, and pages have rust stains, according to Christie’s, which described the document as depicting “a crucial stage in the development of the general theory of relativity.”
“Even today, in 2021, when we study cosmology, or even when we study fusions of black holes, gravitational waves, pulsars, we still use Einstein’s equations,” French astrophysicist Etienne Klein explained in a video on the Einstein-Besso manuscript, released by Christie’s ahead of the sale. “Over a century after being laid down on paper by Einstein, they are still the right equations for describing any gravitational phenomenon.”
Einstein and Besso met at a concert while both students at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, where Einstein studied physics and Besso engineering. Friends for life, Besso described their collaboration as one between an eagle (Einstein) and a sparrow (Besso), saying the sparrow could fly higher under the eagle’s wing, according to Carl Seelig’s 1956 biography of Einstein.
Einstein, who won the Nobel Prize in physics for 1921, was known for destroying most of his work. But Besso preserved the manuscript for posterity.
“A good scientist is someone who makes mistakes, discovers and corrects them,” Klein said in Christie’s catalogue of the sale.