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Towards Expanding the Canon of Classics of Modern Science and Technology: The Harvey Plotnick Library on the Development of Quantum Physics and the Theory of Relativity Jeremy M. Norman

Original draft of an article written for the Antiquarian Book Review to publicize the auction of the Harvey Plotnick Library on the History of Quantum Mechanics and the Theory of Relativity, which took place in New York on October 4, 2002. Another version became the introduction to the Christie's auction catalogue. The article (with considerable editorial changes) was published in ABR in the December 2002 / January 2003 issue.

This is the first auction of rare books and manuscripts devoted exclusively to the nineteenth and early twentieth century development of quantum physics and the theory of relativity. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, and in the first half of the twentieth, the quantum revolution in physics reshaped our understanding of the fundamental components of matter, of energy, and of the universe, from sub-atomic particles to cosmology. The impact of on-going discoveries in quantum physics continues to be felt throughout the physical and biological sciences from the development of electronics, telecommunications and computing to chemistry, molecular biology and drug design, to astrophysics and theories of the formation of the universe. Yet in spite of the central importance of this scientific work that began more than 100 years ago, the Plotnick library is the first extensive library of manuscripts and printed documents formed by a private collector on the development of quantum physics and the theory of relativity. Previously private collectors of “modern physics” focused on forming collections of the writings of Albert Einstein. The Plotnick library places the work of Einstein within its context in the development of quantum physics.

The Harvey Plotnick Library was intended to document the development of quantum physics and relativity theory through manuscripts and letters with scientific content of the highest historical value, books by the most famous theoretical physicists, and rare original printings of the scientific papers in which the discoveries were first published. A large number of the original publications are presentation copies or association copies of the greatest possible interest.

The overall criterion for the selection of autograph letters and manuscripts in this library was their value for documenting the actual practice of science. Thus the numerous autograph letters included here have significant scientific content, and usually record the exchange of technical information between scientists. Like the scientific manuscripts in this library, they are working scientific documents rather than social or business correspondence. A surprising number of the letters and manuscripts in this library describe or refer to historic discoveries by such scientists as Albert Einstein, Henri Becquerel, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Niels Bohr, Max von Laue, Linus Pauling, and others. They would be extremely difficult to equal or surpass. Most of the historic letters and manuscripts are referenced in the timeline.

The Arrangement of this Auction Catalogue

Because of the technical nature of the material, we made an unusual effort to provide historical context for items in this library. Following this introduction there is an extensive annotated timeline linked to items throughout the auction catalogue. The timeline may be read as a chronological outline of the development of modern physics that emphasizes items in this library. In it readers will find mention of selected items in the auction and some items that are not present. When a detail in the timeline relates to an item in the auction there is a reference to the lot number in the catalogue. Readers may find that the timeline is a convenient way to preview the catalogue.

Within the catalogue manuscript and printed items are arranged alphabetically by author, and chronologically by publication date under each author’s name. By reading the entries for certain authors in sequence elements of a story may unfold.

Categories of Material Collected

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries scientific discoveries were published in scientific journals and books, and occasionally in non-conventional publications duplicated by mimeograph and ditto. The majority of discoveries in the history of quantum physics and the theory of relativity were first published in journals. Offprints of the journal articles were used for information exchange. Scientists sent copies of the offprints in which their papers were published to their colleagues, both to distribute their own ideas, and to receive copies of the offprints of their colleagues’ papers in return. Of the printed documents in the history of quantum physics and relativity theory, the most difficult to find are usually offprints. Typically these were printed in editions of 25-50 copies, and many are of the greatest rarity. As pamphlets they were also ephemeral, and did not have a very high survival rate. When scientists preserved offprints they tended to save them in groups rather than as single pamphlets. Various groups of offprints are offered in this catalogue. If a complete listing is not provided within an individual catalogue lot you may request one from Christies.

Early books on quantum physics tended to be expansions of ideas first published in journals, but some books became classics of permanent value. We have identified several of them on the timeline. Published in editions of several hundred copies or more, and usually better preserved than pamphlets, few of the books are as rare in the absolute sense as the offprints in this library. However, a number of the books in this library are quite difficult to find, and the historic association or presentation copies are, of course, unique.

Beyond these basic categories of offprints and books, some scientific information was distributed in very small printings by mimeograph, ditto, or even carbon copies of typescripts. These ephemeral or non-conventional publications may be even rarer than offprints. Nearly all of the offprints, mimeographs, carbon copies, and other non-conventional printings in the Plotnick library were originally published in very small numbers, and are exceptionally scarce.

Searching for the Ideal Collector’s Copy

In recent years collectors of rare scientific publications have increasingly appreciated the value of unique presentation copies and association copies of scientific classics. We believe that the auction of the Haskell F. Norman Library at Christies in 1998 was influential in this regard. In the Plotnick library there are many historically significant presentation copies and other copies of the highest possible association value, such as the Pieter Zeeman copies of the rarest Lorentz publications leading up to special relativity, or Wolfgang Pauli’s copy of Einstein’s Die Grundlage der allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie (1916). There are numerous items from Pieter Zeeman’s library in this auction, many with his signature. There are several items from the library of Henri Becquerel. A large number of the publications in the Plotnick library are special copies that would be very difficult to equal.

The Einstein Collection

For the first time in an auction catalogue we have set out in the timeline and the catalogue entries the key scientific publications by Einstein, including and in addition to the standard publications of 1905 and 1916. A special goal of this catalogue was to place Einstein’s greatest works in context.

Besides the excessively rare offprints of nearly all of Einstein’s greatest publications, the Plotnick library contains selected autograph manuscripts by Einstein of the highest scientific importance. By far the greatest of these is the Einstein-Besso Working Manuscript, the most significant Einstein manuscript remaining in private hands. The Einstein-Besso Working Manuscript from June 1913, with additions from early 1914, records in 26 pages of autograph by Einstein and 25 pages in the hand of his life-long friend and collaborator, Michele Besso, plus 3 pages of entries by both, efforts by the collaborators to test whether the early “draft” versions of Einstein’s field equations of general relativity, written with Marcel Grossmann, could account for the well-known anomaly in the motion of the perihelion of Mercury that could not be accounted for using Newton’s theory of gravity. As history has recorded, these draft versions of the field equations failed to solve the problem, and only after several further attempts in 1914 and 1915 did Einstein succeed in formulating the final forms of the field equations that accounted for the anomaly. When he was finally able to do so in November of 1915 the discovery was the strongest emotional experience in Einstein’s scientific life-he had the feeling that “something actually snapped in him.”

During the winter semester of 1914 to 1915 Einstein lectured on special relativity at the University of Berlin. In the Plotnick library there is a single sheet of Einstein’s autograph lecture notes that was also preserved by Michelle Besso, and bears a notation in Besso’s hand in addition to Einstein’s writing. These are the earliest lecture notes by Einstein that remain in private hands. They are especially remarkable because they contain a record of Einstein sketching some elementary tensor calculus in Euclidean space with a view to generalizing it to four-dimensional space-time. These lectures in Berlin were first lectures on relativity in which Einstein availed himself of Minkowski’s four-dimensional formalism that only a few months later became a fundamental component of the theory of general relativity.

Einstein’s ideas were so advanced they could not initially be confirmed by experiment. Yet one of the most amazing aspects of his discoveries is that they continue to be confirmed long after his death. The first experimental confirmation of general relativity occurred in 1919 with the confirmation of the bending of light in the report of the Eddington and Dyson solar eclipse expedition. The immense publicity surrounding this confirmation made Einstein the most famous scientist in the world.

A special interest of Harvey Plotnick was in collecting manuscripts by Einstein on subjects that enabled experimental confirmation of Einstein’s theories. These include a two sheet autograph manuscript from 1919, in addition to the Einstein-Besso manuscript, concerning the anomaly in the motion of the perihelion of Mercury, Einstein’s first post-Newtonian result, and the achievement that confirmed his historical place as the successor to Isaac Newton in the theory of gravitation. According to Michel Janssen, an editor of the Einstein Papers Project, these two autograph manuscript sheets probably also have an Einstein-Besso connection. “Einstein probably presented these to Besso to show him how the correct value of the perihelion motion is found in general relativity in its final form by using the elegant method devised by the mathematician Hermann Weyl. These two dense pages also contain a summary of Einstein’s famous 1917 paper on cosmology. There has been renewed interest in this paper, famous for its introduction of the cosmological constant, which Einstein later allegedly told George Gamov was the biggest blunder of his life. Little could he have known that his discarded constant would make a spectacular comeback at the end of the twentieth century as observations of supernovae and the cosmic microwave background showed clear evidence that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, thus calling for the anti-gravity pushing the matter of the universe outwards represented by the cosmological constant. In 1917, Einstein was not really interested in cosmology at all. He introduced the cosmological constant in the context of his efforts to fully eradicate Newton’s absolute space, time, and motion from physics by trying to make general relativity satisfy what he called ’Mach’s principle.’ The idea was that matter would be fully reduced to matter.” Einstein’s original manuscript just described, and the original offprint of the paper on the cosmological constant, and an offprint presented by Einstein to Ernst Mach are present in the Plotnick library.

Another manuscript in the same category is one on the Bose-Einstein condensation, confirmed experimentally as a new definite atomic state of matter in 1995. A third Einstein manuscript and correspondence on a subject that confirms relativity theory is on gravitational lensing. When Einstein wrote about this topic in 1936 it could not be observed. The phenomenon was first observed in 1979 when observers at Kitt Peak Observatory recorded a pair of distant quasars, slightly separated, whose spectra and recession velocities seemed to be almost identical. They explained that this was a single quasar, and along the line of sight to earth a massive dark object was lensing the light in such a way as to produce multiple images. Today the phenomenon of gravitational lensing is widely observed.

In another autograph manuscript in this sale Einstein replies to frequently expressed objections to his equivalence principle. Writing in 1920 Einstein entitled his work, “To What Extent Can Modern Gravitational Theory be Established Without Relativity?” The beginning of this remarkable autograph manuscript translates as follows:

The question if the theory of gravitation can also be established and justified without the principle of relativity must, in principle, undoubtedly be answered with “yes.” Then, why the principle of relativity? First, I answer with a comparison. The theory of heat certainly can be developed without using its second theorem; then why use the second theorem?

The Answer is obvious. When there are two theories that in one field do justice to the totality of ascertained experience, one prefers the one that needs few mutually independent assumptions. From this point of view, the principle of relativity is, for electrodynamics and for the theory of gravitation, as valuable as the second theorem is for the theory of heat, because it would take many mutually independent hypotheses to reach the conclusions of the theory of relativity without using the principle of relativity. Until now, all attempts to avoid the postulate of relativity have shown this.

Aside from this, the introduction of the general principle of relativity is also justified from an epistemological point of view. For the coordinate system is only a means of description and in itself has nothing to do with the objects to be described. Only a law of nature in a generally covariant form can do complete justice in this situation, because in any other way of describing, statements about the means of description are jumbled with statements about the object to be described. I mention Galileo’s law of inertia as an example.

According to Michel Janssen, this superb manuscript is of special interest for “Einstein’s exceptionally clear response to what to this day is a common objection to his equivalence principle. Reichenbächer [to whom Einstein was responding in the manuscript] points out that in general one cannot transform a gravitational field away except in very small regions. Einstein uses the mature formulation of the equivalence principle… to make it clear that this criticism completely misses the point. The important thing, Einstein explains, is the insight that the equality of inertial and gravitational mass reveals that inertial and gravitational effects are of the exact same nature (Wesengleich) and that they thus must be represented by the same structure, which in Einstein’s theory is the metric field.”

Though Harvey Plotnick focused his collecting on the scientific rather than the philosophical aspects of Einstein’s works, Einstein remains supreme for his dual abilities to make discoveries of the most profound consequence, and to write eloquently on the consequences of these discoveries. Underlying all of his work, Einstein held an unshakable belief that rational laws describe the universe. For him this belief was inseparable from religion. Einstein was also a gifted literary stylist who could express himself in epigrams. In 1921 on his first visit to Princeton, when he heard of some experimental results, later proven invalid, that offended his sense of the rational working of the universe, Einstein stated the credo, “Subtle is the Lord, malicious He is not.” The mathematician Oswald Veblen overheard this remark of Einstein, and nine years later, in 1930, Veblen wrote to Einstein asking his permission to have it engraved over the fireplace in the common room of Fine Hall at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. Responding to Veblen in a letter dated April 30, 1930, Einstein expanded upon his original epigram with an interesting variant.

In the Plotnick library there is a draft of Einstein’s statement of April 30. In it one sees Einstein beginning with “Nature hides herself from the scientist through the loftiness of her character,” and then, subtly but meaningfully altering it to read, “Nature hides her secret through the loftiness of her character, not through slyness.” Within this brief summary of his view of nature Einstein provides a glimpse of his own character.

Paralleling this draft of Einstein’s credo in the Plotnick library, is an autograph draft by Isaac Newton of Query 31 published in the 1717 edition of Opticks. Remarkably it concerns Newton’s rejection of the ancient view that gravity and magnetism could not be understood. Instead it confirms Newton’s belief that rational laws describe gravity and magnetism. Newton’s statement reads as follows:

Aristotelians gave the name of Occult Qualities not to manifest qualities but to such Qualities only as they supposed to lye hid in bodies & to be the unknown causes of manifest effects: such as would be the causes of gravity & of Magnetick and Electrick attractions & of fermentations if we should suppose that these actions or forces arose from qualities unknown to us & incapable of being discovered & made manifest. Such occult Qualities put a stop to the improvement of natural Philosophy & therefore of late years have been rejected.

In his theory of universal gravitation first published in his Principia Mathematica (1687) Newton demonstrated that gravitation is described by rational laws. More than two hundred years later Einstein built upon Newton’s theory of gravitation in his general theory of relativity. With this work Einstein succeeded Newton in formulating basic laws of the universe. Bringing these two autograph manuscripts together links the achievements of Newton and Einstein in a poetic way.

On August 9, 1954, only seven months before his death, Einstein contrasted his theories of general relativity with Newton’s theory of gravity in a detailed critique of an extension to quantum theory proposed by his correspondents. This letter is also present in the Plotnick Library. Writing to Professors Hosemann and Bagchi, Einstein included the following statement:

“The current quantum theory is, in a certain sense, a marvelously self-contained theoretical system, but in my opinion, it cannot be made into an individual theory by supplementation, any more than one can, for example, make Newton’s gravitational theory satisfy general relativity for the equivalence of acceleration and gravity. As difficult as it obviously is, one has to somehow build from the ground up.”

Recommended Reference Sources

Even though there are many good books on the history of “modern physics,” and thousands of books about Einstein alone, including the monumental ongoing edition of Einstein’s manuscripts and published writings being issued by the Einstein Papers Project, I am unaware of a satisfactory bibliographical guide for collectors of rare books and manuscripts on the history of quantum physics and the theory of relativity. For example, the two published bibliographies of the writings of Einstein by Ernst Weil and Boni, Russ, and Laurence are simply chronological checklists that make no effort to provide either descriptive bibliographical details or annotations pertaining to content. These checklists are helpful in identifying first printings of papers, but they offer no assistance in selecting the more historically significant papers in Einstein’s large body of work.

Of course collectors need no assistance in identifying Einstein’s famous papers from 1905 and his theory of general relativity of 1916. But how do we identify the other papers that record essential steps leading to Einstein’s culminating discoveries? What was the context of his work? What are the key publications by the other famous names in the history of quantum physics? We hope that this catalogue may begin to provide answers to some of these bibliographical questions. For those who want more information I recommend the following books:

My favorite general introduction to quantum physics with an historical approach is John Gribbin’s Q is for Quantum (1998). This is a kind of illustrated encyclopedia with superbly written articles on people and subjects, and detailed timelines. The illustrated editions of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1996) and The Universe in a Nutshell (2001) are also recommended.

The supply of secondary material on Einstein seems unlimited. Those interested in special relativity will enjoy John Stachel’s Einstein’s Miraculous Year. Five Papers that Changed the Face of Physics (1998). This book contains an introduction by Roger Penrose. The most bibliographically helpful biography of Einstein, by one of the foremost historians of quantum physics, is Abraham Pais, “Subtle is the Lord…” The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein (1982). For the less technical aspects of Einstein’s life see Pais’ Einstein Lived Here (1994). When we cite “Pais” in this catalogue we are referring to “Subtle is the Lord.…” except where otherwise noted. The two less informative bibliographical checklists of Einstein’s publications are E. Weil, Albert Einstein… A Bibliography of his Scientific Papers (1960) and Boni, Russ, and Laurence, A Bibliographical Checklist and Index to the Published Writings of Albert Einstein (1960). We cite these as “Weil” and “BRL.”

Sources of bibliographical information about some of the other scientists in this story appear in well-researched and well-documented biographies, of which I will mention some representative selections. Another biography that was especially helpful in this project is Pais’ Niels Bohr’s Times, in Physics, Philosophy, and Polity (1991). A useful and relatively brief work is Emilio Segrè’s Enrico Fermi, Physicist (1970). Segrè was also the editor of the excellent edition of Fermi’s Collected Papers (2 vols., 1962-65). One of Fermi’s first students in Rome, Segrè later won the Nobel Prize in physics for co-discovering the anti-proton.

For background on Theodore von Karman, former owner of some of the offprints in this library, see The Wind and Beyond: Theodore von Karman, Pioneer in Aviation and Pathfinder in Space by von Karman with Lee Edson (1967). Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg by David C. Cassidy (1992) is unusually well written. The best biography of Lise Meitner is that by Ruth Lewin Sime, Lise Meitner: A Life in Science (1996). The most detailed biography of Samuel A. Goudsmit (1902-78) to whom some of the historic letters in this library were addressed, is in the Supplement to the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol. 17, 362-68. Several historians of physics have suggested that Goudsmit’s co-discovery of electron spin was probably deserving of the Nobel Prize. The D.S.B. also contains many useful articles with helpful bibliographies on most of physicists whose work appears in this library.

Of the numerous general histories of quantum physics the most accessible and best illustrated is Segrè’s, From X-rays to Quarks. Modern Physicists and their Discoveries (1980). Far more comprehensive is Brown, Pais and Pippard (eds.) Twentieth Century Physics. This 3-volume work with about 2000 pages was published under the auspices of the American Institute of Physics in 1995. It contains authoritative essays by numerous different authors. John Stachel contributed a “History of Relativity,” tracing concepts back to the mechanics of Galileo. William Cochran contributed a “History of Solid-State Structure Analysis” showing how developments in quantum physics were applied in studies of the structure of molecules, including the molecules of proteins and nucleic acids, key elements of molecular biology.

The most readable collection of brief essays on the work of each of the Nobel Prize winners in physics is Robert L. Weber’s Pioneers of Science. Nobel Prize Winners in Physics. Second edition (1988). Because various physicists received the Nobel Prize in chemistry another highly useful book is James, Nobel Laureates in Chemistry 1901-1992 (1993). The website of the Nobel Foundation also includes a great deal of historical information: Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986) is a spellbinding account of applications in quantum physics. The Institute of Physics maintains a very valuable list of links to sites useful for the history of physics: Readers will find references to other research sources used in the notes to individual descriptions in the auction catalogue.

For background on the history of collecting classics of science, descriptions of landmark items, and bibliographical methodology readers may consult Hook & Norman, The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine (2 vols., 1991) and Hook & Norman, Origins of Cyberspace: A Library on the History of Computing, Networking and Telecommunications (2002).


This catalogue was a collaborative effort of Thomas Lecky, Francis Wahlgren, and the staff of Christie’s Book Department in New York, working together with Harvey Plotnick and myself. Indirect consequences of advances in quantum physics-email and word processing-sped up the communication and writing processes. We owe special thanks to Dr. Michel Janssen, Assistant Professor for History of Science at the University of Minnesota, and lead editor of Volume 7 and co-editor of Volume 8 of the Einstein Papers Project, for writing the descriptions of the Einstein manuscripts, portions of which were quoted in this introduction.

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