To the delight of enthusiasts of the famous physicist, in December 2014 a set of personal documents by Albert Einstein (1879-1955) – letters, diaries, postcards – was put online through the project. The Digital Einstein Papers.
In addition to high science and the proverbially Einsteinian genius, among the high points of dignity and wisdom contained in the approximately 5,000 documents, there is a letter from November 1911, addressed to colleague Marie Curie (1867-1934), pioneer of the radioactivity research.
She was about to receive her second Nobel Prize, in chemistry – eight years after sharing the Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband, Pierre Curie. At the moment, however, she had suddenly found herself embroiled in a media scandal – what would now be called a shitstorm – when a newspaper with a large circulation trumpeted the surprising news that the Polish-born Frenchwoman had a lover.
A widow for five years, she had a romantic relationship with fellow physicist Paul Langevin, a former doctoral student of Pierre Curie and also a friend of Einstein. Despite being separated, he was technically still married, and the domestic storm became public when the physicist’s wife handed over to the media the love letters between Langevin and her renowned colleague, five years his senior.
“Leave the garbage to the reptiles”
When the matter came to light, Curie, Langevin and 20 other leading researchers were meeting at an elite conference in Brussels. However, upon returning to Paris, she was met by a mob who surrounded and stoned her home, terrorizing her and her two daughters, then seven and 14 years old. The three had to protect themselves, staying temporarily at a friend’s house.
While Marie Curie’s spectacular work as a scientist should have been the sole focus of attention at that time – as well as being the first woman to receive the prestigious award, she is to this day the only person to have been laureate in two separate scientific fields – the morbid curiosity, fueled by a good dose of xenophobia, was greater than anything.
In the midst of this personal turmoil, a letter from Albert Einstein reached Marie Curie, dated November 23, 1911. They had both met at the recent Belgian conference, and their mutual sympathy had been immediate. Indignant with the behavior of the press, he took the initiative to offer words of support to his colleague.
“Highly esteemed Mme. Curie!
Don’t laugh at me for writing to you without having anything sensible to say. But I am so infuriated by the infamous way in which the public currently dares to take care of itself, that I absolutely need to express this feeling. But I am convinced that you despise this mob just as much, whether they feign hypocritical respect or try to sate your greed for sensationalism through yourself!
I feel compelled to tell you how much I learned to admire your intellect, your tenacity, your honesty, and that I consider myself fortunate to have met you personally in Brussels. Those who do not count among the reptiles will continue to be happy to have personalities like you and Langevin among us, real human beings, whose contact makes us happy. If the mob is still busy with the lady, just don’t read that rubbish, but leave it to the reptile it’s made for.
Kindest regards to you, Langevin and Perrin, from your dedicated
It is difficult to imagine a wiser and more effective recipe for dealing with trolls, haters, shitstorms and other ills that afflict contemporary social networks. The message ends with a postscript whose meaning is perhaps only transparent to those most versed in physics:
“PS: I determined the statistical law of motion of the diatomic molecule in the Planck radiation field through an amusing joke, naturally assuming that the motion of the structure proceeds according to the laws of conventional mechanics. My hope that this law will be the which is valid in reality, however, is greatly reduced.”
As is often the case, the false popular outrage was soon forgotten. Langevin extrajudicially settled the situation with his wife; Curie confirmed to the Swedish Academy that she would attend the awarding of the Nobel, which went off without incident.
Grateful for such sincere and spontaneous support, the scientist established a close friendship with Einstein. They both vacationed together with their children in the summer of 1913. She would later oppose the anti-German sentiments still present after World War I, pressing for him to give a conference in Paris in 1922.
During a posthumous tribute to Marie Salomea Skłodowska–Curie at the Roerich Museum in New York in 1935 – she had died in July of the previous year – Einstein declared: “I came to admire her human greatness to an ever greater degree. Her strength, her purity of will, its austerity with itself, its objectivity, its incorruptible judgment: all this was of a class which is seldom found united in a single individual.”
He concluded: “If a small part of Madame Curie’s strength of character and devotion were alive in European intellectuals, Europe would have a brighter future.”