April 30, 2007

Why Einstein Didn’t Join the JHU Faculty

The publication of a new book, Einstein: His Life and Universe (Walter Isaacson; Simon & Schuster), brings to mind a brief flirtation that Johns Hopkins had with two internationally acclaimed physicists 80 years ago. They were professors Albert Einstein, who was doing research in Berlin, and E. Schrodinger, who was in Zurich.

Word was circulating in the spring and summer of 1927 that both men might be interested in coming to the United States as visiting professors.

Newton D. Baker, distinguished alumnus (1882), trustee, Cleveland attorney and former secretary of war, was especially interested in Einstein. He urged board chair Daniel Willard to persuade university President Frank Goodnow to pursue Einstein.

Goodnow told Baker that he was about to offer an appointment to Schrodinger, and in early June 1927, he urged Schrodinger to accept the Professorship of Theoretical Physics at a salary of $10,000 a year. Schrodinger’s reply was friendly but cautious. He had many questions. Among them: “What would be the extent of my duties, how many lectures a week?” And, he asked, what kind of a pension would be provided?

While this was happening, Goodnow traveled to Berlin, where he met Einstein, urging him, too, to come to Hopkins. Following the meeting, Goodnow cabled Provost Joseph Ames, then acting president in Goodnow’s absence. “Einstein coming possible, but uncertain. Offer five thousand for semester. Come for year. Answer.”

Ames, a distinguished physicist himself, replied, “Greatly prefer Schrodinger. Do not think Einstein for a year worth $10,000. Money needed elsewhere, badly. Ames”

Nevertheless, upon his return to Homewood in July 1927, Goodnow wrote to Einstein, formally inviting him to come.

Two months later, Einstein replied, thanking Goodnow for his “friendly visit” and “generous magnanimous offer.”

“Health reasons,” he wrote, would prevent him from accepting the invitation. “Also,” he added, “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.” (He had won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921.)

Five years later, as the Nazis were beginning to gain power in Germany, Einstein wanted to leave Berlin and accepted an appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. He soon renounced his German citizenship and in 1940 became a U.S. citizen. He died in Princeton in April 1955.

If Professor Schrodinger formally declined Johns Hopkins’ invitation, there is no record of it in the Hamburger Archives at Homewood. Perhaps he had learned, and was miffed, that while Hopkins was making him an offer, it also was pursuing Einstein. He lectured at Princeton in 1934, the year after he shared the Nobel Prize in physics, but did not accept a permanent appointment. He helped found the Institute for Advanced Study in Dublin in 1940 and spent most of the remainder of his career there. He died in Vienna in 1961.