by Brooke Kennedy
Update: Monsted’s Einstein signed letter sold for a final price of $68,708.
E = mc2 – the mass-energy relationship. Since its conception, the formula has breached the domain of science into public consciousness. Countless media properties had made reference to it, and, by extension, its creator. We’ve all heard it. But, what is the true meaning of those measurements? High schooler Jack Monsted pondered that same question during his high school physics class in 1946.
In an attempt to find an answer to his question, Monsted wrote to the creator himself. In a brief letter back, theoretical physicist Albert Einstein wrote, “Your informations do not seem to be quite reliable to me. But there is no time to correct them. In the formula E = Mc2, M is measured in gram, E in erg and c in cm/sec.”
The equation made its first appearance in one of Einstein’s articles on the Special Theory of Relativity. After his first publication on the properties of light and time, his second article, published three months later, would serve as an accompanying piece to the first. This second article is where he would lay out his landmark equation: energy (e) is equal to mass (m) times the speed of light (c) squared (2).1 For a long time, scientists originally acknowledged that energy and mass were completely distinct and not related to one another, but Einstein’s discovery demonstrated that rather they were different forms of the same thing.2
His formula provided a base explanation for certain phenomena. The sun and other stars shine brightly thanks to the process of fusion, a reaction illustrated perfectly by E = mc2. But beyond its application in astronomy, the equation contributed heavily to one of man’s most dangerous creations.3
Fission is the process by which an atom is split, releasing energy. In particular, chemists Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Fritz Strassman found that when a uranium atom was split, the energy released would be enough to power a bomb – a crucial discovery as the world entered World War II.
In 1939, realizing the danger of the Germans’ creating their own atomic weapons, Einstein wrote to then-president Franklin Roosevelt emphasizing the urgency of the situation. This served as the catalyst for the U.S. government to begin working on their atomic weapons before the Germans got there first, a plan that was dubbed the Manhattan Project. Surprisingly, Einstein’s direct involvement with the Project ends there. Due to interference from the U.S. Army Intelligence office, he was denied security clearance that could warrant hands-on involvement in the project. As a result, scientists could not consult Einstein on any aspect relating to their work on the atom bomb.
Six years later, after Einstein’s plea to President Roosevelt, on August 6, the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. The second one soon followed on August 9, hitting the city of Nagasaki and putting an end to World War II.4
Monsted reflected on his inquiry to the physicist in a letter of provenance accompanying the correspondence, “The letter from Albert Einstein, dated April 21, 1946, was written in response to a letter I wrote him about two weeks earlier. I was a senior in high school and was taking physics and the atom bomb, which had been dropped on Japan that previous August, was a subject in the class. I was unable to find out what the units of measurement the symbols in the equation E=MC^2 meant so I wrote this letter and asked him. The first sentence in his letter refers to a question I asked regarding the theory of relativity where I talked about a yardstick shrinking as it approaches the speed of light. I guess my information was not reliable.”
Material where Einstein writes out E = mc2 has become increasingly sought after and hard to come by, but there have been rare occasions where they have come to market. RR Auction was privy to one such occasion in 2021. Responding in a letter to Dr. Ludwik Silberstein, Einstein uses the equation to answer a question posed by his fellow physicist, providing multiple calculations to explain the system. Archivists at the Einstein Papers Project at Caltech, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem report that only three holograph examples of the formula were known to exist, none of which are in private hands. This manuscript was first revealed to the public when it came up for sale at RR Auction – and sold for $1.2 million. Monsted’s letter (written just a couple months prior to Silberstein’s), is just RR’s second offering of E = mc2 material.
- “Energy,” American Museum of Natural History, accessed Feb. 2, 2024, https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/einstein/energy#:~:text=Einstein%20went%20on%20to%20present,had%20eluded%20scientists%20for%20centuries. ↩︎
- “E=mc2,” American Museum of Natural History, accessed Feb. 8, 2024, https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/einstein/energy/e-mc2. ↩︎
- “The Sun and the Atom Bomb,” American Museum of Natural History, accessed Feb. 5, 2024, https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/einstein/energy/the-sun-and-the-atom-bomb#:~:text=Perhaps%20most%20famously%2C%20E%3Dmc,atoms%20is%20converted%20to%20energy. ↩︎
- “The Manhattan Project,” American Museum of Natural History, accessed Feb. 6, 2024, https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/einstein/peace-and-war/the-manhattan-project. ↩︎