Having achieved worldwide acclaim for a plethora of landmark scientific discoveries, 20th-century genius Albert Einstein is best known for formulating the Theory of Relativity. A prolific writer, Einstein published over 300 papers during many phases of research. Despite prolonged efforts to develop a unified field theory concerning gravitation and electromagnetic fields, Einstein completely abandoned all work on this venture around 1931. With the discovery of a mathematic discrepancy in a previously published paper by Einstein, progress was to originate from an unlikely source: a 23 year-old graduate student named Herbert E. Salzer.
Studying at Columbia University, the young Salzer was completing his Master's thesis entitled "Analytic, Geometric and Physical Aspects of Distant Parallelism" when he chose to write to Einstein in early August 1938. Summering on Peconic Bay on Long Island, New York, it did not take long for Einstein to reply to Salzer's letter, where Einstein rather assuredly stated the mathematical reasons behind the continued defense of his stalled work. Two weeks after replying to Salzer, Einstein wrote to the young student again, but this time he changed his tune. Stating "your transformation equation is right, mine is wrong", Einstein enthusiastically and humbly admitted to locating the miscalculation only after having corresponded with Salzer. Had Herbert E. Salzer not had a curious mind and the courage to write the leading genius of his day, Einstein might not have revisited his previously abandoned search for an acceptable set of field equations to justify his approach for a unified theory on Distant Parallelism.
A successful scholar in his own right, Herbert Salzer (1915 – 2006) received his Master's and Ph.D from Columbia University in Math and Applied Science. Aside from a professorship at his alma mater as well as Brooklyn College, he was a noteworthy mathematical theorist and scientific researcher with 100-plus published papers, and was a more than fifty-year member of the American Mathematical Society. Amongst his many affiliations, Dr. Salzer was a Mathematician in the Computation Laboratory for the National Bureau of Standards in New York and Washington, D.C. In his spare time the Brooklyn native loved to challenge his brain with puzzles, invented board games and gadgets, and even originated and published chess shorthand. As a scholar Salzer maintained a large personal library, but the two handwritten letters from Albert Einstein remained amongst his most prized possessions.
Having quite successfully interpreted gravitation in his theory of General Relativity, Einstein once struggled with a unified theory of Distant Parallelism as it related to both gravity and electromagnetic fields. He faced obstacles stemming from the fact that equations for both gravity and electromagnetic fields fall under different metrics and practical theories, but the introduction of a tetrad field made the end result possible. The unification of the gravitational and electromagnetic fields after the advent of general relativity arose as an intricate interplay between aspects of a mathematical representation and its physical interpretation. In its most basic form, Einstein's Distant Parallelism Field Theory was meant to serve as a means to more accurately project general space-time relationships.
Although Herbert E. Salzer only wrote to Albert Einstein once, Einstein replied with two letters to the then young scholar dated little more than two weeks apart. The first letter was dated 29 August 1938 and was written on a piece of 8 ½ in x 11 in (21.59 cm x 27.94 cm) which was folded in half and then in thirds to suit the envelope. The double-sided letter shows Einstein explaining to Salzer that he (Einstein) is convinced there could be no physical representation of the corresponding mathematics suggested by Salzer, and Einstein goes on to illustrate that what was suggested is not possible. This initial response from Einstein came in an envelope postmarked 13 September 1938 and addressed to Salzer in Brooklyn, complete with a return address of "Morton's Cottage, Nassau Point, Peconic L.I.N.Y." and a three-cent George Washington stamp.
The second letter is also double-sided and dated 13 September 1938. The contents of this letter explain that by revisiting the work done in order to answer Herbert E. Salzer the first time, Einstein was prompted to revise the first approximation and only then saw that the twenty-three year-old student was correct all along. In a declarative but humbling statement, Einstein wrote "Therefore your transformation equation is right, mine is wrong." Measuring 5 in. x 8 in. (12.7 cm x 27.94 cm) and folded in half, this second piece of handwritten correspondence is from an envelope postmarked 30 September 1938 with no return address and a three-cent Thomas Jefferson stamp.
Both letters written by Einstein come in a standard business-sized envelope inscribed by Dr. Salzer himself and it reads, "Two letters from Albert Einstein to Herbert E. Salzer". In addition, Salzer included a copy of his journal article entitled "Two Letters from Einstein Concerning his Distant Parallelism Field Theory" from 1974 where he wrote at the top, "for Jackie and Larry, with compliments and love from Uncle Herbert E. Salzer".
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