A Letter to Habicht, from Einsteins Dreams (Day 85)

Day 85 of Project 194 brings as unusual a composition as you’ll ever encounter. Biographer Walter Isaacson calls Einstein’s letter to his friend Conrad Habicht “one of the most famous personal letters in the history of science,” describing the four papers that Einstein would publish during his so-called “annus mirabilis,” the miracle year in 1905 when the 26-year-old Einstein formulated ideas that would eventually transform the world of physics while working as a patent clerk in Bern.


The first two-thirds of this text are taken verbatim from Einstein’s letter to Habicht, as published in Isaacson’s biography (p. 93), and the task I embraced was to create a musical setting for a text clearly not meant to be sung. I chose to interrupt the letter with choral outbursts in which the ensemble sings the German language titles, and the ensemble supports the ideas in the letter in both song and movement throughout. Albert’s and my original lyrics begin with the phrase “That’s no nursery rhyme,” and the tango theme in that section is one that you will recognize from yesterday’s post, “Use Your Noodle.” See what you think of this composition as a theatrical solution to a found text.

Dear Habicht,

Such a solemn air of silence has descended between us
That I almost feel as if I am committing a sacrilege
If I break it now with some inconsequential babble.
So… what have you been up to?
You frozen whale, you smoked, dried, canned piece of soul?
Why have you still not sent me your dissertation?
Don’t you know that I am one of the one-and-a-half fellows
Who would read it with interest and pleasure?
You wretched man, I promise you four papers in return!

The first:
Uber einen die Erzeugung und Verwandlung des Lichtes betreffenden heuristischen gesichtspunkt!
The first one deals with radiation and the energy properties of light…
(Lichtes!)
And is very revolutionary, as you will see if you you send me your work first.
Or are you too busy fiddling with that fräulein of yours
To pay attention to a scientific query?

The second papers is a determination of the true size of atoms.
(Very, very small.)
Not as revolutionary as the first, but perhaps it will satisfy the pedants on my dissertation committee.

The third —
Uber die von der molekular kinetischen Theorie der Wärme gefordete Bewegung von in ruhenden Flüssigkeiten suspendierten Teilchen —
proves that bodies on the order of magnitude one-one-thousandths of a millimeter suspended in liquids must already perform an observable random motion that is produced by thermal motion!

The fourth paper —
Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper —
is only a rough draft at this point, and is an electrodynamics of moving bodies which employs a modification of the theory of space and time.
As you can imagine, that’s no nursery rhyme.
My thoughts have been so busy,
It almost makes me dizzy,
And what is worse, I haven’t slept a wind.
I puff my pipe and stare
At figures in the air.
Gott im Himmel!
Use your noodle!
Think!

Bodies in motion,
It’s a notion that possesses me,
Obsesses me,
Like a bewitching wench, it flirts,
Teasing my brain til it hurts.
It permeates my dreams
And drives me to extremes,
But soon enough, its secrets will be mine.
And once I solve this caper,
I’ll write that final paper.
Until then, I remain your faithful correspondent and fellow Olympian,
Albert Einstein!

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