‘It’s very important that we make his work available to the public,’ – Hebrew University President Menachem Magidor.Israel’s Hebrew University is sharing a rare treasure with the rest of the world – the legacy of perhaps mankind’s greatest scientist, Albert Einstein.
In his will, Einstein left all of his intellectual property, including his literary estate and personal papers, to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. And ever since his death in 1955, the university has taken on the role of the preservers of Einstein’s legacy with the utmost seriousness and awareness of its global responsibility.
“We consider ourselves the guardian of Einstein’s heritage,” HU’s President Menachem Magidor said last week at a press briefing focused on the forthcoming anniversary of Einstein’s birth and the 100th anniversary of the year of publication of his Special Theory of Relativity and other groundbreaking documents. “It’s very important that we make his work available to the public.”
With worldwide interest peaking this year in the scientist that Time magazine named ‘Man of the Century’ in 1999, the university has been bombarded with requests for information and artifacts from Einstein’s works that are housed in the Albert Einstein Archives in the Jewish National and University Library of the university. The archives contains the largest collection of original manuscripts by Einstein in the world, and include his correspondence with many of the world’s top physicists and intellectuals of the early 20th century.
“For the first time, we are sharing original pages of Einstein’s manuscripts and letters with museums around the world,” said Prof. Hanoch Gutfreund , the coordinator of Einstein activities for the university. “This year, the whole world is celebrating Einstein through workshops, exhibitions, plays, stamps, and more. The university is continually approached for advice, assistance, and help, and we’ve become involved as partners in many enterprises.”
Dr. Roni Grosz, the director of the Einstein Archives, said that the university is intent on making Einstein’s remarkable achievements available to researchers, institutions, historians and anyone who contacts them.
“The archives have existed for almost 20 years, but this anniversary year has the highest activity ever,” he said. “With all the hype surrounding Einstein, our first duty is the basic well being of the material – that’s the least you can expect from an archive, safeguarding the material it has in its vaults, and the daily routine of checking temperatures, room conditions, security.
“But we also deal with every request that comes in for Einstein-related knowledge and material – somewhere between 500 and 1000 a year. One important feature is providing high resolution scans of 900 manuscripts available for download on our website,” he added.
The university is also the owner of all of the rights connected with Einstein’s ‘cultural estate.’ Any commercial venture which wants to use his name or image must receive permission from the university, according to Gutfreund. While this has been a financial boon for the university – bringing in sums of on the average of more than $1 million a year (with much more expected this year), the university is more concerned that nothing inappropriate goes out with Einstein’s name on it.
“It’s a great privilege that brings great prestige, but it’s also a burden of responsibility,” said Gutfreund, who heads a committee that discusses and exercises judgment on each application. “The first consideration is not the money. It’s making sure that nothing is done that would tarnish the memory of Albert Einstein as we think it should be preserve.”
The university recently signed an agreement with the Walt Disney Company to allow Disney to use the brand name ‘Baby Einstein’ for a line of regular and educational toys for children. According to Grosz, the director of the Einstein Archives, the university is receiving $2.6 million, and its name will appear on the packaging of the toys for the next 50 years.
According to Magidor, the income from the licensing is used to maintain the archives, which were established in 1982, and to fund infrastructure for important research by university scientists.
Magidor defended the university’s decision to sell the rights to Einstein’s name and image by recalling the scientist’s close ties with the institution. Einstein was among the enthusiastic founders and faithful supporters of the university, delivered a lecture on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem in 1923, prior to its formal opening. He was a member of the board of directors and, as a German Jew, made a tour to the US in 1921 to raise funds for the establishment of the university.
“Hebrew University was one of Einstein’s most important public involvements – and the proof is that he decided to leave all his archives, papers and everything he owned to the university,” said Magidor.
“It’s true that Einstein refused to use his name commercially for his own benefit, but for special causes dear to his heart, he became very involved,” added Gutfreund, citing a handwritten paper on relativity that Einstein allowed to be auctioned off in the 1940s in order to help the Allied war effort.
“Einstein himself was involved with fundraising for the university. It’s hard to extrapolate his wishes, but I think that the university was so important to him, and he rendered it so much assistance and cared for its well-being, that he would have approved, and therefore we feel comfortable. But just the same, we exercise careful judgment,” said Gutfreund.
Among the requests that Gutfreund and his committee have rejected, he disclosed, were the use of Einstein’s image to promote one of Madonna’s latest tours, a program of the US Department of Defense, and an entrepreneur who wanted to launch Einstein Vodka.
“There are no written rules – it’s more of a feeling,” said Gutfreund. “I don’t know – maybe he would have liked Madonna. We don’t want to be censors, but in the context it was suggested, we thought that it wasn’t appropriate. The same thing with the US Defense Department – Einstein was a known pacifist.”
According to Gross, the fact that Einstein’s name and image are in such demand 100 years later is testament to his lasting brilliance. Holding up the line of Baby Einstein toys, he made note of the fact that Einstein’s image isn’t even used.
“The only thing that relates to Einstein here is the name of the product, and the logo – a child’s face with raised hair. It shows the power of his name that makes it worthwhile for a company to pay a lot of money to use it,” he said.
Gutfreund has his own view of why Einstein has become a household name, when other great 20th century physicists have fallen by the wayside.
“There’s is not a single individual from the 20th century whose life can tell the entire story of the century – the science, the wars, the empires, human rights, pacifism, nuclear weapons, the Holocaust, and Zionism. Einstein was involved and active in everything,” he said.
“The year 1905 that we are celebrating is truly a miraculous year – before then, the world’s understanding of physics was completely different – it changed from one year to the next,” he added. “His general theory of relativity forms our understanding of modern cosmology and objects like black holes.
“And just this week, one of Hebrew University’s scholars in physics – Prof. Jacob Beckenstein – won the highest prize of achievement awarded by the state – the Israel Prize for his outstanding contribution toward understanding modern cosmology and the properties of black holes.
“So it’s all kind of a historical coincidence that perhaps the most important scientific legacy of Albert Einstein’s – mainly the study of cosmology and its relation to the structure of the universe – which we’re celebrating at Hebrew University this year comes at a time when a scholar from the university is awarded for doing exactly that.”
Even Einstein might have scratched his head at that one.