What’s the price of physics history?


By: Hannah Pell

RR Auction, an auction house based near Boston, Massachusetts, recently sold one of Albert Einstein’s hand-written letters for $1.2 million. The letter is addressed to Polish-American physicist Ludwik Silberstein, a known challenger to Einstein’s relativity theory, going so far as to publish a 1936 essay in the Toronto Evening Telegram titled: “Fatal Blow to Relativity Issued Here.”

Public displays of the academic debate aside, what else about the letter made it sell for nearly three times the predicted value? It contained the only hand-written example of Einstein’s famous mass-energy equations — E = mc^2 — from a private collection. Archivists at the Einstein Papers Project have said that there are only three other known examples. Arguably one of the most well-known physics equations ever, well, you can easily imagine why someone would just have to have it.

This million-dollar document made me wonder: what other notable pieces of physics history have been auctioned for a pretty penny?

Image Credit: The Einstein Archives of Ludwik Silberstein / RR Auction.

First edition of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Sir Isaac Newton

 Sir Isaac Newton outlined his three laws of physics in his seminal Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Principia”). Published in 1687, the Principia is still regarded as one of the most influential books in physics history. In 2016, a first-edition copy of Newton’s Principia was sold to an anonymous buyer for $3.7 million; the buyer had paid three times more than the estimated value, securing the Principia’s place as one of the most expensive print science books ever sold.

Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize

 Richard Feynman — known especially for his method of illustrating particle interactions to symbolize their calculations — shared the 1965 Nobel Prize with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger for their joint foundational work in quantum electrodynamics. Among a collection of his papers, Feynman’s Nobel prize was auctioned during a History of Science & Technology sale at the New York City based auction house Sotheby’s in 2018; the Nobel itself fetched $975,000 the total collection amounted to over $4.9 million. The collection also included Feynman’s copy of The Principles of Quantum Mechanics by Paul Dirac with hand-written notes in the margins (it sold for $87,500).

“At auction, we sell the story of the object,” Cassandra Hatton, Sotheby’s vice president for books and manuscripts, said in 2019.

Nuclear for sale

 An original viewing window from the Manhattan Project’s Hanford, Washington plutonium production site was auctioned in 2014 for a price between $150,000 – $250,000. The window is made of heavy leaded glass, designed to protect project scientists from radiation exposure (the auction house noted that the window itself is indeed not radioactive).

Image credit: Bonhams New York.

More recent nuclear history materials have gone to auction, too, including a “fire sale” on parts from a canceled federal plutonium project and a liquidation sale of Vermont nuclear power plant assets (valves, motors, and other spare parts).

The astounding prices for which these pieces of physics history have sold brings to mind questions of value. A dated document or object may not seem to have much intrinsic worth — for example, some old laboratory equipment may not serve any practical use today — but nevertheless, we value these items for their stories, and we preserve these materials to inform and shape our understanding of physics’ past.

It’s certainly a priceless thing to do.

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