The Last Meeting

After seeing Bradbury I took the train back to Princeton, and had very little time before my appointment to see Einstein. This time it had been Elisheva who asked me to do something about the fulfillment of my prognosis, and to see Einstein: this was very unusual on her part. It turned out to be my last meeting with him. Elisheva thought to remain in the car because I was dropping in for a few minutes only, but I asked her to enter with me, as at all previous occasions. She would have regretted it later if she had not been present at this meeting, the last, after having attended all our long conversations since November 1953. It was four in the afternoon when we arrived at Einstein’s house.

As in all our conversations since the the previous summer, Einstein received us in his study on the second floor. As usual we found him standing in front of his chair to greet his visitors on entering the room. We sat in chairs, the low round table before us. On the table were pages with figures and calculations that Einstein was working on. He sat on my left, close by.

I could not keep to my intention of spending only a few minutes with him because he started on a different subject:

“I have carefully read your memoirs to Worlds in Collision, the first two files in their entirety, and most of the third file. It is very well written. But you should shorten it and omit some parts that do not sound proper. The book must be a collection of documents.”

“Give me an example of things to omit.”

“The section about scientists as priests—it is impossible to read it.”

This section, called “Nearer the Gods no Mortal May Approach,” was a biting satire on the astronomers, who have taken over the role of ancient priests in society; they were assured by Halley:

But now, behold,
Admitted to the banquets of the gods,
We contemplate the polities of heaven;
And spelling out the secrets of the earth,
Discern the changeless order of the world
And all the aeons of its history.

Of Newton, Halley said: “Nearer the gods no mortal may approach.” In this early version of the essay I finished this satire with a sentence from Charles Fort: “The astronomers explained. I don’t know what the mind of an astronomer looks like, but I think of a fizzle with excuses revolving around it.”

I accepted Einstein’s criticism without discussing it, and only asked whether he had read the section about himself, “Before the Chair of Jupiter.” He said that he had read it, and smiled approvingly; obviously he liked it.

We did not yet discuss Jupiter; I was precluded from touching the subject by his announcement:

“I have again read in Worlds in Collision. It is a book of immeasurable importance, and scientists should read it.” These words, to hear them—had I not come a long way? “But why do you need to change the theory of evolution and the accepted celestial mechanics?” Einstein continued—and the crest inside me started to fall. I was under the impression after our two night sessions in March that I had finally planted a seed of doubt in the accepted scheme, and I expected that this seed would grow in size, not shrink. But saying this, Einstein was again as if retreating to a system of material bodies with no electrical or magnetic interplay between them.

“I could explain everything you describe in your book on the basis of the accepted celestial mechanics of gravitation and inertia.”

“Even the circular orbit of Venus?” I asked.

“Even the circular orbit of Venus,” he answered, “though this would require a very unusual degree of coincidences.”

I admit—I was not equal to the task. Most probably the rush in the morning to New York and then back to Princeton drained me of my usual control—because at all our meetings I was very conscious of every word I said and turn I made. Here, instead of asking him to explain how would he, in theory, be able to make the orbit of Venus almost circular, I permitted myself to slip into a side track: instead of pressing him to tell me his treatment of the facts described in my book concerning celestial mechanics, I sidestepped to answer that part of his challenge that referred to Darwin. It can be understood, because there I knew more than Einstein, and I could elaborate on my opposition to the dogma of uniformity—the discourse of the concluding chapters of Earth in Upheaval. And, of course, I could not know that this was our last meeting.

Sometime during this visit I took out my letter to him with his marginal note concerning Jupiter, reminded him very shortly what had been discussed between us ten months earlier, and then read a few sentences from the New York Times of the day before about Jupiter. By now he was sitting to my right, facing me. He became obviously very much taken by what he learned, and the next question he asked was this: “But how did you come to this conclusion?”

Should I have gone once more through all the gamut, played already more than once, and claimed the charged state of Jupiter—because if the solar system is charged, Jupiter would be the focus of much of that charge? Did not also the ancients, from one end of the world to the other, speak of Jupiter’s thunderbolts by which the “three-fold mountain masses fell”? Why did the ancients pray to this planet and sacrifice to it? Or why are Jupiter and Saturn in some way connected with the sun spot periods? By gravitation alone they could not produce such an influence.1

Or why does the perturbation activity between Jupiter and Saturn suffer changes (between the minimum of the year 1898-1899 and the maximum of 1916-1917 there was found an 18 percent difference).2

And did I not apply the name “a dark star” to Jupiter in the Epilogue to Worlds in Collision? Charged and swiftly rotating, it must create an extended and rotating magnetic field in which its charged satellites move. . . Yet I hardly mentioned these things.

But he was embarrassed. Had he not told me when parting after our last meeting in March about the great importance for the acceptance of a theory that it be able to generate accurate predictions? This was on March 11th. Now, four weeks later, I brought him the message that the very probe that I offered as a crucial test between our stands came out in my favor. Now he inquired what my reasons had been. It was not easy to answer his question, because Einstein became very emphatic. He stood up. His face was glowing. He spoke loudly, in a way I had never heard him speak before. “Which experiment would you like to have performed now?” he asked, in obvious desire to mitigate his guilt, because the previous summer he had not given enough attention to my request, and he let my suggestion go without action on his part.

More than once Einstein had asked me to disregard the attitude of my opponents, to enjoy the solitary way, to take an example from him. Now he felt that he had failed me—the test was not made, whether to prove me right or wrong. He answered his own question: “I know which experiment you would like now—the Cavendish experiment in a Faraday Cage.” This was mentioned in my paper we read in March, and he remembered it—I also proposed it in my June, 1954 letter, right after proposing the Jupiter test.

“No,” I said. “I prefer you help me now to have a radiocarbon test for my historical work performed.” And I explained in a few sentences what this test is about. He was more than willing to help. “This will be done,” he spoke loudly and gesticulated, and repeated again, “This will certainly by done.” He was still standing in his excitement. He asked details of what he should do. I told him that I would like him to write to Dr. W. C. Hayes of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He again asked me to let him know what exactly he should request and I promised to prepare a short draft in a few days.

But soon he sat again close to me, almost touching my left arm, and listened to me, and peace descended on him; his long hair hung framing his face, his eyes were looking across the room through the picture window toward the upper branches of the big trees in the back yard, and the expanse of the sky.

“Oh, look. Please look,” he cried out and grasped my hand, “the birds are flying in big flocks.”

Hundreds of birds in a fluttering swarm flew at a distance, all in one direction, and the swarm moved in a wave-like motion down and up as they hurried by. I looked for a few moments at the flying birds, and then continued my words. But soon again Einstein, enchanted, looked at another swarm of birds returning from their winter quarters in the south, and again could not resist calling my attention to them. He followed their flight with longing, and his face shone with sweet sadness. It was already the hour of twilight, the trees stood silent outside, still leafless, the branches hardly moving in the stillness of the clear and balmy hour.

We spent over two hours together, a little less than at our other meetings, but certainly longer than the “few minutes” intended.


  1. Fox of Vancouver, Canada, found that the influence of Mars on the solar sunspot cycle exceeds by twenty-five times the influence it would be expected to have on the basis of gravitation alone. (AAAS Convention, Feb. 25, 1974, Evening Session).

  2. J. Zenneck, “Gravitation” in Encyclop. der Mathem. Wiss., vol V. pt. I, p. 44.