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Description

One of the Books Read by the Young Albert Einstein

[Albert Einstein]. Alexander von Humboldt. Kosmos. Entwurf Einer Physischen Weltbeschreibung. Stuttgart und Tübingen: Cotta'scher Verlag, 1845, 1847, 1850.

First edition. Three (of five) small octavo volumes. xvi, 480; 544; iv, 310 pages.

Contemporary half black calf over marbled boards. Paper labels on the spines lettered in manuscript. Binding rubbed, some chipping to paper spine labels, hinges cracked or weak. Front free endpaper to Volume I detached, but present. Lacking Volumes IV (1858) and V (1862). Very good.

"In his 'Autobiographical Notes,' Einstein tells us that an early religious phase around the age of twelve came to an abrupt end through the reading of popular scientific books (Einstein 1979, p. 2). Which books these were we learn from his sister's biographical sketch and from Max Talmey, the young Polish medical student who helped move the adolescent's focus beyond mathematics to philosophy and natural science. Maja Winteler-Einstein records that Talmey recommended to young Albert the Kosmos of Alexander von Humboldt [Kosmos: Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung ("Cosmos: A Sketch of Physical Description of the Universe")], Ludwig Büchner's Kraft und Stoff ["Force and Matter"], Aaron Bernstein's Naturwissenschaftliche Volksbücher ["Popular Books on Natural Science"], and other materials (Winteler-Einstein 1987, p. lxii). According to Talmey, the young Einstein was eager to discuss natural science, including the copies of Büchner and Bernstein that Talmey gave him (Talmey 1932, p. 162). There is no surprise in the mention either of von Humboldt's Kosmos or Büchner's Kraft und Stoff. William Langer reports that earlier in the century the Kosmos was read more than another work except the Bible, while the sensation Büchner's book produced and its widespread availability in the nineteenth century have been well documented" (Frederick Gregory, "The Mysteries and Wonders of Natural Science: Aaron Bernstein's Naturwissenschaftliche Volksbücher and the Adolescent Einstein," in Don Howard, Einstein: The Formative Years, 1879-1909 (Boston: 2000), page 23).

"Alexander von Humboldt [1769-1859] produced in his 'Cosmos' one of the last really comprehensive physical surveys ever to be attempted...For twenty years Humboldt was occupied in composing, in collaboration with Cuvier, Latreille, Gay-Lussac and others, his monumental account of South America. The first part was entitled Voyages aux Régions Equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent fait en 1799-1804, which serves usually to describe the whole work; thirty large volumes were published between 1805 and 1834, but even then it remained uncompleted. But it was Kosmos-'The Cosmos, Outline of a Description of the Physical World'-based on lectures delivered at the Berlin Singakademie in 1828-9, which Humboldt really considered as his life work. The last of the five volumes was published posthumously from his notes. In his own words it was meant 'to represent in one work the whole material world, everything we know today of the phenomena in the celestial spaces and of life on earth, from the nebulae to the geography of mosses on granite rocks...it is meant to describe a chapter in the intellectual development of mankind (the knowledge of nature)'. The book contains a complete survey of the physical sciences and their relation to each other" (Printing and the Mind of Man 320).

This copy of Kosmos belonged to Max Talmey, and it is possible that it is the very copy that Talmey loaned to Einstein.


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Auction Dates
February, 2010
11th-12th
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