Lost Einstein Letter Reveals Link Between Biology and Physics—10 Important Facts

It took more than a year to study the unique find and confirm its authenticity.

A previously unknown letter from Albert Einstein, dated in the fall of 1949, fell into the hands of researchers. In it, the scientist reflects on how the study of bees, migratory birds, and carrier pigeons can help the development of physics.

As noted in a recent scientific article, the letter mentions the eminent ethologist and discoverer of the bee dance, Karl von Frisch, whom Einstein had met a few months earlier. Perhaps it was under his influence that the great physicist began to think about the connections between physics and zoology.

Albert Einstein is considered one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. Research in the field of theoretical physics brought him worldwide fame. Nevertheless, Einstein was also interested in other sciences, including biology.

For example, in April 1949, he attended a lecture at Princeton University by the Austrian ethologist and future Nobel laureate Karl von Frisch, the discoverer of the dance of bees that allows these insects to inform their relatives about the location of nectar-rich flowers.

Moreover, after the speech, Einstein invited von Frisch to his laboratory, where the scientists met the next day and had a friendly discussion. What specific topics they dealt with remains unknown, although this meeting is mentioned in von Frisch’s memoirs.

10 important facts about the lost Einstein letter

1. Einstein was deeply impressed by his acquaintance with von Frisch. This is evidenced by a letter from the great physicist, written on October 18, 1949, and addressed to Glyn Davys – an engineer from the Royal Navy of Great Britain, who worked on the creation of radars but left service for a career in theater and television.

2. This message remained unknown for about seventy years, until in 2019 the widow of Glyn Davis, Judith, who found the letter after her husband’s death eight years earlier, reported it to a team of researchers led by Friedrich G. Barth of the University of Vienna.

3. It took more than a year to study the unique find, and its authenticity was confirmed by the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on the basis of the copy provided.

4. Einstein’s typewritten letter is a rather succinct answer to an as-yet-to-be-found and possibly lost letter from Davis himself, in which he apparently asked how physics explains the workings of animal senses.

Einstein's lost letter. Credit: Friedrich G. Barth et al. / Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 2021
Einstein’s lost letter. Credit: Friedrich G. Barth et al. / Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 2021

5. Barth and his co-authors suggest that Davis, among other things, was interested in the work of Karl von Frisch on the navigation of bees, which was widely discussed in the British press in the summer of 1949.

6. The particular attention of the engineer could be attracted by the ability of these insects to orient themselves based on the polarization of the scattered sunlight.

7. Einstein told his addressee that he is well aware of the results of von Frisch’s research and appreciates them, but doubts that they can help in the study of the fundamental laws of physics. According to the scientist, this is only possible if some completely new types of perception are discovered in bees.

8. At the same time, Einstein admitted that careful studies of the navigational abilities of migratory birds and carrier pigeons could lead to the formulation of new physical laws.

9. The great scientist turned out to be partly right: today ornithologists suggest that some birds, including pigeons, navigate during long flights due to their ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field. Probably, some magnetoreceptors are used for this, but experts continue to argue exactly how they are arranged and where they are located.

10. One of the candidates for this role are cryptochrome proteins discovered in the retina of the eyes of birds. Ironically, magnetic reception with the help of cryptochromes can be based on the principles of quantum mechanics, to which Einstein was skeptical.

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Cassella, C. (n.d.). Long-lost letter reveals einstein predicted the discovery of animal super senses.
Conroy, G. (2021, May 13). Physics wasn’t the only thing on Einstein’s mind, 72-year-old letter reveals.
Dyer, A., Greentree, A., Garcia, J., Dyer, E., Howard, S., & Barth, F. (2021, May 10). Einstein, von Frisch and the honeybee: A historical letter comes to light.
RMIT University. (n.d.). Long-lost letter from Albert Einstein discusses a link between physics and biology, seven decades before evidence emerges.
Young, C. (2021, May 13). Long-lost albert einstein letter discusses link between biology and physics.

Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. My experience as a freelance writer began in 2018 but I have been part of the Curiosmos family since mid-2020. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.
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