Albert Einstein

Credit: Public Domain.

By 1922, the 43-year-old Albert Einstein was already regarded as the most famous physicist alive. At the end of that fateful year, the brilliant scientist was touring Japan for a lecture series for which he was paid 2,000 pounds by his Japanese publisher. On the way from Europe, Einstein learned that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.” News traveled fast and his lectures gathered crowds of thousands of Japanese looking to catch a glimpse of a Nobel laureate in person.

A different kind of tip

Einstein's two notes on living a quiet and modest life sold for $1.8 million combined. Credit: Barath Tripard/Twitter.

Einstein’s two notes on living a quiet and modest life sold for $1.8 million combined. Credit: Barath Tripard/Twitter.

One night, exhausted by all the publicity, Einstein was gathering his thoughts in his room at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. A messenger knocked on his door with a delivery. According to AFP, the messenger either “refused to accept a tip, in line with local practice, or Einstein had no small change available.” Instead, Einstein handed the man two notes scribbled with his words of wisdom on how to live a happy life.

On Tuesday, the two notes sold for $1.8 million combined at a Jerusalem auction house.

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The first note simply stated “a quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.” Bidding opened at $2,000 but in only 20 minutes two potential buyers escalated the bid over the phone until it eventually sold for a dazzling $1.56 million. The auction house didn’t expect to earn more than $8,000.

The second note contained a familiar aphorism: “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” This one eventually sold for the more ‘modest’ sum of $240,000.

Both buyers and sellers have chosen to remain anonymous but according to AFP the previous owner of the notes lives in Hamburg, Germany, and is a relative of the Japanese messenger.

Though short, the two notes possibly open a window into Einstein’s thoughts during a time in his life when things were moving mighty fast. We can infer from his work and early struggles as a patent clerk that Einstein firmly believed “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” The most expensive note also shows that Einstein, though certainly impressed, didn’t let over-night fame get the better of him. Despite his status as the most brilliant living physicist to the end of his days, Einstein never rested on his laurels. The physicist continued to perform ground-breaking science, gave lectures around the world, and was very involved with world peace activism.

“What we’re doing here is painting the portrait of Einstein—the man, the scientist, his effect on the world—through his writings,” said Roni Grosz, the archivist in charge of the world’s largest Einstein collection at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, in a press release.

“This is a stone in the mosaic.”

One can only wonder, however, what Einstein would have thought of news that his hastened scrambling on living ‘a quiet and modest life’ sold for an obscene amount of money. With a smirk, the physicist might ironically note that people still haven’t learned to listen even a hundred years later. Millions of years might not be enough.