Newly discovered letter reveals Albert Einstein’s views on birds, bees, and physics

MELBOURNE, Australia — No single individual may be more synonymous with the term “genius” than Albert Einstein. Born in Germany, but forced to flee Europe during the Nazi occupation, Einstein ended up becoming one of the greatest physicists of all time. Now, a letter he wrote in 1949 has been discovered, revealing some of Einstein’s thoughts on various topics.

In the letter, Einstein discusses possible connections between physics, biology, and wildlife. In other words, can scientists make new breakthroughs by studying how animals such as birds and bees move and fly around? This letter may date back over 70 years, but modern physicists are still debating that question.

Moreover, recent discoveries pertaining to migratory birds actually appear to corroborate what Einstein wrote all those years ago. In short, Einstein was correct in theorizing that animals can provide us with some clues about how physics works.

“Seven decades after Einstein proposed new physics might come from animal sensory perception, we’re seeing discoveries that push our understanding about navigation and the fundamental principles of physics,” says RMIT University Associate Professor Adrian Dyer in a release.

A meeting of famous minds

Einstein letter
Letter by Albert Einstein, validated by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where Einstein bequeathed his notes, letters and records. Click to enlarge. (Photo: Dyer et al. 2021, J Comp Physiol A / The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.)

Notably, the letter also proves that Einstein met with Nobel laureate Karl von Frisch, a leading bee and animal sensory researcher. In 1949, von Frisch published important research detailing how honey bees find their way around using the polarization patterns of light scattered from the sky.

This letter has revealed that just two days after Einstein attended one of von Frisch’s lectures, the two had a private meeting. The letter confirms the meeting took place, and while it does provide some insight into their conversation, exact details are missing.

“It is thinkable that the investigation of the behavior of migratory birds and carrier pigeons may someday lead to the understanding of some physical process which is not yet known,” Einstein’s letter reads.

“Remarkably, it is clear through his writing that Einstein envisaged new discoveries could come from studying animals’ behaviors,” Professor Andrew Greentree, a theoretical physicist at RMIT, adds.

Today, more and more new research is showing how migratory birds navigate and find their way from point A to point B. For instance, a 2008 study uncovered some birds use a “magnetic compass” to travel great distances. Well, one theory behind this magnetic sense in birds is the use of quantum randomness and entanglement. Not surprisingly, Einstein created both of those concepts.

The study appears in the Journal of Comparative Physiology A.