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Ehrenfest must have been a wonderful person

  1. May 13, 2008 #1

    I don't know why I didn't read more about Ehrenfest until now. He must have been a wonderful person - his colleagues and his students wrote such warm and thoughtful things about him! Sadly, Ehrenfest was very unhappy and he commited suicide in 1925 after killing his youngest son, who had Down's syndrome:

    My dear friends: Bohr, Einstein, Franck, Herglotz, Joffé, Kohnstamm, and Tolman!

    I absolutely do not know any more how to carry further during the next few months the burden of my life which has become unbearable. I cannot stand it any longer to let my professorship in Leiden go down the drain. I must vacate my position here. Perhaps it may happen that I can use up the rest of my strength in Russia. .. If, however, it will not become clear rather soon that I can do that, then it is as good as certain that I shall kill myself. And if that will happen some time then I should like to know that I have written, calmly and without rush, to you whose friendship has played such a great role in my life. ...

    In recent years it has become ever more difficult for me to follow the developments in physics with understanding. After trying, ever more enervated and torn, I have finally given up in desperation. This made me completely weary of life .. I did feel condemned to live on mainly because of the economic cares for the children. I tried other things but that helps only briefly. Therefore I concentrate more and more on the precise details of suicide. I have no other practical possibility than suicide, and that after having first killed Wassik. Forgive me ...

    May you and those dear to you stay well.

    The letter was not sent, although I suppose he knew that eventually it would be found. What a crushing page!

    The letter makes me sad because Ehrenfest had so many qualities worth aspiring to, yet despite being a wonderful person he was still very unhappy. It is also sad because friendship appears so gossamer and our own selves so lonely. It is frightening to be so useless to help.

    This is Ehrenfest's old house in Leiden. Perhaps you can imagine Einstein looking out the top window?


    The house is very large and there is a big lawn at the back next to the canal. It's the sort of house where you could have the entire physics department over on a sunny evening. The front of the house is right next to the road - in the Dutch style you can walk by on the street and look right in the windows.


    The occupant of the neighbouring house knew Einstein when they were students in Zurich - she has some funny memories of him and his violin playing:

    Last edited: May 13, 2008
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