A good friend knows all your best and worst stories…but a true friend has lived them with you. We all have that one person in our lives on whom we rely blindly, share every aspect of life eagerly, laugh endlessly with, and enjoy craziness and stupidity, someone we love unconditionally. Yes, they are best friends. Those rare, priceless pearls who make your life worth living…Ever wondered who this pearl in Einstein’s life was? Let’s get to know Einstein’s other side, separate from his inventions and theories. An emotional side, with his best friend, Michele Besso.

The first meeting

When they met, Einstein wasn’t “The Einstein” yet. He was just Albert Einstein, a kid, about 17, with a dark cloud of teenage anxiety and a violin. Michele Besso was older, 23, but with a similar spirit. Growing up in Italy, he had an impressive aptitude for mathematics, but he was kicked out of high school for insubordination and had to go live with his uncle in Rome. Einstein could very much relate to his situation.

Einstein and Besso

Their first encounter was on a Saturday night in Zurich, 1896. They were at Selina Caprotti’s house by the lake for one of her music parties. Einstein was smart—dark hair, mustache, soulful brown eyes.

Besso was short with narrow, pointed features and a thick pile of coarse black hair on his head and chin. Einstein had a look of cool detachment. Besso had the face of a nervous mystic. Einstein learned that Besso worked at an electrical machinery factory; Besso learned that Einstein was studying physics. Perhaps they recognized something familiar in each other that they both wanted to get to the truth of things.

The letters: Einstein to Besso

Thomas Venning, Head of Books & Manuscripts at Christie’s in London, explored Einstein’s touching correspondence and his dear friend of more than 50 years illustrated with letters written long back.

Cataloging Albert Einstein’s letters to his closest friend, Michele Besso, was a roller-coaster ride: intellectually exhilarating, funny, endearing — and with an unexpected conclusion.

T. Venning

After Michele Besso and Einstein first met as students in Zurich in the late 1890s, their friendship started cementing during their time working together in the early 1900s in the Swiss Federal Patent Office, Bern. In the evenings after work, the two friends would stroll home together, and many years later, Einstein would remember how thoughts of everyday life would fall away as they discussed scientific subjects.

Einstein's Best Friend And The Heart-Touching Letters He Wrote To Him. 1

When Einstein changed physics forever in 1905 with four groundbreaking papers, Michele Besso was his only acknowledged collaborator. Einstein called Besso “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas.

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“Working through these 56 letters was almost like getting to know Einstein himself,” explained Thomas Venning, who cataloged the manuscripts for the Christie’s auction. “What’s more, this was a particularly attractive side of him, the side that his closest friend saw over 50 years. The most striking parts of his personality? His humility, his absolute love of what he did … and his ability, through that extraordinary mind, to see the universe in a perspective that is beyond the rest of us.”

It was because of their close intellectual understanding that Einstein felt able to speak freely and in detail to Besso about the key scientific concepts of his career: special and general relativity, the ‘cosmological constant,’ the redshift of spectral lines, ‘time’s arrow,’ unified field theoryquantum mechanics and much else.

It was hard for a non-scientist — sometimes impossible — to keep up, but the sensation of observing this great mind working at full speed was extraordinary for Besso.

The letters also reveal the human side of Einstein: walking in the mountains with his young son, making fun of crusty old colleagues in Berlin, grumbling about being shown off ‘like a prize bullock’ on an early tour of the United States, dying of boredom in a League of Nations meeting. You feel his anguish and remorse as his first marriage breaks down and he becomes estranged from his children. There are plenty of jokes, too, about himself, his fame, being Jewish, getting old — even about quantum physics.

Einstein's Best Friend And The Heart-Touching Letters He Wrote To Him. 2
Einstein shared the concept of bending of light with Besso first (Credit: GSFC/NASA)

Above all, there is his delight in his work, his relish for a new theory, his sense of elevation when grasping at fundamental truths — which he expresses in one letter as ‘getting closer to God.’

The last letter in the cache is written by Einstein to Besso’s family shortly after Besso passed away. (Einstein himself would die a month later.) As Venning points out:

“The letter ends with a famous sentence, which reflects their deep friendship and the scientific understanding they shared, as well as the distance they had traveled since those happy days as patent clerks in Bern: ‘Now he has again preceded me a little in parting from this strange world. This has no importance. For people like us who believe in physics, the separation between past, present, and future has only the importance of an admittedly tenacious illusion.’

“After I had finished cataloging this letter, I sat staring at my computer for a moment, and then I did something I’ve never done before in nearly 20 years of cataloging autograph letters. I burst into tears.”


It is indeed said that “making a million friends is not a miracle. The miracle is to make one such friend who will stand by you when millions are against you..”

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Did you always want to learn how the universe works? Then read our 30-article Basics of Astrophysics series absolutely free of cost. From the popular topics such as stars, galaxies, and black holes to the detailed concepts of the subject like the concept of magnitude, the Hertzsprung Russell diagram, redshift, etc., there is something for everyone in this series. All the articles are given here. Happy reading!

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[…] physics. Although his collaborations remained few (almost only exchanged with his colleague and best friend Michele Besso) and his access to thorough and established scientific research and material limited, Einstein was […]


[…] Einstein’s best friend and the heart touching letters he wrote to him […]

Mark Radcliff
Mark Radcliff

Look up Einstein and Fritz Haber. The German chemist who won a Nobel prize for his discovery of a process to convert methane into ammonia. Thus feeding millions from an unlimited source of fertilizer. He also came up with using chlorine gas during WW1. Einstein’s reaction is note worthy.

Prof Dr Santosh Kumar Karn
Prof Dr Santosh Kumar Karn

Very nice, informative and admirable article.
Prof Santosh K Karn
Rohini, New Delhi.

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