children hanging around albert einstein children hanging around albert einstein Children definitely seemed to have a thing for the famous physicist. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

'When will the world end?' and other questions children asked Einstein

I dug through Albert Einstein's archives to find some amazing conversations he had with kids.

As I spent a beautiful spring day digging through Albert Einstein's archives in Jerusalem's Hebrew University, I was struck by the letters he exchanged with children. They'd ask him simple, yet very wise questions, and he answered similarly.

Unlike adults, children didn't show him a kind of removed reverence. Rather, they just treated him like a person who knew a lot of things, which is probably more accurate. This attitude really seemed to suit his personality – remember, this is a guy who famously didn't wear socks. Here are some of my favorites.

Are humans animals?

Einstein answers a letter to children about whether humans are animalsEinstein doesn't give the answer, but he provides the tools to find the answer. Pretty sneakily Socratic, if you ask me. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

It looks like some children asked Einstein what an animal is. Einstein replied that it really all depends on how you define the word "animal" and goes on to list some things that animals do: they take nourishment, they have parents, they move by themselves and they die. These things apply to all animals, from worms to monkeys.

"What about us humans?" asked Einstein playfully. "Think about it ... and then decide for yourselves whether it is a natural thing to regard ourselves as animals." Animal lovers would probably be happy with that response.


Get a haircut

a little girl tells einstein to get a haircutShe was probably not the only person to think that. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

Other children came to Einstein with advice rather than questions. One "little girl of six," who saw Einstein's photo in a newspaper, took the valuable time out of her day to tell the physicist to get a haircut, hippie.

"I saw your picture in the paper," starts the letter. "I think you ought to have your hair cut so you can look better."

"Aw geez, is my hair messy?" I like to imagine Einstein replied. "Nobody has ever told me that. Off to the barber."

What is beyond the sky?

a children's letter asks Albert Einstein what is beyond the skyIt's something scientists still don't have an answer to. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

Pennsylvania resident Frank Fellerman had a question that he figured Einstein could answer. "I want to know what is beyond the sky," Frank's letter begins. "My mother said you could tell me."

We know that other galaxies and black holes are beyond the stars we can see in the night sky. But in a way, scientists still don't know the answer to this question. The laws of nature just seem to keep getting rewritten.


The end of the world

how will the world endGood job, Einstein. That won't terrify any children. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

"Monique" apparently asked Einstein when the world began and when it'll end. Einstein said the planet is slightly more than a billion years old, which was completely wrong. Scientists now put Earth at about 4.5 billion years old. But it wasn't Einstein's fault that he lived in the 1950s. Maybe he was thinking of some other planet that looked like Earth.

His answer as to when the world will end was much more accurate, though oddly sinister: "Wait and see!"


How does color get into feathers?

a child asks einstein how color gets into bird feathersI've got a feeling Einstein didn't actually know the answer to this one. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

"I have a problem I would like solved," starts the letter. "I would like to know how color gets into a bird's feather. I have many beautiful parakeets, which have many beautiful colors."

Why did Anna Louise ask a physicist a question about biology? "I ask my father, and he told me to ask you," explains the letter.


A thousand words

a japanese child paints a painting for albert einsteinThe colors alone are beautiful. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

A class of Japanese schoolchildren made paintings and sent them to Einstein. In a letter that came with the paintings, one child claimed to have read two physics books in his school library written by Einstein: "The Evolution of Physics" and "Out of my Later Years."

"I began to develop a great liking for physics," wrote the child. "'Here is a great problem to be solved,' I said to myself. 'I will be the man to solve it.'"

a japanese child paints a painting for albert einsteinThis made me want to make a landscape painting. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

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'When will the world end?' and other questions children asked Einstein
I dug through famous physicist Albert Einstein's archives to find some amazing conversations he had with kids.