One of the most original thinkers I have ever met

In November of 1911, two of the world’s most revered scientists, Henri Poincaré and Marie Curie, were asked to write letters of recommendation for a 32-year-old man who was looking to become a professor of theoretical physics at ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), and who, 6 years previous, had authored a renowned set

Why Explore Space?

In 1970, a Zambia-based nun named Sister Mary Jucunda wrote to Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, then-associate director of science at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in response to his ongoing research into a piloted mission to Mars. Specifically, she asked how he could suggest spending billions of dollars on such a project at a time when so many children were starving on

Yours in distress, Alan

Alan Turing was a human being of exceptional intelligence — a mathematical genius — and worked as one of the leading code-breakers during World War II. He is also considered to be the “father of modern computing” thanks to his pioneering work in the field of computer science. In 1950, before the term “Artificial Intelligence” had been coined, he posed

Dear Einstein, Do Scientists Pray?

As one of the world’s great intellects and arguably the most famous of all scientists, Albert Einstein was regularly questioned about his views on religion. In January of 1936, a young girl named Phyllis wrote to Einstein on behalf of her Sunday school class and simply asked, “Do scientists pray?” Einstein soon replied. (This letter,

Butt-Head Astronomer

Late-1993, renowned astronomer Carl Sagan learnt that Apple’s forthcoming computer, the Power Macintosh 7100, had been given a codename of “Carl Sagan” — the joke being that they would sell “billions and billions.” This was mentioned in a MacWEEK article some time later, to which Sagan sent the following letter in response. Apple soon changed the

Scientifically yours

I think it’s safe to assume that after NASA successfully landed two rovers on Mars in January of 2004, the momentous event was quickly eclipsed by the following letter of congratulations, sent to the JPL days later by a certain Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his accident-prone assistant, Beaker. Note: Although the Spirit rover’s initial problems were overcome, it’s unknown

I love my wife. My wife is dead.

Richard Feynman was one of the best-known and most influential physicists of his generation. In the 1940s, he played a part in the development of the atomic bomb; in 1986, as a key member of the Rogers Commission, he investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and identified its cause; in 1965, he and two colleagues

I would like to get out of this world

Back in 1950, looking to publicise a new exhibition named “Conquest of Space,” the Hayden Planetarium in New York publicly announced that they were accepting reservations for the first trip into space, whenever that may be. Unsurprisingly, in the coming weeks and months applications from all corners began to arrive at the museum, from would-be

Stephen Hawking on Time Travel

In 1995, with their forthcoming 15th anniversary issue in mind, The Face magazine approached Stephen Hawking and asked him for a time travel formula. They soon received the following response by fax. Transcript follows. (Source: The Face’s former editors, Richard Benson & Johnny Davis; Image: Stephen Hawking, via.) Transcript UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGEDepartment of Applied Mathematics and

Burst through its bars

In August of 1665, an ageing scientist named Joannes Marcus Marci sent his friend — the great Athanasius Kircher — a truly perplexing book and asked him, via an accompanying letter, seen below, to do something countless other experts had unsuccessfully attempted: decipher it. Try as he might, Kircher failed to do so, and to this day the

ENERGY EQUALS MASS TIMES THE SPEED OF LIGHT SQUARED STOP

Back in 1936, renowned sculptor Isamu Noguchi was in Mexico working on a 72-ft-long public mural when he hit a snag: for some reason, he couldn’t precisely recall the famous formula, E=mc². Rather than risk a mistake, he decided to seek advice and wired his good friend, Buckminster Fuller — a famed architect and great admirer of Einstein — for clarification.

Gee whiz, that master alarm certainly startled me

Whilst working as “Chief of Apollo Data Priority Coordination” during the Apollo space program — or, as Gene Kranz fondly labelled him, “pretty much the architect for all of the techniques that we used to go down to the surface of the Moon” — NASA engineer Bill Tindall was renowned within the agency for the informal tone of the incredibly important

Permission to Synchronise

Tom West, c.1966 | Image: Jessamyn West, at Flickr When he wasn’t designing incredibly precise clocks at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in the 1960s, Tom West could often be found travelling the world with one in his possession, on his way to accurately set the time at a foreign satellite observatory. Unsurprisingly, suspicions were sometimes aroused

The links between science fiction & science are well established

The following stirring open letter was written by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry in 1980, and was essentially a rare public endorsement of the then-newly formed Planetary Society, an organisation started as a means to support the exploration of the Solar System and search for extraterrestrial life. Founded by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman in 1980, the

I am volunteering for the “Man in Space” program

On May 5th of 1961, Alan Shepard became the second person — and first American — to enter space, just three weeks after Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth. The following amazing letter was written by Shepard to his parents two years before, and marks the very first announcement of his plans to volunteer for the “Man

You’re a liar and a fraud

Despite having worked as an internationally-renowned stage magician for much of his life, it’s for his clinical investigations of all things paranormal and pseudoscientific — most famously his exposé of a certain spoonbender, The Truth About Uri Geller — that James Randi is best known. His no-nonsense approach in such matters is illustrated in the following letter, written in

I think I no how to make people or animals alive

In June of 1973, spurred on by the recent discovery of a dying bird in his garden, 9-year-old Anthony Hollander wrote to the presenters of the BBC’s much-loved children’s television show, Blue Peter, and asked for assistance in his quest to “make people or animals alive.” Below is his letter, and the encouraging response written by the programme’s

I expect you to correct your work-ethic immediately

Written in 1996, below is a sternly-worded letter from a CalTech chemist — Erick Carreira — to a member of his research team — Guido Koch — in which the former reprimands Koch’s supposedly slack work schedule following his absence in the lab on numerous evenings and weekends. Also unacceptable to Carreira was Koch’s gutsy

Society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind

January 3rd, 1913. Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt writes to the founder of the Eugenics Record Office, prominent eugenicist Charles Davenport, and offers his views on eugenics; a highly controversial movement whose aim – essentially the eradication of “defective” humans in society by way of selective breeding – gained much attention in the 1930/40s when more

If membership is restricted to men, the loss will be ours

Early-1981, following IBM’s withdrawal of support due to the organisation’s continued exclusion of women within its ranks, renowned astronomer Carl Sagan sent the following impassioned letter to each and every fellow member of The Explorers Club—an international society dedicated to scientific exploration since its inception in 1904—and argued for a change of policy. Later that

Scientists have a special responsibility

On the 5th of April, 1955, Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell sent the following letter to Albert Einstein along with a rough draft of what would soon be known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto – a written warning to the world’s population on the dangers of nuclear weapons, and a plea for all leaders to avoid war when faced with

Success

Above: The Wright brothers’ 4th flight, Dec. 17, 1903; Image: LoC On this day in 1903, following an unsuccessful attempt three days previous, the Wright brothers once again took their newly-built Wright Flyer to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and proceeded to make history by claiming “the first sustained and controlled heavier-than-air powered flight.” In fact, they

“I told you so!”

In October of 1945, an article titled “Extra-Terrestrial Relays — Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?” was published in Wireless World magazine, in which world-renowned science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke discussed the idea that, in the near future, artificial satellites placed in a geostationary orbit (now sometimes known as a “Clarke Orbit”) could be used

Tesla’s Death Ray

In his later years, the supremely gifted Nikola Tesla announced to the public the ongoing development of Teleforce, a stunningly powerful, highly controversial new invention that was to act as an instrument of national defense. Dubbed ‘The Death Ray’ by press, Tesla’s charged particle beam weapon promised, initially via a 1934 New York Times article: [to]

I am excited about going into space

In 1985, having been selected by NASA from a pool of thousands, 37-year-old social studies teacher Christa McAuliffe began preparations in an effort to become the first ‘teacher in space’. The project was the result of a very successful effort by the U.S. government to provoke wider public interest in the STS-51-L space program, and

You don’t understand “ordinary people”

Unhappy at being treated “increasingly badly” at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1985 and as a result eager to begin an institute of his own within which to continue his research, 26-year-old computer scientist Stephen Wolfram looked to ex-colleague and physics Nobelist Richard Feynman for advice. Feynman’s honest, humorous, and less than encouraging response can

Like most junk science that just won’t die, the polygraph stays with us

Without proper context, this letter – a highly critical analysis of polygraph testing written by an ex-CIA employee – would still be a captivating read; however it just so happens that the note was penned from prison by Aldrich Ames, a former counter-intelligence officer-turned-spy who in 1985 chose to sell information to the KGB that,

I am a fat boy now

Below are two messages from the 1920s, both sent to the same man — Frederick Banting — as a result of his enormous contribution to a scientific development which to this day continues to save the lives of many. That development was the discovery and isolation of insulin. The first is a letter of thanks

Metal fasteners, tape, and staples

It’s surprising to think that two astronauts on the brink of leaving Earth would have either the time or inclination to respond to mail from enthusiasts, but that’s exactly what happened in May of 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin replied to a young Belgian by the name of Jean Etienne. Jean’s father –

Einstein on astrology

A brief 1943 letter from Albert Einstein to a Eugene Simon, care of Rabbi Herman Simon, in which the renowned scientist clearly makes his opinion of astrology known. This flies in the face of many astrologers’ claims that Einstein was a firm supporter of the subject; these beliefs all stemming from the following quote, incorrectly

What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to?

It wasn’t until 1947, following an apparent mid-flight sighting by respected pilot Kenneth Arnold, that the American public were introduced to the term ‘Flying Saucer‘. Other sightings were reported almost instantly, and within weeks the whole world was awash with stories of contact from other planets. Five years later, following another intense bout of activity

The worst is to come…

From the Laboratory of Thomas Edison comes this brief letter to William Le Roy  Emmet, an award-winning engineer who began working at GE back when it was still known as Edison General Electric and then stayed with the firm for many years. In 1926 Emmet’s success caught Edison’s attention, and, as seen in the following

President Einstein

On November 17th of 1952, following the death of Israel’s first President, then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion decided to offer the job to Albert Einstein by way of the following letter via the Embassy of Israel in Washington. As we now know, the offer was declined; the response can also be read below. Less than three years later, Einstein passed away. Transcript follows. (Source:

Ordinary standards do not apply to Tesla

On January 4th, 1943, Slovenian-American author Louis Adamic wrote the following heartfelt letter to ex-President of the United States, Herbert Hoover. The letter concerned the alarming treatment and general well-being of Adamic’s friend, Nikola Tesla; an immeasurably important inventor whose impact on the modern world is still difficult to appreciate and who, despite his numerous

An idiot of the 33rd degree

In November of 1905, an enraged Mark Twain sent the following superb letter to J. H. Todd, a salesman who had just attempted to sell bogus medicine to the author by way of a letter and leaflet delivered to his home. According to the literature Twain received, the “medicine” in question — called “The Elixir of

Hostages For World Peace

Circa 1986, Jeremy Stone (then-President of the Federation of American Scientists) asked Owen Chamberlain to forward to him any ideas he may have which would ‘make useful arms control initiatives’. Chamberlain – a highly intelligent, hugely influential Nobel laureate in physics who discovered the antiproton – responded with the fantastic letter seen below, the contents

We have a message from another world

In the summer of 1899, while alone in his Colorado Springs laboratory working with his magnifying transmitter, the inimitable Nikola Tesla observed a series of unusual rhythmic signals which he described as “counting codes.” Having just detected cosmic radio signals for the first time, Tesla immediately believed them to be attempted communications from an intelligent

“He is a second Dirac, only this time human.”

Whilst heading up the Manhattan Project during World War II, theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer quickly became aware of a promising young physicist by the name of Richard Feynman. Sensing that Feynman would be incredibly valuable at UC Berkeley come the end of the war, Oppenheimer wrote the following letter to then chairman of its physics

Houdini’s Last Trick

At New York’s Shelton Hotel on August 5th, 1926, in plain view of invited journalists and using no breathing apparatus, Harry Houdini lay in a sealed casket at the bottom of a swimming pool for an hour and a half. His motivation for the feat was the opportunity to expose Egyptian fakir Rahman Bey, a

Flight is possible to man

This extremely confident letter from one half of the Wright Brothers – Wilbur – was their first contact with renowned engineer Octave Chanute, an aviation pioneer and author of Progress in Flying Machines who went on to offer the brothers much invaluable advice over the coming years. It was written three years prior to their

Prepare For Contact

Here’s a 1924 telegram from then Chief of U.S. Naval Operations, Edward W. Eberle, instructing all Naval stations to monitor the airwaves for any unusual transmissions due to anticipated contact from Martians. August 22nd of that year was witness to the closest Mars opposition since 1804 (a mere 55,777,566 km), and as such provided desirable

Please – no preferential treatment

As well as writing approximately 500 novels and many articles and essays, prolific and now legendary science fiction author Isaac Asimov somehow found the time to work for The Horn Book Magazine — a well regarded publication in which he reviewed and commented on science books — for nine years. The following letter, written by Asimov to

Einstein’s One Great Mistake

On August 2nd, 1939, after consultation with fellow physicists Leó Szilárd and Eugene Wigner, Albert Einstein signed the following letter to then-U.S. President, Franklin Roosevelt. The letter warned that the construction of an atomic bomb using uranium was indeed possible, advised the U.S. Government to invest time and money into its research, and then hinted that

Homosexuality is nothing to be ashamed of

In 1935, the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, was contacted by a worried mother who was seeking treatment for her son’s apparent homosexuality. Freud, who believed that all humans are attracted to both sexes in some capacity, responded with the following letter of advice. (The letter was later passed on to Alfred Kinsey and reproduced

The Johnny Appleseed of LSD

Sandoz Pharmaceuticals – the company who first synthesised LSD – sent this letter to ‘Captain’ Alfred Hubbard in 1955 along with forms enabling him to clear 43 boxes of LSD-25 ampules through customs. Hubbard (a.k.a. The Johnny Appleseed of LSD) was an intriguingly mysterious man who, due to his relentless promotion of the drug, is

The word God is the product of human weakness

In January of 1954, just a year before his death, Albert Einstein wrote the following letter to philosopher Erik Gutkind after reading his book, “Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt,” and made known his views on religion. Apparently Einstein had only read the book due to repeated recommendation by their mutual friend Luitzen Egbertus

WE HAVE THIS ANTHRAX

In the month following the attacks of September 11th, seven letters, all of which contained anthrax spores, were sent to various high profile targets in America. As a result of these letters being sent, five people died and a further 17 subsequently contracted the disease. In July 2008, the FBI informed Dr. Bruce Ivins –

Do Not Lose This Letter

At the height of the Cold War in 1957, the following, horrific letter was issued to key personnel working on the biological weapons program (BW) at Fort Detrick, this particular example having landed in the lap of someone within the Atmospheric Sciences division. In a nutshell, anyone who received a letter similar to this one

TO A TOP SCIENTIST

In 1957, following the announcement that the Soviets had trumped the U.S. with the successful launch of Sputnik 1, Australian schoolboy Denis Cox sent this urgent letter to the Royal Australian Air Force’s Rocket Range at Woomera, in an attempt to enter Australia into the Space Race. Much to Denis’ dismay, his letter, addressed to

It is like confessing a murder

In November of 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. A truly groundbreaking book that would forever change our perception of the world, it instantly generated widespread debate and surprise. Darwin’s central theory of evolution was that a species, rather than being unchanging, will gradually transform over time according to its environment, with the