E-mail: natural selection and intelligent design

2 minute read

OK, I'm sure everyone has seen this story already, but can I just say, "Amen"?

A new study finds that the correspondence of Albert Einstein, as well as that of Charles Darwin, followed patterns similar to modern e-mail communication.
Einstein sent more than 14,500 letters. But he received more than 16,200, and responded to only a quarter of them. Darwin mailed more than 7,500 letters. He responded to 32 percent of the roughly 6,530 letters he received.
Of course letter writing takes more time than e-mail, but the mathematical relationship between quick replies and delayed responses was similar, explains Joao Gama Oliveira of the University of Aveiro in Portugal.

Last week I hoovered 400 messages out of my inbox. Thankfully, I can maintain a lower reply rate than Einstein, since only about five or ten e-mails a day require some kind of reply. And short e-mails are much more acceptable than short letters -- they're more in the nature of telegrams really. So if you run the numbers, I send around a quarter of Einstein's lifetime output every year. But almost all of these are very short contacts -- just a way of keeping in touch, keeping projects going, or affirming queries.

In that way, it's not hard to see why e-mail has become more central than letter-writing as a form of correspondence (at least in science): it is much more polite to be able to send short replies than nothing at all -- but most letters don't really require anything more than a short reply, which wouldn't be worth sending in the post. From that standpoint, e-mail is certainly much more personal. On the other hand, the more formal nature of letters means that even in something that is only a short reply, you put in lots of filler -- how are you, I remember fondly that summer at the Cape, how are the kids -- that make letters read a lot more pleasantly (and open more of a channel for personal relationships) than e-mails. So there are pluses and minuses for this change in correspondence, but it is one that is very much in accord with the culture.

This is sort of interesting to me because I have been reading the letter and telegram correspondence of Einstein and Leo Szilard. It's fascinating they way that people exchanged considered arguments by letter, which would often take weeks to get a reply, but would telegraph (literally) their arguments in sentence form to bring attention to an oncoming letter, or to let a sender know that they got something and had something more to say. Sometimes the telegrams were quick probes for interest or snap reaction -- kind of like contact calls in primates. And this during a time that these physicists were trying to coordinate efforts to keep physical descriptions of chain reactions out of journals, since they clearly perceived a war was coming.

Now if Darwin had a blog...that would have been worth reading!