You've got mail . . . just like Darwin and Einstein

Author: John Monczunski

Little did you know that you have a lot in common with Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. At least when it comes to managing your email.

Notre Dame Professor of Physics Albert László Barabási and his colleague João Gama Oliveira recently found that the correspondence of the famed scientists followed the same mathematical formula Barabási earlier identified describing the pattern for email correspondence.

When Barabási examined the length of time people took to answer email, he discovered that typically messages are answered in bursts, with replies quickly sent to the most important messages while other less important communications lingered, sometimes for a lengthy time span.

The Notre Dame physicist, who is an expert on networking theory, wondered if the same pattern, termed a heavy-tailed process, fit for all correspondence or merely email. The Einstein and Darwin archives provided ideal raw material, since both scientists were prolific letter writers. Darwin’s collected correspondence consists of more than 14,000 sent and received letters, while Einstein’s numbers 30,000 letters.

“Einstein appears to have sent one letter per day on average and, on a few occasions, received as many as 120 letters on the same day,” Barabási says. “Most important, both made a point of answering most of the letters they received, even if they came from school children.”

The Notre Dame researcher found that both Einstein and Darwin answered about half of their correspondence within 10 days. In some cases, however, replies were not sent for months or even years. In a sentence familiar to anyone with a crowded email inbox, Einstein replied to one letter writer, “In the course of eating myself through a mountain of correspondence, I find your interesting letter from September of last year.”

“Our results indicate a pattern that neither the famous nor the undistinguished can escape,” Barabási observes.