Defending Mrs Einstein

 

By Allen Esterson

 

On 3 November 2006 Alan Boyle, science editor at MSNBC, posted these comments on his Cosmic Log in relation to my criticisms of Senta Troemel-Ploetz’s 1990 article on Mileva Marić. Boyle contacted Troemel-Ploetz and obtained this response under the headline “Defending Mrs Einstein”.

 

Below is my reply to Troemel-Ploetz’s comments.

 

Troemel-Ploetz writes that John Stachel is in a tradition that “always attributes achievements to men even if the men themselves claim their wives were the authors”. She evidently knows nothing of Stachel’s writings, which show that he is far from being the kind of person she characterizes in this way. His concern in relation to Mileva Marić is that “exaggerated claims for her role on the basis of the present evidence can only do a disservice to her memory” (Einstein from ‘B’ to ‘Z’, 2002, p. 37).

In her comments Troemel-Ploetz fails to address what she is purportedly responding to and merely repeats arguments that have been rebutted by Stachel and me. Her omission of a crucial part of Stachel’s argument makes her statement amount to a caricature of his position. On Cosmic Log (3 November) I wrote: “Leaving aside the work they did together on heat conduction, the topic they both chose for their diploma dissertations at Zurich Polytechnic, John Stachel has documented a score or more instances of Einstein's writing ‘I’ or ‘my’ in regard to the material in question. For instance, against the one occasion that Einstein wrote of ‘our work on relative motion’ there are a dozen instances of his writing ‘I’ or ‘my’ in regard to the same subject matter – which, in any case, at that time involved classical Galilean relativity, not the groundbreaking special relativity principle he arrived at only in 1905.”

Why does Troemel-Ploetz never mention the following sentences in Einstein’s letters?

“I also wrote to Professor Wien in Aachen about my paper on the relative motion of the luminiferous ether against ponderable matter” (28 Sept 1899)

“I’m busily at work on an electrodynamics of moving bodies, which promises to be a capital piece of work” (17 Dec 1901)

“I spent all afternoon at [Prof] Kleiner’s telling him my ideas about the electrodynamics of moving bodies.” (19 Dec 1901)

 

Summarising Stachel’s full argument, whereas on the numerous occasions on which first person singular pronouns are used in relation to this topic Einstein is alluding to specific ideas or work, the single use of “our” in reference to “relative motion” is unspecific (letter 27 March 1901). It occurs in a context in which he is seeking to reassure Marić about concerns he apparently senses she has that acquaintances might be saying “bad” things about her, and reflects his desire at that time to draw his beloved in to his extra-curricular ideas that dominate his activities. Furthermore, in not one of her surviving letters does Marić respond with any mention of any extra-curricular work or ideas of her own, nor in the two instances where we have her letters responding directly to Einstein’s containing his ideas on physics does she so much as mention what he had communicated to her. On this issue it is important to examine all the evidence in its entirety, and draw conclusions on that basis, not simply select whatever items provide some support for one’s position.

 

Please note that Stachel and I are not downplaying Marić’s role at that time as an eager and valued listener to his ideas, a companion when reading physics books he had sought out, and an occasional assistant in this process. But in the absence of a single document in which Marić mentions any ideas of her own on extra-curricular topics, we don’t believe there is any hard evidence that she made substantive contributions to his work, and certainly no evidence that she contributed to the celebrated papers of 1905.

 

For a full response on this particular issue, see the comprehensive discussion in Stachel (1996) and in Mileva Marić: Einstein's Wife.

 

Troemel-Ploetz quotes Einstein: “How happy I am to have found an equal in you (eine ebenbuertige Kreatur) who is as strong and independent as I am.” Does Troemel-Ploetz really think that a sentence like this in a letter by someone passionately in love with his beloved can be taken literally? (The “strong and independent as I am” part was, unfortunately for Marić, not subsequently borne out, demonstrating that the sentence has no evidential value.) Einstein saw himself and Marić as nonconformists who rejected conventional views. Significantly, the two immediately preceding sentences refer to his pleasure at what he sees as their joint rejection of “the philistine life”, so the context does not justify taking the sentiment in question to refer to academic ability.

 

Troemel-Ploetz quotes Einstein: “Until you are my dear little wife, we want to eagerly work together scientifically so that we won't become philistines...” In the overall context of the documentary evidence, with its complete lack of indications of independent ideas in physics by Marić, this is consistent with Einstein’s fond hopes for their life together to be a joint pursuit of science rather than any reflection of actual joint achievements already attained.* Furthermore, Troemel-Ploetz omits a single word at the end of the sentence that puts a slightly different complexion on it. Einstein finishes with “…, gellst” [as reproduced in Collected Papers, Vol. 1, doc. 131]. This adds a note of tentativeness to the sentence [it roughly translates as “right?” as given in the Collected Papers translation] missing in Troemel-Ploetz’s version omitting that final word. She also fails to mention that in the immediately preceding letter Einstein writes, “Soon you’ll be my ‘student’ again, like in Zurich”, which gives some indication of their actual roles when they were both at Zurich Polytechnic. [* The context (specifically the two following sentences) makes it clear that the first word of the sentence in question should be translated as “When”, as in the two published translations.]

 

Troemel-Ploetz writes: “[Marić] had the same training and more than Einstein.” Presumably she means by this that they both studied for a diploma for teaching mathematics and physics in secondary school. Many thousands of people of that age had the same “training” as Einstein, but this says nothing of their capabilities or achievements. (What she means by “and more” is anybody’s guess – unless she is referring to the fact that Einstein was in the habit of skipping classes to follow up his ideas in physics.) One relevant fact that Troemel-Ploetz omits to mention is that, whereas Einstein was precociously gifted at mathematics, and later obtained grade 11 in the mathematics component of the final diploma exam despite his neglect of the subject, Marić’s early promise was unfulfilled, and she obtained only grade 5 on a scale 1-12, less than half of the grade of the other four candidates in their group. And despite Troemel-Ploetz’s attempt in her writings (and in the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary) to play down Marić’s diploma failure in 1900, the fact remains that on the overall average grading system 1-6 her final diploma average grade approximated to some 18% less than Einstein’s, whereas his was only some 11% below the candidate with the top overall average grade (though as the latter majored in mathematics they were not strictly comparable). Of course exam marks are far from everything – but in Marić’s case we have nothing else to go on but her Polytechnic grades as a measure of her abilities. But above and beyond all this, Troemel-Ploetz seems to think that completion of a College course in physics and mathematics is evidence for the potential to achieve greatness at physics. It is only too evident that she has no conception of the magnitude of Einstein’s achievements, which within a decade would propel him to the upper echelons of theoretical physicists, and then on to pre-eminence amongst them, widely regarded by physicists as worthy to be ranked alongside Newton. 

 

In historical investigations such as this one must be guided by the hard evidence, not (as Troemel-Ploetz writes) by what is “plausible”, or “is quite possible, or “for all we know”. (Not that much of what she claims merits being described as plausible.) Nor should we take (as Troemel-Ploetz does in her 1990 article) as serious evidence the mostly third-hand statements obtained many decades after the event from interested parties taking nationalist pride in what they fondly believe to be a Serbian achievement. In his book Don’t Believe Everything You Think (2006), Thomas Kida reports the research of two psychologists who secretly recorded a meeting held in Cambridge, England. Two weeks later, the participants were asked to write down everything they could remember. Among other gross inaccuracies in their memories, many participants ‘remembered’ hearing comments that were never actually made. That puts into perspective the utter unreliability of third-hand reports provided decades later, largely on the basis of which Troemel-Ploetz wrote in her 1990 article that “If it were not for the cultural imperialism of the U.S. academic establishment, it might be known in Princeton what is known in Novi Sad [the Serbian home town of the Marić family] – that Einstein-Marić was the scientific collaborator of her husband.” (S. Troemel-Ploetz, “Mileva Einstein-Marić: The Woman Who Did Einstein’s Mathematics”, Women’s Studies Int. Forum, 13(5), 1990, p. 415)

 

November 2006

http://www.esterson.org/