English translation of Albrecht Fölsing’s article: Keine ‘Mutter der Relativitätstheorie’ (Die Zeit – Nr. 47 – 16 November 1990).
Translated by Josephine Riches
Not "The mother of the theory of relativity"
The assertion that the help Einstein's wife gave him was crucial does not withstand examination
By Albrecht Fölsing
She had studied physics for four years but failed her exams. She had nothing published and she never laid claim to having contributed to the carrying out of research. Nevertheless, the myth that she made a valuable contribution or that, at least, her contribution was crucial, is now growing whereas, up until then, only her husband had been credited with it. The fact that the person in question is Albert Einstein merely heightens the piquancy and significance of this affair.
Recently, new heights in the revision of this story of physics have been reached. At the annual meeting of the distinguished American Association for the Advancement of Science in New Orleans, both the American, Evan Harris Walker as well as the German Linguist, Senta Trömel-Plötz, tried to bring Mileva Einstein out from under her husband's shadow. While Walker maintained that Mileva was participating substantially to the fundamental conception of the Theory of Relativity, Trömel-Plötz, while attributing the basic idea to Albert Einstein, argued that Mileva had provided the mathematics for her husband. At least, that is what was being rumoured in the follow‑up to this meeting by the international press, from the New York Times to the Süddeutschen Zeitung. Even specialist press, like the English New Scientist, were asking if "Einstein's first wife was in fact a genius" and the Bild der Wissenschaft decided that Mileva Einstein herself had been "a well‑known physicist" and that she had obviously contributed hugely to the mathematical groundwork, even if rather less to the theoretical structure of the Theory of Relativity.
This sounds like freshly‑developed research and painstaking interpretation. However, that is not what it is about but rather, bizarre perusals of accessible texts and the adaptation of a dubious little book. This procedure is a perfect example of how you can have sheer nonsense uttered at conferences, especially if it stems from firm convictions, which subsequently resonates all around the world; in this case it is that in the male world of science a woman could only come across gross injustice.
The woman, for whom recognition was so vehemently fought, was born as Mileva Marić in 1875 in Titel, a village in Wojwodina which at that time belonged to the then Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now a region in Yugoslavia. She must have been an unusual young woman because, with or without her parents encouragement, she strove for an academic education. As women in those days could study neither in Austria‑Hungary, nor in Germany, she went to Zurich, the European outpost for women's studies. She started to study medicine at the University in 1896. After the first term she changed to the Polytechnic and enrolled as a student teacher. There were only five students in her year and only one, apart from herself, had chosen physics as their main subject. Albert Einstein, a stateless Jew, at least three years her junior, was eccentric and self‑confident to the point of arrogance.
It was during the second term that they probably got to know each other more and, a few terms later, they became what is commonly known as lovers. Mileva wanted to be a teacher in a girls secondary school. Albert, obviously, wanted to be a university professor. However, she failed her exams and he, after passing his exams, was unable to find employment. While Einstein managed by giving private lessons and working as a teacher's assistant, Mileva stayed on at the Polytechnic another year. In the spring of 1901 she became pregnant; nevertheless, she re-sat her exam, failed again and that was that.
She returned to her parents. At the end of January 1902 their daughter, Lieserl, was born. In the summer of 1902 Einstein finally got a job at the Patent Office. In January 1903 they married in Bern. Their daughter was left with Mileva's parents and that is the last that is known of her.
Recently we have learned of their time as students together, largely through about fifty letters which appeared for the first time in the 1987 published volume of the monumental "Collected Papers of Albert Einstein". These letters throw an extremely interesting light on the intellectual development of the young Einstein. They are mainly about physics, and about love, really only intermittently. Physics was Einstein's passion – Annalen der Physik was his life and soul. On the whole, his main themes were consolidated only in later years, among these being that of the ether and relative motion both of which had been puzzling him from the age of sixteen. He overwhelmed his Mileva with all of this, although more as a monomanic physicist than as a lover and in the tone of addressing a colleague on equal terms. He was "very happy about our new work" and, on failing her exams, when Mileva had to present a dissertation on her fruitless university studies: "How proud I will be when my sweetheart becomes a little doctor while I am still only an ordinary person." Once, on 27 March 2001, he wrote: "How proud and happy I will be when both of us, together, will have victoriously completed our work on relative motion." So, does that make Mileva co‑creator?
Walker relies mainly on this sentence when he claims, "Even Einstein's own words show that Mileva was co-author of the Special Theory of Relativity.” In so doing, the dubious amateur historian of physics clearly ignores the fact that the theory of relativity almost certainly was not in the process of being developed shortly after finishing his studies. Unfortunately, no research, either in the form of notebooks or letters, has been preserved and so one can only guess at what Einstein meant at the time by "work on relative motion". He had read a good deal on the subject and had, maybe, begun to grasp and even to recognise the connected problems; the solution, however, was a long way off.
It is only by reading between the lines in the letters that one realises that it is Einstein preaching like a possessed physicist and that Mileva has nothing at all to do with it, either with Relative Motion or with any of the many physics problems which her Einstein was intrigued by. When Walker interprets what he read in the letter of 1901 as Mileva Marić being the co‑author of the Theory of Relativity, it merely shows his talent for hallucination. For the spark behind the idea for this theory only ignited four years later, in the spring of 1905 and, within a few weeks, the formula had been created in Bern.
Nothing up to this point has indicated Einstein's enormous productivity during that year or how much he enriched physics as no one has before or since. In March 1905 he wrote a piece on light quanta, for which he was later awarded the Nobel Prize. In April he finished his doctoral thesis, which to this day is regarded as a classic of statistical physics. Close on its heels, only seventeen days later, the theory of Brownian Motion, a milestone in the kinetic theory of matter, was completed. This was followed in June by the work "Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" which, in a canonical form contained what would later be known as the Special Theory of Relativity.
At this point, Senta Trömel-Plötz stepped onto the scene as Mileva Einstein's advocate. At any rate, the linguist has nothing original to contribute; rather, she merely reproduces material from Desanka Trbuhović‑Gjuric's book on "The Tragic Life of Mileva Einstein‑Marić" (Das tragische Leben der Mileva Einstein‑Marić), in which she has obviously failed to notice the wilful combination of fictional invention and pseudo‑documentation. The author, who had died a few years earlier, was Serb. In the biography, published in 1969, she claimed a Serb share of the Theory of Relativity: "…we cannot help but be proud of our great Serb, Mileva Marić, who participated in the development and drafting of it". With a good pinch of feminine solidarity, she freehandedly undertook a sort of intellectual compensatory support and named Mileva Marić as co‑creator of Einstein's epoch‑making works, especially with regard to the mathematics.
When, in 1983, a German translation, albeit a shortened version of the effusive Serb original, was published, this new version was swiftly taken up universally by the feminists. In the 1983 October edition of the magazine, "Emma", a short article entitled "The Mother of the Theory of Relativity" was published. The news was spread throughout the USA by Ms. Trömel-Plötz and via this detour back to the German‑speaking public.
It is plausible that Einstein did preach physics to his wife in Bern and that it would have been possible for them to have worked together. However, looking at all possible sources – the little from the letters of that time as well as the memories of some friends and colleagues – there is no hint of it. It would seem that Mileva, having failed two exams, lost interest in physics and that she did not take part in professional discussions. On the other hand, Desanka Trbuhović gives the impression that she had been sitting in Bern in a broom cupboard chez Einstein, assiduously taking notes. Her fictitious dialogues are unspeakably kitsch and read like a string of irritating nonsense. The number of mistakes would fill a book.
The author maintains that in his "Remembrances of Albert Einstein", the Russian physicist, Abraham Joffe, writes that the three publications from 1905 were signed in the original by "Einstein‑Marić": "Joffe had seen the originals whilst working as assistant to Röntgen, who was a member of the Annalen editorial board that provided expert opinion on articles submitted for publication." This sounds impressive, except that the editorial board knew nothing about the expert opinion. That was handled by the editors, who, at that time, were the Berlin professors Drude und Planck. In fact, Joffe, who died in 1960, in a booklet called "Encounters with Physicists", among them Röntgen and Einstein, reported nothing that supports Desanka Trbuhović's assertion.
Confronted with this fact, the author let it be known that she had not referred to this book but rather to an article from the late '60s which she had received in the form of a microfilm from Moscow. The microfilm had been returned without having had the article copied, or the film's index number or the name of the publication ( in which Joffe's article was supposed to have appeared) recorded. The proofs have never been produced and therefore this story can only be seen as an invention.
The Nobel Prize's place in the divorce settlement
The author, furthermore, attaches great significance to the fact "that Einstein assigned the Nobel Prize to Mileva", which is not altogether correct and, in particular, had nothing to do with the imputed bad conscience surrounding Mileva's concealed collaboration. After they had separated, he lived in Berlin and she in Zurich with their two sons. Mileva refused to agree to a divorce, the reason for this being financial as she, living in Zurich, was spending more money than he was earning in Berlin. At some point during 1916, one of their Zurich friends brought the question of the Swedish Crown's strong links to the Nobel Prize into the debate. In any case, one can assume that Einstein was soon to be considered in Stockholm. Therefore, in 1919 it was stipulated in the divorce settlement that Mileva should receive the interest from the trust‑managed Nobel Prize money and that this would be set against Einstein's maintenance costs. So, in 1922, when he received his Prize, this process went into action. What is more, it is presumably the only time that a prospective Nobel Prize winner's money would be thus decreed in a divorce settlement; in any event, however unusual, this was a purely financial transaction.
What about Einstein's wife's mathematical contribution? Desanka Trbuhović remains convinced that Mileva gave "his presentations of his extension of Planck’s quantum theory and the special theory of relativity their mathematical voice". In order to strengthen this assertion she uses, as usual, audacious means: "Her spirit lives today. The simplicity of the setting out of the equations shows her style without a doubt". Unfortunately we have not a single sheet of paper, not even one line of observation on mathematics or physics written by Mileva. Therefore, this analysis of comparison of styles is literally without foundation.
It was precisely due to her poor performance in mathematics that she failed her exams. Gone is her defence that the difficulties of the 1905 theory of relativity did not lie with mathematics but rather with the equally ingenious and subtle idea of analysing those fundamental principles of physics concerning the measurement of time and space. Einstein was thoroughly versed in the necessary mathematics, the more so since he chose problems involving a high level of mathematical complexity in his dissertation/thesis.
It therefore makes no sense to attribute excellent mathematical abilities and consequentially a meaningful role in the formulation of either the theory of relativity or any other theory to Einstein's first wife. Her advocates should, therefore, ask themselves whether they are more concerned in self-interested attention‑seeking, rather than the memory of this woman which they were allegedly rescuing.
The physicist A. Fölsing is director of the Science Department at NDR Television (Nord Deutscher Rundfunk) and is writing a comprehensive biography of Einstein.