Maintaining Scholarly Standards in Feminist Literature: The Case of Hilary Rose and Mileva Marić


Allen Esterson


Note: This article was rejected by two feminist journals, one without explanation, the other on the spurious grounds that they "did not feel the paper had sufficient evidence in terms of references or citations to back up some of the claims that were made".




In the editorial Introduction to a Reader in Feminist Science Studies published in 2001 can be found the exemplary statement that among the norms for acquiring scientific knowledge is "skepticism (all claims should be scrutinized for errors)" (Wyer, 2001, xix). This sound premise is on occasion disregarded by some feminists, with unfortunate consequences. In this article I shall examine a section relating to historical contentions in the same volume that, I argue, fails to live up to this basic standard of scholarly research. It is now quite widely believed that Mileva Marić, Einstein's first wife, played an active role in Einstein's early scientific work until well after they married in 1903. Some commentators go so far as to argue that she co-authored three of his celebrated 1905 papers, while others contend that she solved the mathematical problems for him. In this article I shall examine an example of such contentions, and investigate the source of the evidential claims that have been adduced to support them. I conclude that the several claims are without reliable evidential bases. If feminism is to be effective, it must subject to serious scrutiny even notions that are apparently in accord with its societal perceptions rather than too readily hastening to endorse them.



In a chapter by Hilary Rose reprinted in a Reader in Feminist Science Studies (Wyer, 2001, 56-7; 66) there is a section reiterating the now widely circulated contention that Einstein's first wife, Mileva Marić, collaborated with him on his scientific work, or even co-authored some of the celebrated papers published in 1905, including that on special relativity. The chapter in question was first published in a book by Hilary Rose (Rose, 1994, 143-44, 271). In this article I shall examine the evidence on which the substantive statements made by Rose depend.


Rose begins by alluding to a biography of Marić by the Serbian author Desanka Trbuhović-Gjurić (Trbuhović-Gjurić, 1993), but does not cite the book itself, first published in a German translation in 1983 and in French in 1991 (Trbuhović-Gjurić, 1991). She relies almost entirely on a 1990 article by the Swiss linguist Santa Troemel-Ploetz, (Troemel-Ploetz, 1990), who in turn relies heavily on Trbuhović-Gjurić's biography. As I shall show, in the three paragraphs Rose devotes to Marić she reproduces from Troemel-Ploetz several contentions that are false, misconceived, or without sound evidential support. Consider her first relevant assertion: "Einstein… explained to a group of Zagreb intellectuals that he needed his wife as 'she solves all the mathematical problems for me'" (Rose, 1994, 143).


This is a direct quote from Troemel-Ploetz,   (Troemel-Ploetz, 1990, 418) who reproduces it from Trbuhović-Gjurić (Trbuhović-Gjurić, 1993, 93; 1991, 106), where details of the circumstances are provided. Before examining the credibility of the source of the quoted statement, I shall first consider its plausibility.


Contrary to popular belief, Einstein exhibited a precocious talent in mathematics that has been recorded by Max Talmey, a medical student who regularly visited the Einstein family when the Einstein was in his very early teens. His interest in physics and mathematics led Talmey to give him books on these subjects, and he mastered the elements of algebra and differential and integral calculus by self-study by the time he was fifteen (Talmey, 1932, 162-64). When he left the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich at that age to join his parents who had emigrated to Italy, his mathematics teacher provided him with a letter stating that his mathematical knowledge was already at the level of the Abitur (university entrance standard) (Reiser, 1930, 42-43; Frank, 1948, 27; Fölsing, 1997, 30-1). His record was such that, despite being only sixteen, in 1895 he was given "exceptional dispensation" by the Director of the prestigious Zurich Polytechnic to take the entrance examination (Albert Einstein Collected Papers, Vol. 1, 1987, doc.7). Having spent the best part of a year without formal education, he failed, but his grades in physics and mathematics were exceptional (Fölsing, 1997, 37). At the end of a year spent at the high school in Aarau in Switzerland to bring his other subjects up to the required standard, his school record shows that in 1896 he obtained maximum grades in geometry and algebra (Collected Papers, Vol. 1, 1987, doc. 19). Despite neglecting mathematics to follow his extra-curricular interests in physics, in the mathematical component of the final examination for the physics and mathematics teaching diploma at the Zurich Polytechnic he achieved grade 5˝ on a scale 1-6 (Collected Papers, Vol. 1, 1987, doc. 67).


Mileva Marić followed a very different path. Illness, a congenital hip disability, and institutional obstacles facing a girl wishing to study physics at school in the Austro-Hungarian empire had to be overcome before she was able to graduate from high school in Zagreb in 1894 with excellent grades in mathematics and physics (Trbuhović-Gjurić, 1993, 26-7; 1991, 31, 36; Kristić, 2004, 30). She then attended the final year's courses at a Swiss girls' high school, following which she obtained her Matura­ (school leaving certificate) at the Federal Medical School in Bern in 1896. After attending courses at the Zurich University Medical School in the summer semester, she transferred to the course for teaching high school mathematics and physics at Zurich Polytechnic, having been required to take the mathematics entrance examinations, which she passed with a grade average of 4.25 (scale 1-6) (Trbuhović-Gjurić, 1993, 60). Thereafter her yearly coursework grades were generally fairly good (Trbuhović-Gjurić, 1993, 43; 1991, 49-50), but she struggled with the geometry courses taught by Wilhelm Fiedler (Renn & Schulmann, 1992, 12), and obtained only grade 2˝ (scale 1-6) in the mathematics component (theory of functions) of her final diploma examination, taken in 1900. (None of the other four candidates in their group obtained less than grade 5˝.) (Collected Papers, Vol. 1, 1987, doc. 67). Almost certainly her poor mathematics grades were the reason for her failing to be awarded  a teaching diploma in 1900 and again when she retook the examinations in 1901 (Stachel, 2002, 29; Kristić, 2004, 69), on this latter occasion under the adverse circumstances that she was some three months pregnant.


Marić's undistinguished higher education record in mathematics would be of little consequence if there were any sound, documented, evidence of mathematical achievement after she left the Polytechnic, but there is none. On the other hand, when Einstein was awarded a Ph.D. by Zurich University in 1905 the physics professor Alfred Kleiner wrote in his "Expert Opinion": "The arguments and calculations to be carried out are among the most difficult ones in hydrodynamics, and only a person possessing perspicacity and training in the handling of mathematical and physical problems could dare to tackle them." The mathematical difficulties (especially in the handling of differential equations) were such that the expert opinion of the head of mathematics, Professor Heinrich Burkardt, was sought, and he reported that what he checked he had "found to be correct without exception, and the manner of treatment demonstrates a thorough command of the mathematical methods involved" (emphasis in original).(Collected Papers, Vol. 5, 1995, doc. 31).


Given Einstein's mathematical talent, Marić's relative shortcomings, and the fact that prior to 1912 Einstein's work in theoretical physics did not involve him in mathematical material beyond his capabilities, it is highly implausible that in the years following their marriage in January 1903 he would have needed his wife to help him solve his mathematical problems. As Jürgen Renn, an editor of the Albert Einstein Collected Papers, observed, "If he had needed help with that kind of mathematics, he would have ended there" (Highfield & Carter, 1993, 114-15). Renn also noted that in any case the mathematics was not new, having been developed to a great extent by Lorentz, it was Einstein's conceptual innovation that was significant.


Examining the source of Hilary Rose's contentions


It is time to consider the source of the claim quoted above by Hilary Rose, namely Trbuhović-Gjurić's biography of Mileva Marić. Trbuhović-Gjurić's research for her book included contacting relatives, friends and acquaintances of the Marić family in the 1960s, after she retired from posts at Belgrade University and the Institute of Technology (Trbuhović-Gjurić, 1993, 209-10; 1991, 240). Most of their reports are third hand, provided some sixty years after the episodes in question, with all the unreliability of such reports from interested parties after such a lengthy time interval. (Highfield and Carter aptly describe them as "home-town folklore", while noting that Trbuhović-Gjurić herself wrote of her pride in Mileva Marić as "our great Serbian woman") (Highfield & Carter, 1993, 119).


The quotation reproduced by Rose, following Troemel-Ploetz, (that Einstein stated in 1905 that his wife solved all the mathematical problems for him), is a recollection recorded by Dr Ljubomir-Bata Dumić, and is reported by Trbuhović-Gjurić as having been said at a gathering of friends of Marić's younger brother Miloš in 1905 at which Einstein was present. (Trbuhović-Gjurić, 1993, 93; 1991, 106). Dr Dumić is also quoted as follows:


We raised our eyes towards Mileva as to a divinity, such was her knowledge of mathematics and her genius… We knew that she had made [Albert], that she was the creator of his glory. She solved for him all his mathematical problems, particularly those concerning the theory of relativity…


In the light of the information documented above about Einstein's considerable mathematical abilities, and Marić's undistinguished record at University level mathematics, I leave readers to decide on the reliability of such testimony from an interested party obtained many decades after the episode in question. (In the unlikely event that there is any substance to the report, it would have been entirely in character for Einstein to have uttered some such words to an appreciative audience as a self-deprecating quip.) It is also pertinent to note that in her occasional letters to her closest friend Helene Kaufler Savić, Marić refers to Einstein as the author of any papers to which she alludes (Popović, 2003, 70, 88, 101), and does not mention any contribution from herself. There seems no reason for her not to have at least hinted that she had given some assistance had this been the case, especially if she and Einstein had been so openly discussing it with friends of the Marić family as claimed by Trbuhović-Gjurić and Troemel-Ploetz.


We now come to the second substantive assertion in Hilary Rose's section on Mileva Marić, described as one of two key episodes demonstrating processes by which her work was "lost by her to him":


In one episode Mileva, through the collaboration with a mutual friend, Paul Habicht, constructed an innovatory device for measuring electrical currents. Having built the device the two inventors left it to Einstein to describe and patent, as he was at that time working in the patent office. He alone signed the publication and patented the device under the name Einstein‑Habicht. When asked why she had not given her own name of Einstein Maríc she asked, 'What for, we are both only "one stone" [Ein stein]?'. Later when the marriage had collapsed she found that the price of her selfless love and affectionate joke was that her work had become his. She also lost her personal health through trying to do the mathematical work to support his theorizing and simultanously [sic] take care of their children. (Rose, 1994, 143)

This report is based on Troemel-Ploetz's translation of a passage from Trbuhović-Gjurić which is devoid of any source reference (Troemel-Ploetz, 1990, 418; Trbuhović-Gjurić, 1993, 83; 1991, 95). However, the only documents pertaining to this episode tell a very different story. There are around twenty letters exchanged between Einstein and one or other of the Habicht brothers (Conrad and Paul) in the years 1907-1911 in which the "little machine" (Maschinchen) is discussed, but there is no mention of any contribution from Marić (Collected Papers, Vol. 5, 1995, docs. 48, 54, 56, 69, 86, 95, 99, 104, 108, 122, 124, 134, 150, 177, 190, 198, 202, 332). The development of the device for measuring small currents is well documented from the time Einstein reported his discovery of a new method of measuring very small quantities of electrical energy in a letter to Conrad and Paul Habicht dated 15 July 1907. (He had suggested the theoretical basis in the final paragraph of a paper he wrote in December 1906 on thermodynamic equilibrium.) (Collected Papers, Vol. 2, 1989, doc. 39). Einstein and Conrad had been close friends since Einstein had moved to Bern in 1902, before his marriage the following year; Paul, who in 1907 had started a small instrument-making company, used his laboratory for making and improving the device. There are nine letters from Paul to Einstein giving details of stages in the manufacture of the device, not one of which suggests that Marić was involved. At the end of three of these Paul adds conventional greetings to Einstein's family, but he refers to "your wife", not Mileva as one would expect if they had been working closely together in the way that Trbuhović-Gjurić claims. (In one letter to Einstein, dated 12 October 1908, Paul specifically refers to "your machine".)

In summary, the documentary evidence shows that it was Einstein who supplied the scientific knowledge and basic ideas for the construction that enabled Paul Habicht to manufacture the Maschinchen. There is no evidence to support Trbuhović-Gjurić's account of Marić's collaboration with Paul (which is not to say that Marić may not have given some minor help at some stage), and she supplies no information to indicate on what basis her contentions rest.


In relation to this story Rose repeats the anecdote about Marić's answering a question concerning her supposed collaboration by saying "we are both only 'one stone' [Ein stein]", but again Trbuhović-Gjurić supplies no information as to her source. She attributes the question to "one of the Habicht brothers", but the fact that she is unable to attribute this report specifically to one or other of the Habicht brothers is a measure of its unreliability.


Rose additionally asserts that Marić lost her personal health "through trying to do the mathematical work to support his theorizing" while simultaneously looking after the children. As we have seen, there is no serious evidence that Marić undertook any such mathematical work. Rose is here paraphrasing a passage from Troemel-Ploetz, in turn recycled from Trbuhović-Gjurić (who gives 1910 as the year of the onset of ill-health) (Troemel-Ploetz, 1990, 426; Trbuhović-Gjurić, 1993, 106-07; 1991, 122). But, apart from a short period following the difficult birth of her second son Eduard in 1910, Marić's decline into depression, and onset of rheumatism in her legs that exacerbated her difficulties with a congenital dislocated hip, did not start until the winter of 1912-1913, when the couple's relationship was in the first stages towards the breaking point which was reached in 1914 (Trbuhović-Gjurić, 1993, 120-21; 1991, 138-39; Isaacson, 2007, 161, 177-78). (Marić's severe breakdown in health occurred in 1916, two years after their separation.) (Trbuhović-Gjurić, 1993, 138-39; 1991, 159-61; Isaacson, 2007, 230).


The claims that Mileva Marić co-authored Einstein's 1905 papers


Rose next directs attention to what she describes as "the even more disturbing episode of the articles published in 1905 in the Leipzig Annalen der Physik." She continues:


Of the five key papers, two of the originally submitted manuscripts were signed also by Mileva, but by the time of their publication, her name had been removed. These two articles, written in what was widely understood as Einstein's golden age, included the theory of special relativity which was to change the nature of physics, and for which he alone received the Nobel prize… (Rose, 1994, 143)


Rose is here citing Troemel-Ploetz's recycling of a section from Trbuhović-Gjurić (who actually refers to three papers – Rose has misread Troemel-Ploetz on this, and also when she erroneously writes that Einstein obtained the Nobel prize for his special relativity paper. [Troemel-Ploetz, 1990, 419; Trbuhović-Gjurić, 1993, 97; 1991, 111-12].) However, Trbuhović-Gjurić's report is an object lesson in how not to present an historical contention. She purports to provide the substance of a passage by the Soviet physicist Abraham Joffe in his article "In Remembrance of Albert Einstein", published in 1955. However, she fails to quote Joffe's actual words, and instead gives a paraphrase that includes the basic contention followed by supporting information that misleadingly reads as if it also came from Joffe. But the unreferenced supporting evidence is without foundation, as is the basic contention that Joffe wrote that (in Troemel-Ploetz's words) "the original manuscripts [for the three papers] were signed Einstein-Marić".


It is impossible in a short space to fully document the errors in Trbuhović-Gjurić's contentions about Joffe, but this has been done in meticulous detail by John Stachel in his Introduction to the 1905 edition of Einstein's Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics. (Stachel, 2005, liv-lxxii). As Martínez also documents, "Joffe did not claim that Marić co-authored or collaborated in any of Einstein's papers. And he did not claim that her name was on the original manuscripts…" (Martínez, 2005, 51-52). Martínez adds that in multiple places throughout his career Joffe acknowledged Einstein as sole author of the three papers; indeed passages in Joffe's book "Meetings with Scientists" are inconsistent with all of Trbuhović-Gjurić's contentions in the section in question (Joffe, 1967, 23-24, 92-93).


When confronted with the fact that Joffe did not write that he had seen the original manuscripts, some proponents of the collaboration thesis continue to emphasize that in his commemorative article Joffe referred to the author of the three papers as Einstein-Marity, and contend that he was thereby hinting that Marić was actually a co-author. ("Marity" is a Hungarian variant of the Serbian "Marić" and is the form Marić used on their marriage certificate [Stachel, 2005, lx; Collected Papers, Vol. 5,  doc. 4].) But Joffe referred to the author (in the singular) specifically as "a bureaucrat the Patent Office in Bern" at the time (namely Albert Einstein). It is impossible now to ascertain why he chose on this single occasion to write "Einstein-Marity", but he did by way of explanation add in parentheses: "Marity – the maiden name of his wife, which by Swiss custom is added to the husband's family name." While Joffe was mistaken about its prevalence, there are certainly examples of such use among Swiss scientists in the past, e.g., Johannes Friedrich Miescher-Rüsch, Friedrich Miescher-His and Hans Weil-Malherbe. It seems possible that in the special circumstances of a commemoration, Joffe thought it appropriate to use what he thought was the formal form of Einstein's name as someone who had been married in Switzerland.


On a minor issue, Rose refers to "the puzzle of Einstein's gift of the [Nobel] prize money to Mileva Maríc even though they were by then separated." She suggests that perhaps the money was meant to compensate for his appropriation of Maríc's collaborative work. But there is no puzzle. Einstein wanted to be free to marry his cousin Elsa, and to overcome Maríc's resistance to a divorce he proposed that the anticipated Nobel Prize award should be placed in trust in her name in a Swiss bank (Marić and the children were living in Zurich), and that she would be able to draw freely on the interest, and on the capital only with his consent (Collected Papers, Vol. 8, docs. 449, 562).


Rose writes that Trbuhović-Gjurić's book "has raised doubts in the physics community", for which claim she cites a letter in Physics Today in February 1989 by the late Evan Harris Walker, who had a Ph.D. in physics, and was president of the Walker Cancer Research Institute. Now he was hardly a member of the "physics community" at that time, whereas, in the words of historian of physics Gerald Holton and historian Robert Schulmann, "All serious Einstein scholarship has shown that the scientific collaboration between the couple was slight and one-sided" (Letter, New York Times, 8 October 1995). Such scholarship has been undertaken by Pais, Holton, Stachel, and Martínez (Pais, 1994: 1-29; Holton, 170-93; Stachel, 1996: 207-219; 2002: 26-38; Martínez, 2005: 49-56).

Rose writes that "disturbingly, John Hackel [actually Stachel], editor of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Vols I and II, ignores this evidence [from Walker]." But in the very same issue of Physics Today Stachel provided a detailed reply to the letter in question and wrote that "Walker has created a 'speculative picture' that has more the flavour of a Hollywood script than of a serious evaluation" (Walker, 1989, 10-13). Unbeknown to Rose, Stachel also responded to Walker's (and Troemel-Ploetz's) contentions in March 1990 in a talk delivered at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Stachel, 2002, 21-38). There he commented: "I know nothing about cancer therapy, but if I had to judge Walker solely on the basis of his letter on Einstein, I would have to conclude that he is a fantasist who judges reality on the basis of his own desires." Having examined closely Walker's letter, and a later letter in response to Stachel's reply (Walker, 1991, 122-23) I concur that his tendentious treatment of Einstein's academic record and other topics, and wish-fulfilling contentions in relation to Marić, disqualify Walker as a serious historian on the matters at issue (Stachel, 2002, 31-38).


A serious historical researcher would always keep in mind the thrust of a wry comment by Stachel at the 1990 AAAS meeting, directed at Troemel-Ploetz and Walker: "I must emphasize that bare assertions, particularly by interested parties, do not constitute proof of such assertions, even when these assertions are repeated in print, even in a book" (2002, 32).

It is pertinent to finish by noting that Trbuhović-Gjurić, the source of almost everything directly pertaining to Marić's alleged contributions to Einstein's work in Troemel-Ploetz's much-cited 1990 article, fails repeatedly on the above test of basic scholarly standards. Her book contains no index or bibliography, and is almost entirely devoid of reference citations. Even when the original source of a passage can be tracked down, it occasionally turns out to be misleadingly paraphrased. Again, aside from the author's numerous unverifiable reports from interested parties obtained many decades after the event, she reproduces (unreferenced) several passages, most virtually word for word, from a book on Einstein by an author of children's books which are imagined scenarios with invented dialogue, as should have been perfectly obvious in a book replete with such episodes (Forsee 1963: 10-12, 23; Trbuhović-Gjurić 1993: 40-41, 81; 1991: 46-47, 94). Likewise she uncritically reproduces from Peter Michelmore's unreliable popular biography of Einstein several items, some clearly also invented episodes with imagined dialogue (Michelmore 1963: 41; 50; 49; Trbuhović-Gjurić 1993: 90-91, 106-107, 108;  1991: 103, 122-123, 124). (Contrary to Trbuhović-Gjurić's statement, repeated by Troemel-Ploetz, Michelmore did not obtain information from Einstein himself.) (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1993: 90;  1991: 103; Troemel-Ploetz 1990: 419; Michelmore 1963: ix). Yet almost all the contentions supposedly buttressing the case for Marić's collaboration with Einstein on his epoch-making work in the early years of their marriage are dependent on this book, described with justice by the Einstein biographer Albrecht Fölsing as containing a combination of fictional invention and pseudo‑documentation (belletristischer Erfindung und Pseudodokumentation) (Fölsing 1990). It is on the basis of such flimsy evidence that Trbuhović-Gjurić asserts as a categorical statement of fact: "From the beginning of Einstein's studies up to the time he went to Prague [March 1911], she had been for him an absolutely indispensable collaborator" (Trbuhović-Gjurić: 1993: 98;  1991: 113).

Finally: Troemel-Ploetz's 1990 article has added appreciably to the numerous errors and misconceptions in Trbuhović-Gjurić's book. In discussing Einstein's achievements she displays a lack of understanding of the items concerning Einstein and mathematics that she cites, and of knowledge of the immense amount of pertinent literature on or by Einstein in the period in question that argues against the validity of her position. She is highly selective in the documented items she cites, misconceiving some of them, and omitting any mention of the considerable number of documents pointing to a contrary conclusion. In addition she fails to meet basic scholarly standards for scrutinizing Trbuhović-Gjurić's book: she makes not the least attempt to consider the reliability of the numerous unverifiable assertions, or to check original sources on the rare occasions that the author provides sufficient information for them to be tracked down.


By uncritically recycling passages from Troemel-Ploetz's flawed article Hilary Rose displays a corresponding failure to meet these same basic scholarly standards. It is disappointing to find this section of her 1994 book reprinted in a Reader in Feminist Science Studies which includes in its Introduction the exemplary statement that among the norms for acquiring scientific knowledge is "skepticism (all claims should be scrutinized for errors)" (Wyer, 2001, xix).




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Posted March 2010