PBS Theory and Practice: The Case of “Einstein’s Wife”

 

Theory

 

PUBLIC BROADCASTING SERVICE
EDITORIAL STANDARDS AND POLICIES

 

IV. Editorial Standards

B. Accuracy

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http://www.pbs.org/aboutpbs/aboutpbs_standards.html

 

Practice

The errors and misleading statements in the material on the PBS “Einstein’s Wife” website are enumerated below:

1. “Why was she [Mileva Marić] erased from Einstein’s life story?”

Marić has been alluded to in virtually all biographies of Einstein.

2. “Einstein’s autobiographies never mentioned his first wife.”

This is both misleading and false. Misleading, because Einstein didn’t write an autobiography in the usual sense.  The essay with the title “Autobiographical Notes” that he wrote for the volume Albert Einstein: Philosopher Scientist (ed. P. S. Schilpp, Open Court, 1949) is an account of his scientific development, and contains no personal information other than that pertaining to science and philosophy.  False, because in the eight-page biographical sketch (“Autobiographische Skizze”) which appeared in Heile Zeit – Dunkle Zeit, in Memoriam Albert Einstein (ed. Carl Selig, 1956) he did mention Marić (p. 10).

3. “The world only learned of her [Marić’s] existence through the first release of Einstein’s private letters in 1987.”

This is completely false. All biographies of Einstein from that of Anton Reiser (1930) to Abraham Pais (1982) mention Marić, sometimes providing considerable details. [1]

4. “The debate [over the contention that Marić was “Einstein’s intellectual partner”] remains open, in part because it appears that Einstein's executrix systematically destroyed potential evidence.”

There is no evidence that any documents pertaining to this issue were deliberately destroyed, systematically or otherwise, and none is provided.[2]

5. “But she starts her second year with a semester in Heidelberg. Mileva and Albert exchange letters while she is away. She describes, in great detail, the satisfactions of her studies.”

There is a single letter from Marić to Einstein in this period in which, at the very end of a five-paragraph letter she gives a half-paragraph account in rather jocular fashion of one lecture on the kinetic theory of gases. (Renn and Schulmann [1992], p. 4)

6. “He demands all her time [in their latter period at Zurich Polytechnic]. She sacrifices her studies as well as her friends.”

The letters from Marić to Einstein show that she was as keen to spend time with Einstein as he with her. Einstein’s letters show that he strongly encouraged Marić in her studies (letters 10 Sept 1899, 13 Sept 1900, 23 March 1901, 28 May 1901, Renn and Schulmann [1992], pp. 13, 32, 38, 54.)

7. “In the summer of 1900, they both fail their final exams. He somehow gets a diploma…”

This is false. In July 1900 five candidates, including Einstein, were awarded the diploma by the Conference of Examiners of Zurich Polytechnic (Collected Papers of Albert Einstein Volume 1, ed. J. Stachel et al [1987], p. 247). Marić was not awarded the diploma.

8. “Unlike Mileva, Einstein doesn’t like dealing with statistics. But the work of 1905 has given Albert a mantle of leadership in the new field of relativity theory. He is revolted by the statistical nature of the work that others are producing on the basis of his discoveries. He doesn’t like the randomness of it all and expresses his feelings with the pronouncement, ‘The good God does not play dice with the universe’.”

There is no evidence that Marić liked “dealing with statistics”, or indeed any evidence whatsoever of her capabilities in this area of mathematics. On the other hand Einstein made several major contributions to statistical physics. (The quotation provided has nothing to do with immediate developments from Einstein’s 1905 papers, but relates to his views on the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics developed some two decades later.)

See “Einstein on the Foundations of Statistical Physics”, Collected Papers Vol. 1, ed. J. Stachel et al (1987), pp. 41-55; also “Statistical Physics”, in A. Pais (1982), pp. 53-107.

9. In 1912 “Albert has a new math collaborator, Marcel Grossman.”

The implication here is that prior to that time Marić had been his collaborator in mathematics. There is no evidence that this is the case. In fact it was Marić’s weakness in mathematics that was the main reason she failed her diploma exam: In 1900 her grade for the mathematics component of the exam was less than half that of the other four candidates. (Collected Papers Vol. 1, ed. J. Stachel et al, 1987, p. 247)

10. “There are several credible scientists who believe Mileva may have collaborated on at least some of the 1905 papers. Among her supporters is Abram Joffe (Ioffe), a respected member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences… Unfortunately, Joffe died in 1960, before anyone had much interest in Mileva. But there is at least one printed report in which Joffe declared that he personally saw the names of two authors on the 1905 papers: Einstein and Marity (a Hungarianized form of Marić).”

The statement refers to “several credible scientists”, but the only one cited is Joffe. The contention that “Joffe declared that he personally saw the names of two authors on the 1905 papers” is false. What Joffe actually wrote, in an obituary of Einstein, was the following:

“In the year 1905, in Annals of Physics, there appeared three articles, thereupon beginning three most important, relevant directions in the physics of the 20th century… Their author – unknown until that time, a bureaucrat at the Patent Office in Bern, Einstein-Marity (Marity – the last name of his wife, which by Swiss custom is added to the last name of the husband).”

(i) Joffe does not state that he personally saw the original manuscripts. (ii) Joffe is not one of Marić’s “supporters”. He states unambiguously that he is referring to one author, a “bureaucrat at the Patent Office in Berne”, namely, Albert Einstein.

See Martínez, A. A. (2005): Handling Evidence in History: The Case of Einstein’s Wife

Had Joffe intended to indicate that the papers were co-authored he would have referred to “the authors” (in the plural) and given two separate names.

11. “There are also tantalizing clues in the letters Mileva exchanges with Albert, and with their friends. On the other hand, Mileva never demanded any public credit for the work of 1905, and never claimed she was Einstein’s collaborator.”

The only “tantalising clues” in letters to their friends occur in Marić’s letters to her friend Helene Kaufler in which she unequivocally assigns the authorship of papers of Einstein’s to him alone, e.g.:

 “Albert wrote a paper in physics that will probably soon be published in the Annalen der Physik” (20 Dec. 1900). “Albert has written a magnificent study, which he has submitted as his dissertation…I have read this work with great joy and real admiration for my darling, who has such a clever head” (December 1901). “…the papers he has written are already mounting quite high” (December 1906). (Popović [2003], pp. 70, 79-80, 88.)

Marić’s letters to Einstein (from the years when they were students at Zurich Polytechnic and immediately after) are almost entirely devoted to personal matters, other than the occasional reference to material related to her diploma course and dissertations. There is not a single letter in which Marić provides any personal contribution to Einstein’s extra-curricular physics interests to which he frequently alludes in his letters to her. (Renn and Schulmann [1992]; see Stachel [2002], pp. 33-37; 44-48. See also the section headed “The Einstein/Marić correspondence and related claims” at http://www.esterson.org/milevamaric.htm.)

12. “In the midst of the debate, the editors of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein have claimed neutral territory, noting, "We have found no documentary evidence that would demonstrate her active participation in his scientific work, but we do not endorse the view that she took no part in it. We simply do not know."

No source is given for the quotation (which is hardly neutral, as it states that no evidence has been found to support the claims that Marić collaborated on Einstein’s scientific work, while implicitly acknowledging that it is not possible to prove a negative in such a case). The assertion that “editors” of the Collected Papers have taken a neutral stance is certainly false. The founding editor, John Stachel, has published articles strongly disputing the claims: “The available evidence does not support such claims, as I have argued elsewhere [Stachel 2002 (1990), pp. 21-38] and will argue here.” (Stachel 1996) Another editor, Robert Schulmann, has stated (with Gerald Holton) that “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).

PBS Classroom Lessons

13. “Encourage students to understand that she was a gifted scholar and scientist prior to meeting Albert Einstein.”

Prior to meeting Einstein Marić had only just graduated from high school. (Her record in the Zurich Polytechnic diploma examinations was mediocre: in the intermediate exam she was fifth out of the six students in her group, and she twice failed the final diploma examination.)

14. “She is excited and intrigued by the research of the professors [at Heidelberg University, 1897-1898]. She shares her knowledge with Albert in their correspondence.”

In the single letter that Marić wrote to Einstein in that period there is a rather naively expressed half-paragraph reporting a lecture by Philipp Lenard on the kinetic theory of gases. There is nothing about Lenard’s research, which at that time was on cathode rays. (Lenard’s four-hour course was on Heat Theory and Electrodynamics [Collected Papers Vol. 1, ed. J. Stachel et al, 1987, p. 59, n.7].)

15. “In the end, Albert receives his diploma, but Mileva is denied hers because of marks slightly below Albert’s.”

On a grading scale 1-6, Einstein’s overall average grade was 4.91 (approximating to 78%). Marić’s overall average grade was 4.00 (approximating to 60%). The difference of 18% is appreciable. (Einstein’s grade was approximately 5% below the candidate immediately above him, and 11% below that of the top candidate.) (Collected Papers Vol. I, p. 247)

16. “[Marić] collaborated with Albert Einstein for years as a student and then as his wife.”

There is no document that demonstrates that Marić collaborated with Einstein on any of his published papers. (Stachel [2002], pp. 26-38; 44-48) In letters to her close friend Helene Kaufler, Marić attributed Einstein’s papers solely to him; for instance, on the very first paper published by Einstein in 1901 Marić wrote: “Albert wrote a paper in physics that will probably soon be published in Annalen der Physik. You can imagine how proud I am of my darling.” (Popović [2003], p. 70)

Letters in their student days do indicate collaboration on topics relating to their diploma studies, notably on heat conduction, the subject that both of them chose for their diploma dissertations, and for their (discontinued) Ph.D. theses in 1900-1901. (Renn & Schulmann [1992], pp. 30, 32.)  Marić evidently also assisted Einstein in looking up data in this period.

17. “She decides to specialize in theoretical physics.”

The diploma course taken by Einstein and Marić at Zurich University was for teaching mathematics and physics in high school.

18. “They published some early works together and conducted research together. They shared information through their writing. She brought back information [from Heidelberg University, 1897-1898] that served as part of the foundation of quantum mechanics.”

There are no “early works” published jointly by Einstein and Marić. The only documented research that they did together was in relation to heat conduction, the topic they both chose for their diploma dissertations. The “information” in their letters in this period, insofar as it relates to extra-curricular topics in physics, comes entirely from Einstein. The statement that Marić brought back from her studies in Heidelberg information relating to the foundation of quantum mechanics is scientific nonsense. In 1905 Einstein’s introduced the notion of light quanta to explain experimental results on the photoelectric effect that were published by Lenard in 1902. The short course given by Lenard that Marić attended at Heidelberg University 1897 was on heat theory and electrodynamics. (Collected Works Vol. 1, p. 59, n.7)

19. “[Marić] had the education and the ability to conduct the research. They worked closely together for years, but she is not always listed on the papers.”

In addition to the fact that she failed her diploma examination, there is not a single item of evidence to show that Marić had the ability to emulate Einstein’s work which resulted in the publication of the 1905 papers.

20. “Mileva Einstein-Marić was, in many ways, a pioneering woman in the world of physics. She and her husband, Albert Einstein, studied and contributed to the then developing field of Quantum Physics.”

There is not a single piece of evidence that Marić made any contribution whatever to quantum physics.

21. “She studied with Philipp Lenard [at Heidelberg University], who was a pioneer in quantum physics.”

Marić attended a short course on Heat Theory and Electrodynamics given by Lenard at Heidelberg. He is renowned for his experimental work on the photoelectric effect, and was not a pioneer in quantum physics.

22. “[Marić] and Albert focused on studying the more cutting edge physics that she had learned with Lennard [sic], and they began skipping classes.”

There is no evidence that the material in the short course of Lenard’s that Marić attended at Heidelberg University had any bearing on Einstein’s extra-curricular research. There is no evidence that Marić cut classes at Zurich Polytechnic.

23. “They both failed their exams, but Albert’s grades were rounded up to a passing mark and Mileva’s grades were not.”

This is false. There is no evidence that Einstein’s grades were “rounded up” to enable him to pass.

24. “Mileva agrees to a divorce, on the condition that any future Nobel Prize money will be hers. Oddly, Albert agrees.” Again: “Mileva denies him the divorce until he agrees to a specific agreement…Ask students to what the requirement was (Any future proceeds from a Nobel Prize would be given to her…) Ask students to predict why he would have agreed to give up that money.”

Contrary to these statements, it was Einstein who, to overcome Marić’s opposition, made the proposal about the Nobel Prize money (among other financial inducements), in order “to do everything to make this step [a divorce] possible” (letter, 31 January 1918: Collected Papers Volume 8, English trans. A. M. Hentschel, 1998, p. 456). In fact the capital was to be held in safe keeping in Switzerland for their children, with the interest left to Marić. See Divorce Agreement (Collected Papers Vol. 8, [Eng. trans.], p. 584). The implication that Einstein “agreed” to cede the Nobel Prize money to Marić because she contributed to the 1905 papers is without foundation.

25. “Any future proceeds from a Nobel Prize would be given to her. Albert even tried to keep it a secret, through a series of financial transactions to hide the transfer.

No evidence is provided for the claim that Einstein tried to hide the fact that he had agreed to cede the Nobel Prize money to Marić. It was clearly stated in one of the clauses in the Divorce Agreement, submitted to the judge at the divorce proceedings, that the capital should be deposited in Switzerland. (Collected Papers Volume 8, [English trans.], 1998, p. 584-585)

 

See http://www.esterson.org/einsteinwife2.htm for a more detailed examination of the contents of the PBS “Einstein’s Wife” website material.

For a critical examination of the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary promoted by PBS, see http://www.esterson.org/einsteinwife1.htm

 

NOTES

1. Biographies that mention Mileva Marić include:

Reiner, A. (1930). Albert Einstein: A Biographical Portrait.

Frank, P. (1948). Einstein: His Life and Times.

Seelig, C. (1956). Albert Einstein: A Documentary Biography.

Michelmore, P. (1962). Einstein: Profile of the Man.

Forsee, A. (1963). Albert Einstein: Theoretical Physicist.

Clark, R. (1971). Einstein: The Life and Times.

Hoffman, B. and Dukas, H. (1973). Albert Einstein, Creator and Rebel.

Pais, A. (1982). Subtle is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein.

2. On the question of missing documents: When, in accordance with Einstein’s will, the Einstein Archive was transferred to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Robert Schulmann, one of the Associate Editors of the project, discovered that six letters from Einstein to his cousin (and later second wife) Elsa dating from 1912-1915 were missing. It is not known what happened to these letters. (It is possible that Helen Dukas, one of the two Trustees of the Einstein estate, may have destroyed the letters, which contain passages denigrating Marić and revealing of his relationship with Elsa when he was still married to Marić.) However, copies had already been made, and have been published in volume 5 of the Collected Papers. In any case, this has no bearing on the question of Marić’s alleged contributions to Einstein’s work, and there is no evidence whatever to support the PBS website suggestion that documents were “systematically destroyed” to conceal “potential evidence” on this issue. The correspondence between Einstein and Marić was in the possession of the family of Hans Albert Einstein, the deceased elder son of Einstein and Marić. After its existence was discovered by Schulmann, the family gave permission for its publication. (Highfield and Carter [1993], pp. 279-282)

 

References

Einstein, A. (1987). The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein: Volume 1. Ed. J. Stachel et al. Princeton University Press.

Einstein, A. (1987). The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein: Volume 1 (English trans.) (Beck & Havas. Princeton University Press.

Einstein, A. (1949). “Autobiographical Notes.” In Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, ed. P. A. Schilpp, Evanston, Ill.: Library of Living Philosophers, Inc.

Einstein, A. (1956 [1954]). “Autobiographische Skizze.” In C. Seelig (ed.), Helle Zeit – Dunkle Zeit: In memoriam Albert Einstein, Zurich: Europa Verlag, 1956.

Esterson, A. (2006a). A critical examination of the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary: http://www.esterson.org/einsteinwife1.htm

Esterson, A. (2006b). A critical examination of the PBS “Einstein’s Wife” website material: http://www.esterson.org/einsteinwife2.htm

Highfield, R. and Carter, P. (1993). The Private Lives of Albert Einstein. London: Faber and Faber.

Holton, G. (2000). Einstein, History, and Other Passions: The Rebellion Against Science at the End of the Twentieth Century. Harvard University Press.

Joffe, A. F. (1955). Pamiati Alberta Einsteina. Uspekhi fizicheskikh nauk, 57 (2), 187.

Martínez, A. A. (2005). Handling Evidence in History: The Case of Einstein’s Wife. School Science Review, March 2005, 86 (316).

Pais, A. (1982). Subtle is the Lord…: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein. Oxford University Press.

Popović, M. (2003). In Albert's Shadow The Life and Letters of Mileva Marić, Einstein’s First Wife. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Renn, J. and Schulmann, R. (eds.) (1992). Albert Einstein and Mileva Maric: The Love Letters. Trans. by S. Smith. Princeton University Press.

Stachel, J. (1989). Letter, Physics Today, February 1989, pp. 11-13.

http://philoscience.unibe.ch/lehre/winter99/einstein/Walker_Stachel.pdf

Stachel, J. (1996). “Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić: A Collaboration that Failed to Develop.” In H. M. Pycior, N. G. Slack, and P. G. Abir-Am (eds.), Creative Couples in the Sciences, Rutgers University Press. Reprinted in Stachel, J. (2002), Einstein from ‘B’ to ‘Z’, Boston/Basel/Berlin: Birkhauser, pp. 39–55.

http://philoscience.unibe.ch/lehre/winter99/einstein/Stachel1966.pdf

Stachel, J. (2002). Einstein from ‘B’ to ‘Z’. Boston/Basel/ Berlin: Birkhäuser.

Stachel, J. (ed.) (2005). Einstein’s Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics. Princeton University Press.

 

September 2006

Allen Esterson’s Home Page: http://www.esterson.org/