John Stachel’s reply to Senta Troemel-Ploetz and Evan Harris Walker, including an analysis of Einstein’s use of personal pronouns in his letters to Mileva Marić

 

The following is a talk delivered by John Stachel to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, New Orleans, March 5, 1990. published in J. Stachel, Einstein from ‘B’ to ‘Z(2002), Cambridge, MA: Birkhäuser, pp. 31-38, republished here by permission of the author.

 

Preliminary Comments on the AAAS Papers

(March 5, 1990)

 

A reply to sensational claims is always difficult. A German statesman of the nineteenth century put the problem well: “Denials never have the fascination and the impact of false reports.” All that one can do is to weigh the evidence put forward in support of such a claim in the light of all the available evidence bearing on the question. This does not result in high drama, but perhaps in the long run it may do some good.

 

I do not yet have copies of Walker’s or Troemel-Ploetz’s papers; so all I can do is to add some preliminary comments based on some hasty notes on their talks that I took at the AAAS meeting.

 

Troemel-Ploetz states that it is common knowledge in Zurich that Marić collaborated with Einstein, solved Einstein’s mathematical problems, etc. She also cites from the biography of Marić by Desanka Trubhović Gjurić (Im Schatten Albert Einsteins: Das tragische Leben der Mileva Einstein-Marić) a number of comments by relatives and friends of the Marić family indicating that it was well-known in her home town that she did made important scientific contributions. Many things are well known in this world: For example, it was well known in Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s that the Jews were the cause of all the people’s misfortunes. And, as one of James Thurber’s “Fables for our Times” points out, it is well known that rabbits, by stamping on the ground with their hind feet, cause earthquakes. The question is not whether some assertion is common knowledge, but what is the evidence that it is true? I shall go into their claims in detail when I have Walker's and Troemel-Ploetz’s papers, but here 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.

 

Walker makes much of a claim by Trbuhović-Gjurić that Abram Joffe, the Russian physicist, saw the manuscript of the 1905 relativity paper before it was published, and that it had both Einstein’s and Marić’s names on it. Dr. Robert Schulmann, an editor of the Einstein Papers, interviewed Dr. Trbuhović-Gjurić several years ago (she has since died), and asked her about the evidence for this claim. She cited the published memoirs of Joffe as her source. However, in his memoirs, Joffe makes no such claim. Indeed, apart from the fact that it is not made by Joffe, the claim is suspect – to put it politely – on a number of grounds. First of all, Joffe is supposed to have seen the manuscript because he was then working with Wilhelm Roentgen, a member of the Curatorium [Board of Editors] of the Annalen der Physik, the journal to which the paper was submitted. But Roentgen was an experimentalist, and there is no reason why a purely theoretical paper should have been submitted to him for review when two members of the Curatorium, Paul Drude (the editor) and Max Planck, were both outstanding theorists quite capable of evaluating the paper – indeed, both obviously did read it since they soon made reference to it in their own published writings. Second, if both names were on the paper when it was submitted to the Annalen, who removed Marić’s name? The Annalen had no policy forbidding publication of articles by women! Third, if Roentgen read the paper even before it was published in 1905, why did he wait until 1906 to ask Einstein for a reprint of it? I think Trbuhović-Djurić's claim must be rejected on the grounds of both lack of evidence and of inherent implausibility.

 

I could give numerous other examples of assertions about Einstein that have been repeated from source to source but proved to be totally unsubstantiated when subject to close examination (for some examples, see Schulmann and Stachel, Comments on Pyenson’s Review of “The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Vol. 1, The Early Years” available from me on request).

 

Troemel-Ploetz claims that discrimination was responsible for Marić’s failure to graduate from the Swiss Federal Polytechnical School, or Poly. She claims that both Einstein and Marić failed the final examinations for the diploma, but that Einstein was allowed to graduate while Marić was not. This claim is based on an unsubstantiated assertion that a grade of “5” (out of “6”) was needed to pass at that time. I have searched the regulations of the Poly in vain for any such rule. The report of the grades by the head of Section VIA of the Poly (Vol. 1, p. 247) includes no statement that Einstein had failed the examination. Since Einstein and Marić were the only two students taking the examination in physics that year, all we can do is compare their grades, as I did in my paper, and note that Einstein’s average was 4.91 while Marić’s was 4.00. If there was discrimination against Marić in grading their examinations, it must have been differential discrimination since it was her grade in mathematics (theory of functions) that was primarily responsible for pulling her average down significantly below Einstein’s. But, as indicated in my paper, women had been graduating from the Poly for decades by the time Marić took the exams (twice) and failed, and continued to do so after she left. So the fact that she was a woman cannot by itself account for her failure. Any charge of discrimination will have to answer the question: What did the examiners have against Marić specifically?

 

Both Walker and Troemel-Ploetz suggest in no uncertain terms that, at the very least, Marić and Einstein collaborated on the special theory of relativity, if the basic ideas were not actually hers alone. The only piece of contemporary evidence offered in support of this claim is Einstein's statement in a letter to Marić:

 

How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a successful conclusion! (letter of 27 March 1901, Vol. 1, p. 282, translation from Stachel, Physics Today, May 1987, p. 46). [See this volume, p. 171].

 

First of all, let us look at the context in which this statement occurs. It does not occur in a scientific context, but in the course of Einstein's attempt to reassure Marić of his love in a letter written from his home in Milan during a separation occasioned by his attempt to find a job – a separation about which she was not very happy:

 

Right now Michele [Besso] is staying in Trieste at his parents with his wife and child and only returns here [Milan] in about 10 days. You need have no fear that I will say a word to him or anyone else about you. You are and will remain a holy shrine to me into which no one may enter; I also know that of all people you love me most deeply and understand me best. I also assure you that no one here either dares to or wants to say anything bad about you. How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a successful conclusion! When I look at other people, then I truly realize what you are! (27 March 1901, Vol. 1, p. 282).

 

Einstein is clearly a young man, deeply in love, who has relaxed his own ego boundaries to include Marić within them – a not uncommon phenomenon among lovers – although he maintained a wary and perhaps even hostile sense of separation between the two of them and the rest of the world. That a lover in such a situation should over-value the accomplishments of the beloved, and identify the achievements of one member of the couple as achievements of the pair is also not uncommon. (See the addendum at the end of this paper.)

 

Bearing this possibility in mind, let us examine Einstein's and Marić's other comments in their correspondence that bear on the topics that led in 1905 to the paper that Einstein called “On The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” the paper that constitutes the foundation of what is now called the special theory of relativity. The very term “electrodynamics of moving bodies” is used in the first letter by Einstein that touches on the subject, his letter of 10 August 1899. In this remarkable letter, he comments at some length on the topic, his remarks taking up about one-half of the letter:

 

I am more and more convinced that the electrodynamics of moving bodies, as currently presented, is not correct, and that it should be possible to present it in a simpler way. The introduction of the term “ether” into theories of electricity leads to the notion of a medium of whose motion one can speak without, I believe, being able to associate any physical meaning with such a statement. I believe that electrical forces can only be directly defined for empty space, as Hertz also emphasizes. Further electrical currents are to be considered not as “the vanishing of electrical polarization in time,” but as motion of true electric charges, the physical reality of which seems to be proven by the electrochemical equivalent. Mathematically, they are then always to be considered in the form dX/dx + . + .  Electrodynamics would then be the theory of the motions of moving electricities and magnetisms in empty space: Which of the two conceptions must be selected must be decided by the radiation experiments.

 

This case is one of the few in which we happen to have Marić’s reply to Einstein's letter (actually to this and Einstein's previous letter). What does she say in response to his comments on electrodynamics? Nothing! She discusses her happiness on getting his letters, she approves of his statement that he is not studying too much, she sends greetings to Einstein’s mother and sister (with whom he was vacationing), she worries about her impending examinations. Near the end of the letter, she writes: In truth, you aren’t letting anyone read my letters, you must promise me that (Vol. 1, p. 229), suggesting that she shares his feeling it is the two of them against the world (see his letter cited above). But there is not a word about any scientific topic in her letter, let alone a response to Einstein's lengthy discussion of his ideas about the electrodynamics of moving bodies.

 

The next letter that refers to this topic is his of 10 September 1899:

 

A good way of investigating how a body’s relative motion with respect to the luminiferous ether affects the velocity of propagation of light in transparent bodies occurred to me in Aarau [a Swiss town Einstein had recently visited]. I have also thought of a theory on this subject that seems to me to be very plausible. But enough of this! (Vol. 1, p. 230, translation from Stachel, Physics Today, May 1987, p. 45).

 

I have added, and will continue to add my own emphasis to each use of “I,” “my,” etc. in his letters. If we are going to attach great significance to one use of “our” in this context, I insist that we attach similar significance to his many uses of first person singular pronouns in the same context. It should also be borne in mind that his letters cited were written during periods when Einstein and Marić were separated for some time; so there is a strong presumption that any new work he reports to her during these periods really is exclusively his.

 

A couple of weeks later, during the same period of separation, he writes:

 

I also wrote to Professor [Wilhelm] Wien in Aachen about the work on the relative motion of the luminiferous ether with respect to ponderable matter, which “the boss” [Heinrich Friedrich Weber, Einstein’s physics professor at the Polytechnical School] treated in such a stepmotherly fashion. I read a very interesting paper from the year 1893 by this man [Wien] on the same topic (Vol. 1, pp. 233‑234, translation from Stachel, Physics Today, May 1987, pp. 45‑46).

 

The paper by Wien, entitled “On Questions Relating to the Translatory Motion of the Luminiferous Ether” discusses a number of experiments, including the renowned experiment by Michelson and Morley on this topic. I take this as evidence that Einstein knew something about this experiment by the time he wrote this letter. Even if Marić were the person who first informed Einstein about this experiment, as Dr. Troemel‑Ploetz suggested in New Orleans on the basis of the flimsiest evidence, it would not have been a very significant input into the development of the special theory of relativity. But factually, this letter shows that Einstein would have found out about it on his own, in any case, by September 1899.

 

There is now a gap of over a year in references to this topic. The next reference is in Einstein's letter of 27 March 1901, the one about “our work” cited first above. The next letter that may refer to this topic is that of Marić to Einstein in early November 1901. Einstein had been befriended by Alfred Kleiner, Professor of Physics at the University of Zurich, and begun to explore the possibility of a doctoral thesis with Kleiner. In response to a missing letter of his, Marić writes Einstein:

 

How pleased I am that Kleiner was nice to you! And during what holiday could you perhaps carry out the investigation? (Vol. 1, p. 316).

 

This may be a reference to an experiment that Einstein had just recently described in a letter to his friend and fellow student at the Poly, Marcel Grossmann:

 

On the investigation of the relative motion of matter with respect to the luminiferous ether, a considerably simpler method has occured to me, which is based on customary interference experiments. If only relentless fate would give me the necessary time and peace! When we see each other, I will tell you more about it (Einstein to Marcel Grossmann, 6 September 1901, Vol. 1, p. 316, translation from Stachel, Physics Today, May 1987, p. 46).

 

On 17 December 1901, Einstein writes Marić:

 

I am now working very eagerly on an electrodynamics of moving bodies, which promises to become a capital paper. I wrote you that I doubted the correctness of the ideas about relative motion [that letter has not been found]. But my doubts were based solely on simple mathematical error. Now I believe in it more than ever! (Vol. 1, pp. 325‑326, translation from Stachel, Physics Today, May 1987, pp. 46‑47).

 

Two days later Einstein wrote Marić that he had

 

spent the whole afternoon with Kleiner in Zurich and explained my ideas on the electrodynamics of moving bodies to him. … He advised me to publish my ideas about the electromagnetic theory of light for moving bodies together with the experimental method. He found the experimental method proposed by me to be the simplest and most appropriate one conceivable. ... I shall most certainly write the paper in the coming weeks (Vol. 1, p. 328, translation from Stachel, Physics Today, May 1987, p. 47).

 

Whatever Einstein may have written then, he did not publish anything on the topic until 1905. Perhaps part of the explanation may be found in his final reference to the topic, on 28 December 1901:

 

I now want to buckle down to work and study what Lorentz and Drude have written on the electrodynamics of moving bodies. [Jakob] Ehrat [a friend and former fellow Polytechnical School student] must get the literature for me (Vol. 1, p. 330, translation from Stachel, Physics Today, May 1987, p. 47).

 

In summary, the letters to Marić show Einstein referring to his studies, his ideas, his work on the electrodynamics of moving bodies over a dozen times (and we may add a couple more if we include his letter to Grossmann), as compared to one reference to our work on the problem of relative motion. In the one case where we have a letter of Marić in direct response to one of Einstein's, where it would have been most natural for her to respond to his ideas on the electrodynamics of moving bodies, we find the same response to ideas in physics that we find in all her letters: silence. This proves nothing, as I emphasized in my paper, but it certainly must influence our estimate of the probability that Marić made a significant contribution.

 

Albert Einstein corresponded with his friend Michele Besso for about fifty years. Einstein's letters to Besso are filled with scientific references, many more and in much greater detail than in his letters to Marić. (For whatever reason, scientific comments are almost entirely lacking in Einstein’s letters to Marić after their marriage.) Besso’s letters to Einstein are similarly filled with scientific comments. (The Einstein‑Besso correspondence has been published in German with a French translation, so these claims are easily checked.) Besso is also the only person Einstein thanks for help in his 1905 paper on special relativity. Yet Besso never wrote an important paper in physics, and his efforts at collaborative research in general relativity with Einstein came to naught. Late in his life, Einstein characterized Besso as an “eternal student.” What does this mean? To me, it means that Besso was capable of understanding things that Einstein explained to him, and of asking intelligent questions that could help Einstein develop his own ideas (Einstein's ideas, that is) – but that Besso was not capable of any creative effort of his own. This is what I mean when I say that Besso acted as a sounding board for Einstein.

 

Now I challenge Walker and Troemel‑Ploetz: On the strength of the Einstein-Besso letters, and the reference to Besso in Einstein’s 1905 relativity paper, do you want to claim that Besso was the creative force behind Einstein, or even an equal scientific partner in any of his creative work? If so, please explain why you feel that Besso was, and where this leaves Marić. If not, please explain why you feel that there is a stronger case for Mileva Marić than for Besso. In her case, we have no published papers; no letters with a serious scientific content, either to Einstein nor to anyone else; nor any other objective evidence of her supposed creative talents. We do not even have hearsay accounts of conversations she had with anyone else that have a specific, scientific content, let alone a content claiming to report her ideas. (If you believe any of these assertions to be wrong, please cite the evidence for your belief.)

 

If objective evidence of Marić’s talent is uncovered in the future, I shall gladly acknowledge her role as indicated by that evidence. Until then, I must continue to assert that the probabilities are against her having played a creative role, but rather favor her having played the role of a sounding board in the early years of her relationship with Einstein just as Besso did. The evidence also indicates that she ceased to play this role within a few years. Why this happened is a really interesting question, and I don’t doubt it has something to do with Einstein’s attitude to her. But exaggerated claims for her role on the basis of present evidence can only do a disservice to her memory.