Mileva Marić: Einstein’s Wife 2

The PBS “Einstein’s Wife” website is an exercise in misinformation concerning the claims that Mileva Marić made substantive contributions to Einstein’s early scientific work.

By Allen Esterson

[Note: The article below is a critique of the original "Einstein's Wife" website. After the PBS Omsbudsman upheld a complaint that the website contained numerous historical errors and misconceptions, PBS commissioned Andrea Gabor to completely revise it. However, Andrea Gabor's own writings on this subject leave much to be desired, and the website still contains several errors.]


Below is a detailed examination of the material on the original PBS "Einstein's Wife" website.

The link “About the Program” on the PBS “Einstein’s Wife” website provides the following statement:

“The PBS presentation of Einstein’s Wife consists of a one-hour documentary film and companion Web site. These tandem features explore the historical facts of Mileva Marić’s life, and examine her dual roles as Albert Einstein’s domestic and scientific partner. Given these facts, each observer must then decide, on their own, whether or not Einstein robbed Marić of her due.”

These words might lead one to expect an objective presentation of the evidence. However, the “Einstein’s Wife” homepage belies the implied disinterestedness by misrepresenting the historical facts from the very start:

“Einstein’s autobiographies never mentioned his first wife. The world only learned of her existence through the first release of Einstein’s private letters in 1987.”

The first thing to note is that Einstein did not write an autobiography in the normal sense. In his “Autobiographical Notes” for the volume Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist he stated that his scientific and philosophical views comprised the essential part of a life such as his. That being the case, he made no mention whatsoever of any personal or family matters. He also wrote a late autobiographical sketch in which he does mention Marić.[1] Furthermore, the most cursory research reveals that numerous biographies of Einstein written before 1987 mention Mileva Marić, often providing considerable detail about her life.[2] The assertion that her existence was unknown prior to 1987 is manifestly false.

Note that while it is taken as given that Marić was “Einstein’s scientific partner”, we are also told: “The debate remains open, in part because it appears that Einstein’s executrix systematically destroyed potential evidence.” Now nowhere in the documentary, or on the PBS website, do they attempt to provide any evidence for this serious allegation. Gerald Holton has described how he played an important role in organizing the Einstein Archive soon after Einstein’s death.[3] Princeton University Press made microfilm copies of everything in the Archive, and the initial editor of the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein project, John Stachel, created a Duplicate Archive (now housed in the Library at Princeton University), to which other documents have been added. 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.[4] 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.

Mileva’s Story

The contents on the website as a whole generally maintain this same level of tendentious misrepresentation of the facts. Let’s start by examining the material in the link “Mileva’s Story”. In relation to the period at the end of their studies at Zurich Polytechnic and the immediate aftermath we are told of Einstein: “He demands all her time. She sacrifices her studies as well as her friends. In the summer of 1900, they both fail their final exams. He somehow gets a diploma…”

There is no evidence for the contention that Einstein demanded all Marić’s time in that period. In letters to Marić he encouraged her in her studies, e.g., “You must continue with your investigations – how proud I will be to have a little Ph.D. for a sweetheart…”[5] Nor is there evidence that it was his fault that Marić came to neglect her friends. Soon after their marriage in January 1903 she wrote to her friend Helene Kaufler: “I am even closer to my sweetheart, if it is at all possible, than I was in our Zurich days; he is my only company and I am happiest when he is next to me, and I am often angry at the boring [patent] office that takes so much of his time.”[6] To suppose this is other than Marić’s choice is to impugn her capability of making her own decisions.

Worse is the false information that Einstein failed his diploma exam. In fact he obtained an overall average grade of 4.91 (with grades ranging from 1 to 6, approximating to 78%), and was awarded a diploma by the Zurich Polytechnic Conference of Examiners.[7] (It has been suggested that a grade 5 was required for a pass, but there is no evidence to support this contention.)[8] Marić obtained an overall average grade 4.00 and was not awarded a diploma.

In the section headed “Married life” we are told in relation to Einstein’s celebrated 1905 papers that in that year Marić told a Serbian friend, “We finished some important work that will make my husband world famous.” Where does this quotation come from? It occurs in a biography of Mileva Marić by Desanta Trbuhović-Gjurić (except that she says Marić told her father – the change in recipient in the report on the PBS website illustrates how stories get altered on the re-telling.)[9] But Trbuhović-Gjurić provides no reference for the quoted words. Her research was undertaken among the Marić family and acquaintances more than half a century after the events in question, and mostly comprises third or fourth hand rumours and gossip that cannot possibly be verified. In short, there is no serious evidence that Marić ever said the words quoted on the website.

We do have documented comments by Marić from this period. In 1906, after reporting the antics of their infant Hans Albert in a letter to Helene Kaufler she wrote of Einstein that “the papers he has written are already mounting quite high”.[10] There is no indication here, or in any of her letters, that she played any role in the writing of Einstein’s papers. We also have information indicating that even before her first diploma exam failure Marić had given up any ambition to follow a scientific career. In July 1900 Kaufler reported to her mother that Marić had been offered a assistantship at the Polytechnic, but did not wish to accept it, preferring instead to apply for a post as librarian.[11]

The tone of the reporting on the PBS website is illustrated by the statement that in 1909 Einstein “corresponds with a former lover”. The facts are that in 1909 Einstein received a letter at his University address from Anna Meyer-Schmid, a woman with whom, a decade before when he was 20 and she 17, he had had a brief holiday flirtation,[12] so the assertion that she was a “former lover” is false. She had read about his appointment to a professorship in her local paper in Switzerland and wrote to congratulate him. Einstein responded briefly and quite innocuously,[13] and a reply from her was intercepted by Marić. There is no evidence that Einstein had any sexual double-dealing in mind.

In the next paragraph we are told that in 1912 “Albert has a new math collaborator, Marcel Grossman”, the clear implication being that prior to that time Marić had been his collaborator in mathematics. There is again 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 maths component of the exam was less than half that of the other four candidates.[14]

In a paragraph about the finalization of their separation (which Einstein precipitated in 1914), we are told: “Mileva agrees to a divorce, on the condition that any future Nobel Prize money will be hers. Oddly, Albert agrees.” The implication, spelled out more directly elsewhere on the website, is that Marić was requesting her due, in that she made significant contributions to his 1905 papers. Not only is there is no record of Marić’s ever having made any claim of this kind even during their acrimonious divorce process, it was Einstein who proposed that she should receive any future Nobel Prize money in order to overcome her resistance to a divorce.  (In fact the money was to be put in trust for their sons, with Marić enabled to draw on the interest.) It is absurd to suggest that there was anything “odd” about this: Einstein had wanted a divorce for some time and was desperate to overcome Marić’s resistance, and he had a good salary as Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin in 1919. [See update on Nobel Prize money below *]

The Science

There is not much to say about the material concerning Einstein’s 1905 papers under the sub-heading “The Miraculous Year”, other than concerning the following statement: “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 famous pronouncement, ‘The good God does not play dice with the universe’.”

This paragraph reveals considerable ignorance on the part of the writer. Leaving aside the implication that Marić liked dealing with statistics, for which there is no evidence, Einstein made important contributions to statistical physics.[15] 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.

The Mileva Question

After marveling that Einstein could have achieved so much in a short time “without computers”, the writer questions whether he could really have done it alone:

“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. From 1902 to 1906, Joffe was working in Munich as an assistant to W. C. Röentgen [sic]. Since Röentgen was a member of the Annalen der Physik editorial board, Joffe could easily have seen the original manuscripts of the 1905 papers. 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).”

Once scarcely knows where to begin to correct this farrago of misconception and misrepresentation. Joffe did not contend that Marić collaborated on the 1905 papers. Above all, he did not declare that he personally saw the names of two authors on the 1905 papers; in fact he never claimed to have seen the original manuscripts at all. Refutation of such claims have been published by the Einstein scholars Alberto Martínez and, in considerable detail, John Stachel.[16] 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. Those were: the theory of Brownian Motion, the photon theory of light and the theory of relativity. 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).”[17]

It is evident that Joffe did not claim that he had seen the original manuscripts, nor that Marić was a co-author of the 1905 papers; on the contrary, he writes that the author was “a bureaucrat at the Patent Office in Bern”, in other words, Albert Einstein. Clearly, had Joffe intended to indicate that the papers were co-authored he would have referred  to “the authors” (in the plural) and provided two separate names.

The webpage in question purports to support the claim with a fragment of a page in which a few words in Cyrillic script are shown among which the name Einstein-Marity can be read. But, as both Martínez and Stachel point out, the fragment is not from anything written by Joffe, but actually comes from a popular science book by Daniil Semenovich Danin. Again, Danin makes no claim that the articles were co-authored by Marić, and certainly not that he had seen the original manuscripts. (For a full account of the utterly misleading way that this supposed evidence is presented both in the documentary and the PBS website material, see Stachel’s comprehensive refutation of the story in Einstein’s Miraculous Year: Five Pages That Changed the Face of Physics, 1905, pp. liv-lxiii.)[18]

The webpage continues: “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 claims made that passages in Einstein’s letters in the period 1898-1903 indicate collaboration on his researches leading to the celebrated 1905 papers have been rebutted by Stachel in considerable detail.[19] What is meant by “tantalising clues” in letters to “their friends” is not spelled out, and one can understand why. In none of the surviving letters of Marić’s to friends is there the least suggestion that Einstein’s published papers were anything other than his own work. It is not just that Marić never demanded public credit, she never gave the slightest hint that she was, or had been, working with Einstein on the 1905 papers. On the contrary, on occasions when she mentions Einstein’s papers she unequivocally attributes them to him.[20]

It is now stated that “the editors of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein have claimed neutral territory”. This is disingenuously expressed. Editor John Stachel and associate editor Robert Schulmann of the first volume of the CPAE have unequivocally stated that they do not give any credence to the contentions that Marić made substantive contributions to Einstein’s work, but of course would acknowledge that they cannot prove a negative.

At this point readers are invited to vote: “YOU DECIDE: Take our online poll.” Immediately above the place where viewers register their vote appears the following:

“If the original manuscripts of Einstein’s 1905 papers are ever found, the mystery might be solved. In 1955, a Soviet physicist (now deceased) claimed that he personally saw the original manuscripts, and that Mileva’s name appeared as co-author.”

It says much about the writers of the PBS website material that they should attempt to directly influence the voting in this way with an emphatic assertion that is utterly false. (As we have seen, Joffe did not claim to have seen the original manuscripts, nor did he write that Marić’s name appeared as co-author.)

PBS Classroom Lessons

I shall now examine the website material provided for high school students by PBS, at the homepage link “Classroom”. Here we are introduced to “three lesson plans, designed for science and social studies classes in grades 6 through 12”: “The lesson plans are intended as a supplement to classroom viewing of the Einstein’s Wife documentary, but can also be used as independent teaching tools.”

Lesson 1: Mileva Marić Einstein

This is presented as having the object of introducing students to Marić’s “scientific accomplishments, and her break from the scientific community”. Many of the activities required of the students relate to the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary and PBS website material that frequently provide false or misleading information. When the producers of the material get on to specific information about Einstein’s work their partisan aims become all to apparent in their instructions to teachers, e.g.:

“Continue questioning to confirm that…he did have a partner both in his scientific research and in his life about which the general public knows very little – his first wife Mileva Marić Einstein.”

The students are instructed to play the DVD of the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary, and stop at the required places. The instructions to students are interspersed by the relevant passages taken from the documentary. As is characteristic of this project, most of this is tendentiously misleading. I shall take up individual points as they arise.

Students are first told to review the part of the documentary that recounts Marić’s early educational experiences. Teachers are then told: “Encourage students to understand that she was a gifted scholar and scientist prior to meeting Albert Einstein.” This is grossly misleading. When Marić met Einstein she had recently graduated from a girls high school in Switzerland, and had spent one semester studying medicine at Zurich University. She had consistently obtained high grades in maths and physics in her pre-University level education, as have many thousands of students who would never be described as “gifted scholars and scientists”. Marić’s exam results at the Polytechnic were generally mediocre: in the intermediate exam she was fifth out of the six students in her group,[21] and she twice failed the final diploma examination. That teachers are told to encourage students to “understand” that she was a gifted scientist before she even commenced the Polytechnic diploma course says much about the nature of this PBS project for high school students. But, of course, if the true facts about her lack of achievement at the Polytechnic were to be spelled out it would undermine the grandiose claims made about her supposed contributions to Einstein’s work.

The students are told in relation to Marić’s short period at Heidelberg University for the winter semester of 1897-1898: “She is very focused and doesn’t even respond to Einstein’s letters.” In fact at that stage there was no emotional relationship between them, and from Marić’s belated response we know that Einstein wrote only one letter to her in the autumn of 1897, in which he had said that she shouldn’t reply until she had nothing else to do and was bored.[22] And, contrary to the impression being created here, a letter from Einstein dated February 1898 shows that he was equally tardy in replying to Marić.[23]

Students are also told: “She is excited and intrigued by the research of the professors. She shares her knowledge with Albert in their correspondence.” The notions in these two sentences can only be based on the single surviving letter that Marić wrote to Einstein in that period. That letter concludes, after much personal material, with a rather naively expressed half paragraph reporting a lecture by Professor Philipp Lenard on fairly elementary notions relating to the kinetic theory of gases.[24] There is nothing to indicate she even has knowledge of Lenard’s research (which at that time was on cathode rays), and to suggest that the letter indicates that “she shares her knowledge” of such work with Einstein displays a high level of ignorance of physics.

The PBS Lesson reports: “She and Albert continue with their research, and barely scrape by in the traditional academia. In the end, Albert receives his diploma, but Mileva is denied hers because of marks slightly below Albert’s.”

The implication of the first sentence is that Marić is engaged on extra-curricular research. But whereas Einstein’s letters to Marić frequently enthuse about his ideas relating to his own researches in physics, there is not a single letter from Marić that indicates that she herself is working at any project on her own account, other than the dissertation associated with her diploma exam. Equally misleading is the assertion that Marić’s marks were “slightly below Albert’s”. As we’ve already seen, Einstein’s overall average was 4.91 out of 6, compared to Marić’s 4.00, giving Einstein around 18% advantage over her (1 being the lowest grade), hardly narrow.

The next suggestion to teachers is that the students be asked how Einstein and Marić’s research continued, with the unjustified assumption that they worked together on Einstein’s theoretical investigations. The students are asked to stop the DVD after viewing a section at the end of which several sentences from various letters of Einstein’s are quoted in which he refers to “our” work and so on. As Stachel has shown in painstaking detail, Einstein’s occasional use of inclusive language on such occasions indicates no more than that he had come to think of their future life together as a joint project of which his researches were his contribution.[25] And it should be kept in mind that Einstein and Marić read physics books together, as well as working together on subject matter relating to their studies and to their diploma dissertations, which were both on thermal conductivity; also that Marić was engaged in investigations herself in this period – those required for her dissertations that were part of the diploma examinations that she attempted twice.

The Lesson reports that, following her failure in her diploma exam in 1900, Marić “studies to retake her exams and study for a Ph.D. and she is offered a position with a notable professor [Weber] over Albert...Mileva continues her research in the Professor’s laboratory”.

There is much that is omitted here. Einstein’s failure to be offered a post as assistant was almost certainly a consequence of the bad relationship he had with Professor Weber at the Polytechnic. As for the offer of a position to Marić, her friend Helene Kaufler wrote to her [Kaufler’s] mother on 14 July 1900 that Marić was “offered an assistantship” (which must have been conditional on her obtaining the diploma), but “she did not wish to accept it”, preferring to apply for a position as librarian at the Polytechnic.[26] The information in the Lesson that “Mileva continues her research in the Professor’s laboratory” gives the impression that this is extra-curricular work, whereas the research she was doing in Weber’s laboratory was actually for her diploma dissertation.[27]

The Lesson now alludes to subject matter in the letters “that makes us think they were discussing and sharing ideas”, but make no mention of the fact that, whereas Einstein’s are frequently full of his ideas on the physics he is working on, there is not one of Marić’s that contains any of her own ideas on these topics. Her comments on her own work solely concern her Polytechnic studies and dissertation project.

Among the “Learning Activities” that follow students are asked to “Describe [Mileva’s’] research”. One wonders how the students can be expected to answer this, given that all the information we have concerning Marić’s specific scientific activities is contained in the letters, and the only research of hers that is mentioned there pertains to her Polytechnic diploma dissertations. Any other suggestions relating to Einstein’s published work can only be speculation, without a single document of Marić’s to support it.

Among the “Cross Curricular” activities at the end of this Lesson, students of English are invited to write an essay contrasting the information they find elsewhere to the information in the Einstein’s Wife documentary and companion website, and to explain why there are discrepancies. However, when we turn to the recommended books in the Resources link, out of the eight books cited only one is by a physicist who has knowledge of the physics material in question, and he makes no attempt at a comprehensive examination of the claims for Marić’s collaboration (Holton, 1996). Holton does cite a fuller examination of the claims, published in 1996, but this is notable for its omission from the Resources booklist: Stachel, J. (1996), “Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić: A Collaboration that Failed to Develop”, reprinted in Stachel (2002), pp. 39-55. (See note 8.) Critiques of claims made in “Einstein’s Wife” and the accompanying PBS website have been published by John Stachel and Alberto Martínez, and teachers and students are strongly advised to read these before assuming that they can rely on the material with which they have been presented. [See Stachel (2005), Martínez (2005), details note 16 and Bibliography.]

Lesson 2: Two Women of Science

Misleading material continues to be presented to the students in abundance in Lesson 2. We are told that two women “broke through the male-dominated academic world to study physics at the highest levels.” One of these is Marie Curie, and, supposedly, the other is Mileva Marić Einstein. The website asserts as if it were an established fact that Marić “collaborated with Albert Einstein for years as a student and then as his wife”, despite the absence of a single document by her that shows that she contributed to any of his published work.

The information provided is if anything even more egregiously misleading than what has gone before on this website. Students are asked to replay extracts from the DVD, the teacher is then provided with leading questions to ask, and then supplied with the requisite ‘information’ to supply to the students lest they fail to give the ‘right’ answer. For example, they are told to note the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary stating that when Marić came back from Heidelberg in 1898 “she brought back more than herself to Albert Einstein”, at which point they are told: “They published some early works together and conducted research together. They shared information through their writing. She brought back information that served as part of the foundation of quantum mechanics.”

There is not the slightest evidence that any of Einstein’s early publications were co-authored by Marić (and letters of Marić’s to Helene Kaufler indicate that they were not). The statement that Marić brought back from Heidelberg University information that served as the foundation of quantum mechanics is ignorant nonsense, as has been shown in the passage concerning Lenard above. The implication of the statement about “the foundation of quantum mechanics” is that this is a reference to the fact that Lenard was one of Marić’s lecturers at Heidelberg University (in 1897), and that a few years later Lenard published results of experiments on the photoelectric effect. One of Einstein’s 1905 papers explained the theoretical basis of Lenard’s results in revolutionary terms, using the notion of light quanta introduced tentatively by Planck in another context in 1900. There is no possibility that anything Marić might have told Einstein about her lessons in relatively elementary physics in that early period of her time at University level bears any relationship to Einstein’s later work. That this is presented here as factual information is a measure of the massive ignorance of the writers of the material on the website about physics matters.

Later in the material the students are led to replay the wholly misleading section in “Einstein’s Wife” concerning the supposed joint signatures of Einstein and Marić on the 1905 papers, and told to stop the documentary at the point where they see a document in Russian and hear, “Why was Mileva’s name removed when the papers were published?” As shown above, the claim about the Russian document is completely false.  Moreover, as Stachel has pointed out, the alleged chicanery would involve rather more than the removal of Marić’s name; all first person plural pronouns in the three papers would have had to have been changed to first person singular pronouns. In the absence of any evidence, the implication that Max Planck and other eminent editors of Annalen der Physik were party to such machinations is absurd, as well as being an outrageous slur on their integrity.

At this point the teachers are told: “Discuss with students their own opinion about Mileva. She 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.”

Only people entirely ignorant of the nature of Einstein’s 1905 papers could write that someone who had twice failed her teaching diploma exam, with especially poor marks in the mathematics component, and for whom there is not a single document indicating work of her own on advanced physics, “had the education and ability to conduct the research”. By such criteria many thousands of graduates, let alone failed graduates, could have matched Einstein’s achievements. For non-physicists it is virtually impossible to conceive of the prodigious nature of Einstein’s achievements in 1905. These achievements and those that followed, would, within a decade, 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. People like Senta Troemel-Ploetz (1990) seem to think that because Marić spent four years on a course for teaching mathematics and physics in secondary schools she “had the education” to enable her to make contributions to Einstein's theoretical work. But Einstein had been interested in ideas at the contemporary borders of physics since he was sixteen (when he wrote an essay “on the state of the ether in a magnetic field”), and by his early twenties was already dealing with an extraordinarily elevated level of physics.

Note the way that the notion that Einstein and Marić “worked closely together” on his physics theories is presented as a fact, and that the statement that Marić was not “always” listed on the papers subtly implies that the (erroneous) story about her being co-author of the 1905 papers is also historical fact.

The Lesson jumps to the couple’s separation and eventual acrimonious divorce in 1919, highlighting claims by Evan Harris Walker in the documentary that Einstein kept secret that proceeds from any future Nobel Prize award would go to Marić and their sons. Teachers are told to ask their students “to predict why he would have agreed to give up that money”, and to ask “Why would he have then tried to hide it?”. Now in the documentary Walker provides no evidence that this was in fact the case, and none of the numerous Einstein biographies has made this allegation. Characteristically, it is credulously accepted here, and used to imply that Einstein would want to keep it secret because it would indicate that Marić made contributions to the 1905 papers. The idea that Einstein, who had a good salary in Berlin, was prepared to agree to the condition Marić received the proceeds of a future Nobel Prize in order to overcome her resistance to divorce is not presented as a possible explanation. As throughout the PBS Lessons, only one interpretation, however unsupported by evidence, is allowed for teachers and students, that being the one that takes as given the partisan view of events being promoted by the documentary and the PBS website material.

At this point students are told to go to the PBS website and vote on the question “Did Mileva Help?” So having provided teachers and students with a one-sided view of the issue, replete with misconceptions and misinformation, there is a pretence that students are now registering a view based on a thorough investigation of the evidence. Such a procedure is closer to brainwashing than to disinterested educational practice.

Lesson 3: Society’s Expectation of Women

The misinformation characteristic of much of the PBS website material is, unsurprisingly, also found in Lesson 3. In the brief “Overview” that introduces the Lesson students are told: “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.”

Reiterating what has already been stated, there is not a single document by Marić to support the contention that she contributed to Einstein’s theories, least of all to his 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect in 1905. It was in that paper that Einstein extended Planck’s concept of light quanta in a way that was revolutionary. There was no “developing field of Quantum Physics” at the time. That only followed as a consequence of Einstein’s paper.

Most of this third Lesson is devoted to general issues relating to women in society, and Marić’s experiences as presented through the distorting lens of the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary is used as an example for study. Within this section students are told things which illustrate the ignorance of the writers concerning the subject matter. For instance, they are told that the lecturer at Heidelberg University that “she studied with” (i.e., whose lectures she attended for one semester in 1897-1998), was “a pioneer in quantum physics”. This is completely erroneous. The lecturer in question, Lenard, was an experimental physicist whose most notable achievements were the results he obtained investigating cathode rays and, around 1900, on the photoelectric effect. He was not a pioneer in quantum physics.

The erroneous information concerning Lenard is then compounded when we are told that after Marić returned from Zurich “she and Albert focused on studying the more cutting edge physics that she had learned with Lennard [sic], and they began skipping classes.” The scientific ignorance of the writer of this material is again on display in the absurd contention that Marić had learned “cutting edge physics” from Lenard when she attended his lectures in Heidelberg at the beginning of her second year of study. Moreover, while she engaged with some of Einstein’s extra-curricular interests when they studied together, there is no evidence that Marić neglected her Polytechnic studies to do so, nor that she began skipping classes. As already noted, there is not one surviving letter to Einstein during her time at the Polytechnic that contains any ideas of Marić’s. On the contrary, although Einstein’s letters frequently display his excitement over extra-curricular physics projects he is working on, apart from brief references to her Polytechnic studies, Marić’s letters are almost entirely about personal matters, even those which are in direct response to letters of Einstein enthusing about a topic in physics.

The teachers are told that students will answer the following questions: “What was the outcome of Mileva’s exams? How did Albert perform on these exams? What happened to each of their exam grades?” The information on this then spelled out for the benefit of the teachers is that “they both failed their exams” but “Albert’s grades were rounded up to a passing mark and Mileva’s grades were not.” As already noted, this is completely false. (To reiterate, Einstein had an overall grade of 4.91 out of 6 (lowest grade 1), around 78%. Marić’s grade was some 18% below this.) It is entirely in character that the final item of alleged factual information in the third of the PBS Lesson plans is as grossly misleading as most of the rest of the material on the PBS website.


For a more detailed examination of the claims about Mileva Marić, see:


March 2006


* Update July 2006:


With the release of a new batch of Einstein correspondence twenty years after the death of Margot Einstein, Einstein’s step-daughter, new information about the Nobel Prize money became available. Associated Press reported information provided by Barbara Wolff, an archivist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Einstein Archives, as follows:


The letters also provide the full story of Einstein's prize money for the 1921 Nobel prize in physics. Under the terms of his divorce from Mileva, the entire sum was have been deposited in a Swiss bank account, and Mileva was to draw on the interest for her and the couple's two sons, Hans Albert and Eduard.


It's been known for some time that there was a problem with Einstein's discharge of the agreement, but the details weren't clear. The new correspondence shows he invested most of it in the U.S., where much of it was lost in the Great Depression. This caused great friction with Mileva, who felt betrayed because he didn't deposit the entire sum as agreed, and repeatedly had to ask him for money, Wolff said.


Ultimately, however, he paid her more money than he received with the prize, she added.


Contrary to the claims on the PBS “Einstein’s Wife” website, it was Einstein who suggested that his future Nobel Prize money should go to Marić, as is evident from a letter (31 January 1918) in which he made this proposal among other financial inducements in order “to do everything to make this step [a divorce] possible” (Collected Papers Volume 8 [Eng. 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 going to Marić.)


Allen Esterson’s website.

Brian, D. (1996). Einstein: A Life. New York: Wiley.

Clark, R. (1971). Einstein: The Life and Times. New York: World Publishing Company.

Danin, D. S. (1962) Neizbezhnost strannogo mira. Moscow: Molodaia Gvardia, Gosudarstvenaaja Biblioteka SSSR.

Einstein, A. The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Princeton University Press.

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[1] Einstein, A. (1956 [1954]). “Autobiographische Skizze.” In C. Seelig (ed.), Helle Zeit – Dunkle Zeit: In memoriam Albert Einstein, Zurich, 1956. [See also Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1983), p. 47; Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1991), p. 55.]

[2] For example: Frank, P. (1948). Einstein: His Life and Times. London: Jonathan Cape; Seelig, C. (1956). Albert Einstein: A Documentary Biography. London: Staples Press; Michelmore, P. (1962). Einstein: Profile of the Man. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co.; Clark, R. (1971). Einstein: The Life and Times. New York: World Publishing Company; Hoffman, B. and Dukas, H. (1973). Albert Einstein, Creator and Rebel, London: Granada.

[3] Holton, G. (2000). Einstein, History, and Other Passions. Harvard University Press, pp. 174-175.

[4] Personal communications from John Stachel and Robert Schulmann.

[5] Renn, J. and Schulmann, R. (eds.) (1992). Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić: The Love Letters. Trans. by S. Smith. Princeton University Press, p. 32.

[6] Popović, M. (2003). In Albert’s Shadow The Life and Letters of Mileva Marić, Einstein’s First Wife. Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 83.

[7] The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Vol. 1, eds. J. Stachel et al, Princeton University Press, 1987, p. 247; The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Vol. 1 (English Translation). A. Beck (translator) and P. Havas (Consultant), Princeton University Press, 1987, pp. 140-141.

[8] Stachel, J. (2002). Einstein from ‘B’ to ‘Z’. Boston: Birkhäuser, p. 32.

[9] Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1983). Im Schatten Albert Einsteins: Das tragische Leben der Mileva Einstein-Marić. Bern: Paul Haupt, p. 75; French edition: Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1991), Mileva Einstein: Une Vie (trans. from the German by N. Casanova). Paris: Antoinette Fouque, p. 105. (The German language edition is an edited version of the book by Trbuhović-Gjurić originally published in Serbo-Croat in Yugoslavia in 1969.)

[10] Popović (2003), p. 88.

[11] Popović (2003), pp. 60-61.

[12] Collected Papers Vol. 1 (English trans. A. Beck and P. Havas, 1987), p. 128.

[13] Collected Papers Vol. 5 (English trans. A. Beck and D. Howard, 1993), p. 115.

[14] Collected Papers Vol. 1 (Stachel et al, 1987), p. 247; CP1 Vol. 1 (Beck & Havas, 1987), pp. 140-141.

[15] Pais (1982), Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein, Oxford University Press, pp. 55-107.

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

School Science Review, March 2005, 86 (316), pp. 51-52; Stachel, J (ed.) (2005), Einstein’s Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics. Princeton University Press, pp. liv-lxiii. 

[17] Martínez  (2005), pp. 51-52; another translation is given in Stachel (2005), p. lvi.

[18] See also Martínez (2004).

[19] Stachel (2002), pp. 27-28, 33-36.

[20] Popović (2003), pp. 70, 88.

[21] Highfield, R. and Carter, P. (1993). The Private Lives of Albert Einstein. London: Faber and Faber, p. 50.

[22] Renn & Schulmann (1992), pp. 3-4.

[23] Renn & Schulmann (1992), pp. 4-5.

[24] Renn & Schulmann (1992), p. 4.

[25] Stachel (2002), pp. 26-38.

[26] Popović (2003), pp. 60-61.

[27] Popović (2003), p. 60.