An examination of the revised PBS “Einstein’s Wife” web pages, November 2007.

 

Allen Esterson

 

Background: In September 2007, following the PBS Ombudsman's upholding of my complaint about the numerous errors and misconceptions in the "Einstein's Wife" film and the accompanying website, a completely revised website was posted, written by Andrea Gabor, and the links to the school lesson plans have now been removed from the website. (Unfortunately Andrea Gabor's own writings on this subject leave a great deal to be desired.) Following my sending PBS a list of errors and misconceptions on the revised website, a couple of items were amended in October 2007, but most of the dubious material remains. Below is an examination of the current “Einstein’s Wife” website, as of November 2007.

  

Errors and misconceptions in Andrea Gabor’s revised account

 

Home Page

 

The world only learned of [Marić’s] existence through the release of Einstein’s private papers in 1987.

                                                                                                                

The most widely read biography published before 1987, Ronald Clark’s Einstein: The Life and Times (1971), contains 25 index citations for Mileva Marić. Other biographies in which mention is made of Marić include the following:

 

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

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

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

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

 

Mileva's Story: Introduction

 

In the last two decades, newly discovered documents have offered tantalizing glimpses of a brilliant and ambitious woman who shared her husband's interest in science... Rather, as the jigsaw puzzle that was Mileva's life is pieced together, an image emerges of a young woman whose great scientific promise ran up against the formidable institutional and social barriers that kept all but the most resilient women, at the turn of the twentieth century, at the margins of science or out of the lab entirely.

The claims about Marić's "brilliance" are greatly exaggerated, being actually based on her records in high schools (and these are only available up to 1894, two years before she enrolled at Zurich Polytechnic). Although she passed her Matura (university entrance level) examinations, she was required to take the  Polytechnic mathematics entrance exams, for which she obtained only a moderate grade average of 4.25 (on a scale 1-6) (Trbuhović-Gjurić  1988, p. 60) Thereafter her record at the Polytechnic ranged from good, but not exceptional (in physics topics) to moderate, occasionally poor (in mathematics topics). (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, p. 43.) In the intermediate diploma examinations her grade average, though good, placed her last of the six students who started in their group (Trbuhović-Gjurić  1988, p. 63; Collected Papers, vol. 1, doc. 42). In the final diploma examinations in July 1900, while her experimental physics grade was good (5), her theoretical physics grade was relatively moderate (4.5), and her grade in the mathematical component, theory of functions, a very poor 2.5 (Einstein Collected Papers, doc. 67). 

As to the claim that Marić’s ambition to follow a scientific career was thwarted by “institutional and social barriers”, there is no evidence that this was the case. Prior to taking the final diploma exams she was offered a provisional assistantship under the physics professor Heinrich Weber. Had Marić passed the exam in 1900, and gone on to complete the doctoral dissertation she worked on in 1900-1901 (developing her final diploma dissertation in heat conduction) she would have had the opportunity to pursue a scientific career had she wished to take it. That she failed to do so should be attributed to her examination failures. Neither Gabor, nor any other author, has demonstrated that, once she had left Serbia in 1894, institutional barriers prevented her attaining a scientific career. Like many commentators, Gabor is unable to contemplate the idea that, whatever her original promise at high schools in Serbia and Croatia, judging by her record at the Polytechnic Marić was an unexceptional student for whom no reliable record of any later scientific contribution exists.

 

There are now letters that indicate that Albert treated his wife and sons shabbily, raising the suspicion that he viewed Mileva's aspirations with equal disregard.

 

There are numerous letters from their student days testifying that Einstein regularly encouraged Marić in her studies (Renn and Schulman 1992, Letters 7, 10, 24, 36), and that in these early years of their relationship he harboured the expressed wish that they would eventually forge a joint future devoted to science (Letters 33, 48). That this failed to happen can be largely put down to Marić's failures in the Polytechnic final diploma exams in 1900 and 1901.  (According to Einstein's later friend and colleague, Philipp Frank, in the early years of their marriage, following her double failure to obtain a teaching diploma and the loss of their out-of-wedlock daughter Lieserl, "When he wanted to discuss his ideas, which came to him in great abundance, her response was so slight that he was often unable to decide whether or not she was interested" (Frank 1948, pp. 34-35).

 

Mileva's Story: The Early Years 1895-1902

 

She was only the fifth woman to be accepted by the ETH [Zurich Polytechnic]

 

This is erroneous. Marić was the fifth woman to be admitted to section VIA of the Polytechnic teacher training programme, that specialising in mathematics and physics (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, p. 35). There were considerably more women in the section VI as a whole (including teacher training for non-mathematical science subjects), and no doubt many more in the Polytechnic degree courses. John Stachel reports that women had been graduating at the Polytechnic for decades by the time Marić took her diploma examinations (Stachel 2002, pp. 30, 33).

 

Her first two years were an academic success

 

This exaggerates her academic record in the first two years. Only in physics did she achieve a grade 5 (on a scale 1-6). Here grades in mathematics, on the other hand were undistinguished, with an average of only 4.2. (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, p. 43.)

 

She spent a semester in Heidelberg. Mileva and Albert exchanged letters while she was away. She described, in great detail, the satisfactions of her studies.

 

There is a single letter in which Marić provides a short rather jocular report, comprising of two sentences, on a lecture on the kinetic theory of gases (Collected Papers, vol. 1, doc. 36).

 

… by the spring of 1899… They embarked on a "modern" love affair… The greater the opposition, the more the couple was drawn together. Mileva became fiercely protective of Albert…

Rather than it being the case that Marić was protective of Einstein, the documentary evidence points to the reverse. Several letters in the latter period of Marić's time at Zurich Polytechnic testify to his going out of his way to reassure her of his continuing love and his support in her academic endeavours. (Renn and Schulmann 1992, Letters 15, 18, 22, 25, 29, 33, 36, 38, 45, 47, 51.)

 

But after a promising start to her academic studies, Mileva's performance began to falter. In the summer of 1900, she failed her final exams.

It is not the case that only after Marić became emotionally involved with Einstein that her academic performance began to suffer. In fact for the first two years of the course her average coursework grade was 4.3, whereas her average coursework grade for the last two years was 5.1. Even allowing that the latter grades were mostly for subjects in which she was stronger (e.g., physics), this does not suggest a falling off after a promising start.

 

Although the final grades for both Maric and Einstein fell below the 5 point average that was necessary to pass, Einstein's 4.9 was rounded up to a 5, so he squeaked by.  

There is no evidence that a grade average of 5 (maximum 6) was the pass mark for the diploma examination, and that Einstein’s grade was “rounded up” to enable him to pass. The source of this claim is the Swiss linguist Senta Troemel-Ploetz, but John Stachel, founding editor of the Albert Einstein Collected Papers project, writes: “I have searched the regulations of the Poly [ETH] in vain for any such rule." (Stachel 2002, p. 32.) Gabor has evidently recycled Troemel-Ploetz’s evidence-free assertion as if it were a fact.

 

It should also be noted that in the 1898 intermediate diploma examinations Einstein came top of their group, with an excellent grade average of 5.7 (scale 1-6). (Collected Papers, vol. 1, doc. 42; Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, p. 63.) Moreover, for three topics Einstein's end-of-semester coursework grades were recorded as "graduated" (Collected Papers, vol. 1, doc. 28).

 

Mileva's 4 was dragged down by a miserable 2.5 average in the theory of functions – though she had received high marks in physics.

 

Though Marić obtained a good grade of 5 in experimental physics, her grade for theoretical physics was a moderate 4.5 (Collected Papers, vol. 1, doc. 67).  Gabor also fails to note that Marić's coursework grades in mathematics at the Polytechnic had been generally moderate (at best), averaging only 4.3.  

 

Mileva's Story: Married Life (1903-1919)

 

[In1905] Albert published his four scientific papers that each marked an important breakthrough. Mileva told a Serbian friend, "we finished some important work that will make my husband world famous."

The quotation here is nothing more than hearsay from an interested party (not identified) who was not present, reporting some sixty years after the event (and said to Marić’s father in the version given by Trbuhović-Gjurić [1988, p. 93). As such it is inherently unreliable, and should not have been quoted without qualification as if it were fact. Who knows exactly what Marić told her father at that time, or what she meant by it?

 

In 1909, Einstein…also corresponded with a former girlfriend

 

This is grossly misleading. The facts are that in 1909 Einstein received a letter 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. She had read about his appointment to a professorship at Zurich University in her local paper in Switzerland and wrote to congratulate him. Einstein responded briefly and quite innocuously (Collected Papers, vol. 5, doc. 154). When Marić came across Meyer-Schmid's letter she reacted angrily. That ended the "correspondence".

 

[In 1912] He also had a new lover, his cousin, Elsa Loewenthal.

 

The implication of the word "new" is that prior to 1912 he had had one or more lovers since his marriage to Marić in 1903. There is no evidence that this was the case.

 

By then [1912]. Albert had a new math collaborator, Marcel Grossman.

 

The implication here that prior to 1912 Marić had collaborated with Einstein on the mathematics in his papers is without foundation. (As we have seen, she was did not excel at university level mathematics, whereas Einstein's exam grades in the intermediate and final diploma exams were excellent. [Collected Papers, vol. 1, docs. 42, 67]. Moreover, when he obtained his Ph.D. from Zurich University in 1905 he was especially commended for the extreme difficulty of the mathematical problems he had to overcome [Collected Papers, vol. 5, doc. 31].)

 

When the war finally ended, Mileva agreed to a divorce. And Einstein agreed to sign over to Maric any future Nobel Prize money as part of the divorce settlement.

 

By the terms of the divorce settlement, proposed by Einstein to overcome Marić reluctance to agree to a divorce, the anticipated Nobel Prize money was to be held in a Swiss bank trust fund. While Marić was entitled to draw freely on the interest, she could only use the capital by agreement with Einstein. In the event of her remarriage or death the money would go to their two sons. (Collected Papers, vol. 8, docs. 449, 562.)

 

The Science: The Mileva Question

 

Much of the debate centers on the words of Abram F. Joffe (Ioffe), a respected member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and an assistant to W.C. Roentgen from 1902 to 1906, who saw the original version of Einstein's three most famous papers (on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, and the theory of relativity) and said that they were signed Einstein-Marity (Marity being the Hungarianized version of Marić.)…

Here Gabor repeats the false assertion also made in Dates and Places: Timeline 1905 that "a Soviet scientist claims to have seen the names Einstein and Marić on originals of the three key manuscripts". The source of this claim is the grossly misleading report by Marić’s biographer, Desanka Trbuhović-Gjurić, who cites Joffe’s "In Remembrance of Albert Einstein" (1955). However in that publication Joffe actually wrote of the 1905 papers on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, and special relativity the following: "The author of these articles – an unknown person at the time, was a bureaucrat at the Patent Office in Bern, Einstein-Marity (Marity – the maiden name of his wife, which by Swiss custom is added to the husband’s family name)."

Clearly, Joffe does not say he saw the original manuscripts, and does not state that they were signed “Einstein-Marity”. He unambiguously attributes the authorship to a single person, who worked at the Bern Patent Office, namely Albert Einstein. (For a detailed refutation of the Joffe story, see Stachel 2005, pp. liv-lxxii.)

 

Editor's Note

In line with PBS's commitment to making all changes 'visible every step of the way’, pages that have been modified from the original Web site have been identified with an accompanying editor's note.

This is an extraordinary claim. The pages on the revised website have changed radically from the original, but there is little indication of how much the earlier pages have been modified. Most people accessing the current website would have no idea just how numerous have been the changes from the original web pages. (Of the four Editor’s Notes appended to specific items on the web pages, only one relates to material appearing on the previous web site, and in that instance the current web pages still contain false information carried over from the original.)

 

It is possible to give Einstein the lion's share of the credit for the seminal papers of 1905, while still recognizing a long-standing give-and-take between husband and wife that, at the very least, almost certainly yielded some help with mathematical proofs or copyediting. (Even Einstein's staunchest defenders agree that she served, at the very least, as a "sounding board" for his ideas.)

There is no evidence that Marić gave help with mathematical proofs in the 1905 papers (the mathematics in which was well within Einstein's capabilities). The role of Marić as a sounding board for his ideas is only validated for the period of their student days and immediately after. 

 

The site review involved interviewing and seeking feedback from physicists, including Einstein scholars, about the statements made and facts presented on the site. The site was then edited to ensure that the site is historically accurate.

 

Gabor’s statement about interviewing physicists to ensure the site is historically accurate will no doubt sound reassuring to readers. However, there is no indication of how much of the material was presented to Einstein scholars knowledgeable in the subject matter, and the statement glosses over the fact that most Einstein scholars would not have knowledge in depth of the historical details pertaining to the claims about Mileva Marić unless they had undertaken a considerable expenditure of time and effort to obtain and examinethe relevant literature so as to ascertain the validity or otherwise of the numerous claims that have been made about Marić in recent times. It should be evident from the above that Gabor’s assurance that the site is now "historically accurate" is itself inaccurate.

 

Bibliography 

 

Einstein, A. (1987). The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Vol. 1. Princeton University Press. (Vol. 5, 1995; Vol. 8, 1998.)

Esterson, A. (2006a). Mileva Marić: Einstein's Wife

Esterson, A. (2006b). Who Did Einstein's Mathematics? A Response to Troemel-Ploetz

Esterson, A. (2007). Critique of the chapter on "Mileva Marić Einstein" in Andrea Gabor's 1995 book Einstein's Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great Twentieth-Century Women.

Fölsing. A. (1997). Albert Einstein. New York: Viking Penguin.

Gabor, A. (1995). Einstein's Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great Twentieth Century Women. New York: Viking-Penguin.

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

Krstić, D. (2004). Mileva & Albert Einstein: Their Love and Scientific Collaboration. Radovljica: Didakta.

Martínez, A. A. (2005). Handling Evidence in History: The Case of Einstein's Wife, School Science Review, March 2005, 86 (316), pp. 49-56.

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 Marić: The Love Letters. Trans. by S. Smith. Princeton University Press.

Stachel, J. (2002). Einstein from ‘B' to ‘Z'. Boston/Basel/ Berlin: Birkhäuser. Response to Senta Troemel-Ploetz and Evan Harris Walker: pp. 31-38.

Stachel, J. (ed.) (2005). Einstein's Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics. Princeton University Press. Stachel's Refutation of the Joffe story: pp. liv-lxxii.

Talmey, M. (1932). “The Relativity Theory Simplified And the Formative Period of its Inventor.” New York: Falcon Press.

Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1988). Im Schatten Albert Einsteins: Das tragische Leben der Mileva Einstein-Marić. Bern: Paul Haupt.

Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1991), Mileva Einstein: Une Vie (French translation of Im Schatten Albert Einsteins: Das tragische Leben der Mileva Einstein-Marić). Paris: Antoinette Fouque.

Troemel-Ploetz, D. (1990). "Mileva Marić-Einstein: The Woman Who Did Einstein's Mathematics." Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 13, no. 5, pp. 415-432.

 

November 2007

Amended February 2012 

http://www.esterson.org