Einstein’s Wife: A challenge to PBS
In March 2006 I submitted to the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service Ombudsman a complaint about the numerous errors and misconceptions that permeate the PBS Einstein’s Wife website material and associated Lesson Plans purporting to present evidence that Mileva Marić made substantive contributions to (or even co-authored) Einstein’s celebrated 1905 papers on special relativity, the photoelectric effect and Brownian motion. PBS is currently considering the complaint, based on my detailed analyses of the Australian Einstein’s Wife documentary
 and of the PBS website material. (See Mileva Marić 1
and Mileva Marić 2.)
Gerald Holton, who played a major role in the inaugurating of the Einstein Archive, is one of several physicists who have concluded on the basis of the documentary evidence that, in Holton’s words, Marić “left no evidence of originality as a future scientist”. Holton was a contributor to the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary, but was given no idea of the nature of the project. His view of the documentary is amply clear from the following message he emailed me on the subject:
I was glad to read of your interest in correcting the blatant perversion of the role of Mileva Marić in the Australian film, “Einstein’s Wife”. The essays on your websites should be required reading by all who have been taken in by this film – the NPR officials, the unsuspecting readers of the story on the PBS website, the viewers of this pseudo- “documentary”, the helpless teachers who might fall for this lie.
I suspect the Australian film crew and producers may well have known that they were producing a sorry fiction. For example, when they asked me to be interviewed for the film, they only said it was going to be (yet another) film about Einstein. If they had told me what they really were intending, I would of course not have agreed to appear, and would have told them how wrong they were.
The film’s falsification of Marić’s role in the work of Einstein, well explained in your postings and in other sources by knowledgable historians of science, brings to mind two points: One is that if such a false product were published by a scientist, he or she would be deprived of eligibility of further funding, and (in the USA) punished by the Office of Research Integrity. As the recent unmasking of the South Korean biologist who falsified data shows, the same derogation would also be appropriate outside the USA. Equally bad is that the falsification of Marić’s role is really an insult to her. As I wrote (page 191, Einstein, History and other Passions, H.U.P. 2000, in Chapter 8) on the relationship between Mileva and Albert :
“Ironically, the exaggeration of Mileva’s scientific role, far beyond what she herself ever claimed or could be proved, only detracts both from her real and significant place in history, and from the tragic unfulfillment of her early hopes and promise. For she was one of the pioneers in the movement to bring women into science, even if she did not reap its benefits. At great personal sacrifice, as it later turned out, she seems to have been essential to Albert during the onerous years of his most creative early period, not only as anchor of his emotional life, but also as a sympathetic companion with whom he could sound out his highly unconventional ideas during the years when he was undergoing the quite unexpected, rapid metamorphosis from eager student to first-rank scientist.”
Two other contributors to the documentary, Robert Schulmann, the historian associated with the Albert Einstein Collected Papers project, and the founding editor of the project, John Stachel, were likewise unaware of the nature of the documentary and have disassociated themselves from it. The skilful editing of the contributions by Holton and Stachel ensured that the final product contained nothing that contradicted the viewpoint being propagated, with one exception. This is in relation to what Stachel has described as his being “set up”  in the scene purporting (falsely) to demonstrate that the Soviet scientist Abraham Joffe had stated that the original manuscript of Einstein’s 1905 special relativity paper was co-signed by Einstein and Marić. (The means by which Stachel was set up is recounted in my article Mileva Marić 1.)
Stachel has himself published comprehensive refutations of the claims about Marić’s alleged contributions to Einstein’s publications. Had the writer/producer of the documentary, Geraldine Hilton, and the PBS “Einstein’s Wife” website and classroom content production team been genuinely interested in a disinterested examination of the contentions about Marić they would have made a serious attempt to find and report the published analyses of the principal claims by Stachel and Holton. The remarkably poor level of the research undertaken for this project is illustrated by the following statement on the PBS web page About Einstein’s Wife, “The West’s first hint of Marić’s existence came with a 1983 German translation of a Yugoslavian biography”, the falseness of which can be ascertained merely by visiting one’s local library and examining any biography of Einstein published prior to 1983.
It is ironic that a project that is the antithesis of principled historical research should be commended by PBS on this same webpage as “designed to encourage students to explore issues related to science, social bias [and] history”. Such is the appallingly low level of scholarship involved with this project that no amount of modification of the “Einstein’s Wife” website material and school lesson plans, or the addition of caveats, can redeem them. The only principled course of action for PBS is for them to announce that they are withdrawing the website and repudiating the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary.
I shall end with a challenge from John Stachel, the physicist who has done most to examine and refute the Marić “collaboration” contentions, addressed to two of the most prominent proponents, Senta Troemel-Ploetz and Evan Harris Walker.:
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 comment. (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 chacterized 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 or to anyone else; nor any other objective evidence of her supposed creative talents. We do not even have hearsay accounts of conversations she had to 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.)
1. The PBS website states: The documentary is a creation of Melsa Films Pty., Ltd., produced and developed in association with Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). “Einstein’s Wife” was created by a multi-national production team, including: this one
2. Holton, G. (2000). Einstein, History, and Other Passions: The Rebellion Against Science at the End of the Twentieth Century. Harvard University Press, pp. 170-193.
3. Personal communication.
4. Stachel, J. (2002). Einstein from ‘B’ to ‘Z‘, Boston/Basel/Berlin: Birkhauser, pp. 26-38; see also Stachel, J. (ed.) (2005). Einstein’s Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics. Princeton University Press, pp. xlv-lxiii.
5. Troemel-Ploetz, S. (1990). “Mileva Einstein-Marić: The Woman Who Did Einstein’s Mathematics.” Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 13, No. 5, p. 419.
Walker, E. H. (1989, 1991). Letters to Physics Today, February 1989 and February 1991.
For a response to Walker’s 1991 letter, see this
6. Stachel, J. (2002). Einstein from ‘B’ to ‘Z’, Boston/Basel/Berlin: Birkhauser, p. 36.
Martinez, A. A. (2005). Handling Evidence in History: The Case of Einstein’s Wife. School Science Review, March 2005, 86 (316), pp. 49-56.
Esterson, A. Mileva Marić: Einstein’s Wife
Addendum: Evan Harris Walker
One of the main proponents of the thesis that Einstein’s 1905 papers were co-authored by Mileva Marić, and a key contributor to the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary, is Evan Harris Walker, president of the Walker Cancer Research Institute (also known as the National Cancer Research Center). Walker’s significance in the debate is, on the surface, enhanced by the fact that he holds a Ph.D. in physics. However, John Stachel, foundation editor of the Albert Einstein Collected Papers project, has written in relation to a letter Walker published in the February 1989 issue of Physics Today[i] that “Evan Harris Walker has created a ‘speculative picture’ that has more the flavor of a Hollywood script than of a serious evaluation”,[ii] and has argued that if he had to judge him solely on the basis of this letter he “would have to conclude that he is a fantasist, who judges reality on the basis of his own ideas”.[iii]
Further support for this view of Walker comes from his assertions in the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary in relation to the fact that Marić attended a short course given by Philipp Lenard during the 1897-1898 winter semester at the University of Heidelberg. The subject is introduced in characteristically misleading fashion. After information has been provided about the physics of the photoelectric effect, the narrator follows on with the statement: “Mileva is enthralled and keeps Einstein abreast of this brave new world.” As we shall see, the implication that Marić heard about the photoelectric effect from Lenard at that time is nonsense. There then follows Maric’s reading the following passage from a letter she wrote to Einstein in late 1897:
“It really was too enjoyable in Professor Lenard’s lecture yesterday; now he’s talking about the kinetic theory of gases. It seems that oxygen molecules travel at a speed of over 400 m per second, and after calculating and calculating, the good professor set up equations, differentiated, integrated, substituted, and finally showed that the molecules in question actually do move at such a velocity, but that they only travel the distance of 1/100 of a hair’s breadth.”[iv]
The absurdity of citing this brief account of a topic in the kinetic theory of gases as evidence that Marić was keeping Einstein abreast of cutting edge physics such as the (yet to be performed) experiments of Lenard’s on the photoelectric effect serves to demonstrate the scientific ignorance of the writer/producer of the documentary, Geraldine Hilton. But let’s now examine what Walker has to say in the documentary:
“When Albert and Mileva were publishing they took the data Professor Lenard had developed and developed a theory which forms part of the foundation of quantum mechanics. Very very significant that she was the one with Lenard. It suggests that indeed she brought back much more than herself to Albert Einstein.”
In short, Walker contends that the fact that Marić spent a semester at Heidelberg University during which she attended lectures given by Lenard is “very significant”, sufficing to indicate that Einstein and Marić together “took the data Professor Lenard had developed” to produce a paper which pioneered quantum theory.
Walker’s allusion to “a theory that forms part of the foundation of quantum mechanics” is to Einstein’s celebrated 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect. But Lenard didn’t publish on his experiments on the photoelectric effect until 1900, and in any case, the lectures of his that Marić attended comprised nothing more than a four-hour course on Heat Theory and Electrodynamics.[v] In fact we know precisely when Einstein first knew about Lenard’s first experimental work on the photoelectric effect. In May 1901 he reported to Marić that he had just read “a wonderful paper by Lenard on the generation of cathode rays by ultraviolet light”.[vi] (Incidentally, Einstein’s revolutionary 1905 paper actually provided a theoretical explanation for the later experimental results obtained by Lenard on which he published in 1902.) It is evident that nothing Mileva might have told Einstein about Lenard’s 1897-1898 lecture course could have had any bearing on his extraordinary achievement in 1905.
So what can we conclude from this? Walker has taken the bare fact that Marić attended a short course given by Lenard at Heidelberg University and constructed a scenario which has her bringing back information which led to the revolutionary paper on the photoelectric effect published seven years later! Here we have a clear indication that from information of zero evidential value Walker is able to concoct a story “that has more the flavour of a Hollywood script than of a serious evaluation”, thereby providing further vindication of Stachel’s verdict on the value of Walker’s contentions about Marić’s alleged role in Einstein’s work.
Walker Cancer Research Institute
That Walker is no stranger to excessive claims is shown by the contention on the Walker Cancer Research Institute website
that the organization can take some credit for the fact that in the decade 1988-1998 “cancer rates have declined by 0.7%”. On the basis of the fact that this decade “corresponds” to the period that the Institute had been sending out to the public “notices calling for people to take specific steps to reduce their risk of cancer, notices to people that other organizations largely ignore”, they state that “We at the WALKER CANCER RESEARCH INSTITUTE, INC. believe that we have contributed significantly to this downturn in the incidence of cancer”.[vii]
(i) Physics Today, February 1989, pp. 9-11.
(ii) Physics Today, February 1989, p. 13.
(iii) Stachel, J. (2002). Einstein from ‘B’ to ‘Z’. Boston: Birkhäuser, pp. 26-29.
See also: this.
(iv) Renn, J. and Schulmann, R. (1992), Albert Einstein, Mileva Marić: The Love Letters. (Trans. S. Smith), Princeton University Press, p. 4.
(v) The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Vol. 1 (eds. J. Stachel et al), Princeton University Press, 1987, p. 59, n.7. The source is the University of Heidelberg records, Anzeige 1897 (CPAE, Vol. 1, p. 391).
(vi) Renn & Schulmann (1992), p. 54.