Einstein’s Wife: An Open Letter to PBS
In March 2006 I sent a detailed complaint to the PBS Ombudsman about the numerous factual errors on their Einstein’s Wife
webpages. Due to a communications mix-up at PBS I only received a response on 20 November, although it was ready for sending in July. It comprised a reply to my
of the “Einstein’s Wife” film, solicited from the writer/producer Geraldine Hilton, of which more below. First let me note that the lack of disinterestedness on the part of PBS is indicated by the fact that the only person consulted was the writer/producer of the “Einstein’s Wife” film, who naturally will defend her product however flawed, and that the three Einstein scholars with considerable knowledge of the documentary evidence who were interviewed for the film were not contacted. Second, and most important, is the remarkable fact that although my complaint was addressed to PBS, there has been no response addressing my citing the numerous erroneous and misleading statements on the PBS website. I reiterate below just a few of the many falsehoods propagated on the website in question.
First note that the PBS statement on Editorial Standards says: “Producers of informational content must exercise extreme care in verifying information…and be prepared to correct material errors.”
That seems clear enough. But now let’s turn to the “Einstein’s Wife” website, which purports to “explore” the facts pertaining to the alleged contributions Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Marić, made to Einstein’s early work, most notably the celebrated papers of 1905. On the main page we find the following statement about Marić:
“The world only learned of her existence through the first release of Einstein’s private letters in 1987.”
Did the producers of this webpage “exercise extreme care” in verifying this information? Did they, for instance, ask someone with the most minimal expertise in the literature on Einstein if this statement is correct? Did they exercise the most cursory “care” by dropping in to their local library and examining any biography of Einstein that was published before 1987? Evidently not. Virtually every biography published prior to that date mentions Marić, sometimes giving considerable information about her. These, for instance:
Reiser, A. (1930). Albert Einstein: A Biographical Portrait.
Frank, P. (1948). Einstein: His Life and Times.
Seelig, C. (1956). Albert Einstein: A Documentary Biography.
Michelmore, P. (1962). Einstein: Profile of the Man.
Forsee, A. (1963). Albert Einstein: Theoretical Physicist.
Clark, R. (1971). Einstein: The Life and Times.
Hoffman, B. and Dukas, H. (1973). Albert Einstein, Creator and Rebel.
The “Einstein’s Wife” producers were informed of the error in March 2006. Plenty of time to have checked the facts and follow the Editorial Standards directive to “correct material errors” one would think. But that almost embarrassingly blatant falsehood remains uncorrected.
Or try this. The PBS website says: “Unlike Mileva, Einstein doesn’t like dealing with statistics.” There is not one iota of evidence that Marić liked dealing with statistics, nor a single document containing any mention of her ideas on the subject. Einstein, in contrast, made major contributions to statistical physics during a period of over two decades, from his earliest published papers through to the development of Bose-Einstein statistics in the mid-1920s.
The PBS statement on editorial standards says: “Producers of informational content must exercise extreme care in verifying information.” Did the producers of the “Einstein’s Wife” website material consult someone with knowledge of Einstein’s work to check the absurd statement about Einstein and statistics? Evidently not. PBS was informed of their erroneous statement in March 2006. It remains uncorrected.
Again: “There is at least one printed report in which [Soviet physicist] Joffe declared that he personally saw the names of two authors on the 1905 papers.”
This is false. In the “report” in question (an article commemorating Albert Einstein), Joffe did not state that he personally saw the original 1905 manuscripts, nor that there were two authors of these papers. On the contrary, he unequivocally attributed the authorship to one person, at the time “a bureaucrat at the Patent Office in Bern” – namely, Albert Einstein. The claim in question has been comprehensively refuted by both Alberto Martinez and John Stachel. PBS was informed in March 2006 that the statement was erroneous, with full scholarly citations. It remains uncorrected.
Incidentally, the (false) claims about Joffe would entail that Marić co-authored the three most celebrated of Einstein’s 1905 papers. There is not a single document that indicates that Marić had any ideas about special relativity theory, Brownian Motion and the photoelectric effect. Nor is there a single letter or other document in which Marić even remotely suggests she made any contributions to these papers.
Again: “In the summer of 1900 they [Einstein and Marić] both failed their final exams.” Apparently the writer of this sentence was unable to consult volume 1 of Einstein’s Collected Papers (document 67), in which can be found the official notification from the Zurich Polytechnic Conference of Examiners that Einstein was awarded the Diploma for teaching mathematics and physics in secondary schools in July 1900. The false statement remains uncorrected.
Now let’s turn to the PBS “Einstein’s Wife” classroom Lesson Plans for high schools. Under the heading “Preparation for Teachers” there are suggestions on how to conduct the lessons, based on material supplied by PBS. As these are intended for schoolchildren one might anticipate that they would provide an exemplary lesson on the examination of the historical facts pertaining to the subject matter in question. Let’s see. In Lesson 1 teachers are told: “Encourage students to understand that she [Marić] was a gifted scholar and scientist prior to meeting Albert Einstein.”
Now Marić met Einstein at the beginning of the course they both started in 1896 at Zurich Polytechnic for a diploma for teaching physics and mathematics in high school. Let’s leave aside whether someone should be called a “gifted scholar” on the basis of excellent grades in the matura examination (high school graduation exams), although her record in the intermediate and final diploma exams were mediocre (Marić’s grade placed her fifth out of six candidates in their group in the intermediate diploma exam, and she twice failed the final diploma examination), and consider the other part of the statement.
There is not a single item of evidence to support the claim that at the time she met Einstein she was a gifted scientist in any meaningful sense of the term. She had recently graduated from high school, and from that time (as later) there are no documents to suggest independent work outside the school curriculum. In other words, teachers are instructed to encourage students to “understand” a blatantly false assertion – that Marić was a gifted scientist when she was merely a recent high school graduate. Even by the most liberal interpretation of “scientist” this is an absurdity – but one pressed upon unsuspecting teachers (and through them, their innocent school students) by the “Einstein’s Wife” production team. PBS has done nothing to correct this nonsensical statement.
In Lesson 2 we read in relation to the semester that Marić spent at Heidelberg University in the winter of 1897-1898: “She brought back information that served as part of the foundation of quantum mechanics.”
One feature of the “Einstein’s Wife” website is the ignorance of the writer(s) in relation to the relevant physics, and this is in evidence here. What is being alluded to is Einstein’s 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect, in which he extended the notion of light quanta (introduced by Planck in 1900) to provide what was effectively the beginnings of quantum physics. In the 1905 paper Einstein provided a revolutionary explanation of experimental results that had been obtained by Philipp Lenard, and it is purely on the grounds that Marić alluded to a single lecture of Lenard’s in one letter she wrote to Einstein in late 1897 that the above statement is made on the PBS website. However (i) the course given by Lenard was on the subject of Heat Theory and Electrodynamics, and (ii) the experimental results on the photoelectric effect that Einstein explained in his 1905 paper were not obtained for several years after this (and published by Lenard in 1902). In other words, the statement in question is scientific nonsense. This nonsense remains uncorrected on the “Einstein’s Wife” website. Worse, it is provided for teachers to peddle to innocent school students, who will naturally assume that the writers of the material know what they are talking about.
In Lesson 3 the information provided for teachers reiterates the assertion that “They both failed their exams”, this time with the additional claim that “Albert’s grades were rounded up to a passing mark and Mileva’s grades were not.” So to the false claim that Einstein failed his diploma exam is now added the equally false assertion that the Zurich Polytechnic Conference of Examiners “rounded up” Einstein’s grades to ensure he achieved the required standard. There is not a scrap of evidence that this was the case. But evidence is the last thing that the producers of this material are concerned about. When the story is the object of the enterprise, what need is there for reliable evidence (or indeed, in many cases, any evidence at all)?
This far from exhausts the errors and misconceptions that pervade the “Einstein’s Wife” website and associated Lesson Plans. In my submission to PBS in March 2006 I documented more than a score of erroneous or misleading statements, now more concisely listed here. Notwithstanding their stated editorial policy, PBS has not made a single correction to the website in question. Instead it has preferred to adhere to the adage “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
Evidently the PBS writers and producers involved in this project feel able to disregard its Editorial Standards policies with impunity when they wish to propagate material with which they are in sympathy. Especially deplorable are the school Lesson Plans, with instructions to teachers that resemble propaganda rather more than a disinterested investigation instituted by an organization that prides itself on being the largest educator in the United States. These Lesson Plans are, effectively, a means by which unsuspecting teachers are encouraged to collude in misleading their students – just as the PBS “Einstein’s Wife” website as a whole misleads the American (and wider) public.
1. The response by Geraldine Hilton to my critique of her film “Einstein’s Wife”, with my reply, is here
2. “Einstein on the Foundations of Statistical Physics.” The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Vol. 2, 1987, ed. J. Stachel et al, pp. 41-55.
“Statistical Physics” and “The Birth of Quantum Statistics” in A. Pais, Subtle is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein, Oxford University Press, 1982, pp. 55-78; 423-434.
3. Martinez, 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.
4. Stachel, J. (2002). Einstein From ‘B’ to ‘Z’, Birkhäuser, pp. 32-33.
5. Mileva Marić: Einstein’s Wife 2.
PBS has been invited to submit a response to this Open Letter.