Einstein’s Wife: Mileva Marić

In the more innocent world of the 1950s there used to be on BBC radio a comedy programme called (appropriately) “Does the team think?” in which the participants were called upon to answer such tricky questions as “Who composed Beethoven’s 5th symphony?” An up-to-date version of this line of question might take the form “Who produced Einstein’s theory of special relativity?” Only in this case some people take the view that this is an entirely pertinent question, and indeed go further and would ask who wrote Einstein’s celebrated papers of 1905 on Brownian motion, special relativity, and the photoelectric effect.

It is not the case, of course, that they are suggesting that Einstein had no hand in writing these papers, only that he didn’t do it alone – he had a collaborator, his first wife Mileva Marić. The story goes that from their student days (1896-1900) they worked together on his extra-curricular interests in physics, and that this collaboration continued up to and beyond their marriage in January 1903. In fact, it is claimed, Marić co-authored the 1905 papers, only her name was removed from the papers when they were published in the prestigious German journal Annalen der Physik.

These contentions acquired something akin to official respectability in
the US with the broadcasting of an Australian Government funded documentary
called “Einstein’s Wife” on PBS in 2003, under the auspices of Oregon
Public Broadcasting. The documentary, Oregon PBS reported in a press release, “reveals the long-hidden relationship between Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić and the collaboration that revolutionized the world of physics.” That collaboration, we are told, was extremely successful: “In 1905, the pair submitted five papers for publication, three of which (Brownian Motion, Special Relativity Theory and the Photoelectric Effect) formed the most significant concepts of twentieth century physics. Soon after, while visiting Mileva’s family in Novi Sad, the two continued their work surrounding a particular problem. Some believe this is where Albert and Mileva discussed and debated what would become the formula E = mc2.”

In spite of these definitive pronouncements we are told: “Scholars continue to debate the scope of Mileva’s actual participation. For some, Mileva simply filled the role of a ‘sounding board’.” On the other hand: “Desanka Trubohvić, the first biographer to write about Mileva Marić, boldly suggested in her book that Mileva’s name was actually included in the original documents detailing the formula. If Trubohvić’s assertion is true, why was the name removed when the paper was published? As Dr Evan Harris Walker summarizes: ‘What are the facts? The facts are that there are about a dozen statements in Albert Einstein’s own hand stating that they were collaborating on our theory, our work, our work on the relative motion’.”

So what are the facts? The Oregon PBS press release states that the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary “reveals the truth behind one of the great scientific collaborations of the twentieth century”. On the other hand Robert Schulmann, an historian involved with the Albert Einstein Collected Papers project, and the physicist Gerald Holton have written: “All serious Einstein scholarship, by Abraham Pais, John Stachel and others, has shown that the scientific collaboration between the couple was slight and one-sided…The true collaboration which they originally planned when they intended careers as high-school teachers never did develop. Nor is there a shred of documentary proof of [Marić’s] originality as a scientist.”

In articles below I investigate the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary and the PBS website material, and closely examine the claims of the main proponents of the contention that Mileva Marić contributed substantively to Einstein’s early scientific achievements.

Allen Esterson

Internal Resources

Allen Esterson on PBS’s complicity in the dissemination of tall stories about the alleged role of Einstein’s first wife in his early scientific achievements.

Alberto Martinez on Einstein’s wife and the need to inspect historical claims carefully.

Allen Esterson issues a challenge to PBS.

Allen Esterson asks how the notion that Mileva Marić helped Einstein with his mathematics got around.

Allen Esterson offers an open letter to PBS.

An update to the open letter to PBS.

Update November 2007.

External Resources

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