Handling evidence in history: the case of Einstein’s wife
Here is a good story: a 26-year-old patent clerk, having
studied theoretical physics largely on his own,
publishes in a single year four extraordinary papers
that revolutionise physics. Most of us believe, for
many reasons, that this story is true. We say that in
1905 it actually happened that it is history.
Still, we know that it is unlikely that a single
person in a single year can be so successful in physics.
Accordingly, some people have formulated hypotheses
to explain Albert Einstein’s productivity. Recently, some have argued that he worked with a secret collaborator, his first wife Mileva Marić. It
would be an extraordinary story. Famous physicist
steals credit from his modest wife. Such a story, if
true, would be of great interest to social historians,
and it would serve as a vehicle for reaffirming the
rights of women and for encouraging female students
to study physics. In that sense, it’s a good story. But
is it true?
Like many extraordinary stories, it might be
tempting to simply disbelieve it, to dismiss it as
fiction. But if you are a teacher, you may soon find
that some of your students ask you ‘Is it true that
Einstein’s wife co-authored his famous theories? ’
Because, there are currently several books and many
Internet websites that ascribe to Mileva Marić a
contributing role in the creation of Einstein’s works.
In 2003, television stations in the United States and other countries began to broadcast a documentary
called Einstein’s Wife (see end-note 1). It overviewed
Marić’s life and highlighted the idea that perhaps she
contributed to Einstein’s scientific works. The
programme was accompanied by a PBS Internet
website (including various errors) on Marić’s life. It
features an online poll on whether she collaborated
with Einstein. It asks: ‘Was it really possible for Albert
alone to produce all the phenomenal physics
generated during 1905?’ Currently, 75 per cent of the
people polled responded that Marić indeed
collaborated with Einstein.The website beckons: ‘Did
Mileva Marić collaborate with Einstein? You Decide!
Take our online poll.’ As if history were a matter of
Carl Sagan used to say: ‘extraordinary claims
require extraordinary evidence ’. So let’s analyse some
of the ‘evidence’ that the proponents of Marić have
highlighted. By doing so, teachers and laypersons can
increasingly distinguish the various degrees to which
misinformation can be misconstrued as history.
Evidence in context
In the 1980s, old letters between Einstein and Marić
were made public by members of their family. In some
of those letters, written around 1900, Einstein briefly
alluded to projects on which the two seem to have
collaborated. He used expressions such as ‘our
research’, ‘our paper ’ and, most interesting, ‘our work
on relative motion’ (Renn and Schulmann, 1992: 41,
39). Specialists in history of physics were fascinated
but concluded that such letters are just too vague, and
do not establish that Marić contributed in any of
Einstein’s publications. Still, plenty of non-specialists
also began to ponder roles that Marić conceivably
could have played.
Consider an example. Christopher Jon Bjerknes,
author of Albert Einstein: the incorrigible plagiarist
(2002), claimed that ‘We have direct evidence from
Albert’s own pen that the work on relativity theory
was a collaboration between Mileva and him’
(p. 201). He cited the suggestive letter. Translated, the sentence
in question reads: ‘How happy and proud will I be,
when we both together have brought our work on the
relative motion victoriously to its end!’ (Stachel, 1987:
282, trans. AM.). Non-specialists might hastily conclude
that this letter refers to the theory of relativity.
But it does not. One important point that Bjerknes
omits is that the letter was written in 1901. By no
means did Einstein have the theory of relativity in
1901.At that time, he believed in the ether and sought
ways to detect its relative motion experimentally. This
problem of ‘the relative motion’ was a widespread
concern; many people aimed to solve it. Einstein
attempted many approaches until he abruptly devised
his theory in 1905.
Nevertheless, the letter constitutes evidence that
Einstein shared the aspiration with Marić, at least at a
time midway through the ten-year process during
which he pondered questions on relative motion. It is
well known that his obstinacy carried him through.
But what about her? We know that she failed college
examinations twice. She then abandoned her plan to
obtain the teaching degree. We also know that she
abandoned her efforts to do a PhD thesis (for more
on Marić, see Stachel, 1996).
One writer, Dord Krstic (1991), claimed that ‘From
the spring of 1898 until the fall of 1911,Mileva worked
daily at the same table with Albert – quietly, modestly,
and never in public view ’ (p. 98). This is a speculative
exaggeration. The two could not work ‘daily at the
same table’ because, of course, they were not always
at the same place. For example, from mid-1900 until
December 1902 they lived mostly in different cities,
even in different countries. Moreover, the two did not
leave any written evidence that they regularly worked
together on physics once they reunited in Bern,
Regardless, Krstic wrote: ‘Almost simultaneously,
Marie Curie opened the door into the world of
radiophysics and radiochemistry and Mileva Einstein
bravely began to explore the secrets of quantum and
relativity – the fields that even today we call modern
physics’ (p. 85). Does it sound like a good story?
What role did Mileva play once she lived with
Einstein in Bern? It is well known that Einstein and
two friends,Moritz Solovine and Conrad Habicht, had
a discussion group that they called ‘the Olympia
Academy’. Their readings and discussions were very
influential in Einstein’s development. Nowadays,
some writers claim that Marić too was an active
participant. In the television programme, Einstein’s
Wife, the narrator says:
Maurice Solovine writes: Mileva would sit in
the corner during our meetings listening
attentively. She occasionally joined in. I found
her reserved, but intelligent, and clearly more
interested in physics than in housework.
Where did the producers of the show get this
information? The source can be traced to the book
Einstein in love , where Dennis Overbye wrote:
Marriage had made Mileva a de facto member
of the Olympia Academy, and Solovine later
recalled her sitting quietly in the corner during
the meetings at their apartment, following the
arguments but rarely contributing. He found her
reserved but intelligent, and clearly more
interested in physics than in housework.
(Overbye, 2000: 110)
This passage sounds plausible. Since Albert and
Mileva now lived together, it is easy to imagine that
Mileva now participated to some extent in the
meetings of the Academy. But what is the evidence?
What Solovine actually wrote was only that once
Einstein and Marić married:
That event did not effect any changes in our
meetings. Mileva, intelligent and reserved,
listened to us attentively, but never intervened in
(Solovine, 1956: xii, trans. A. M.)
Compare this passage to the derivative accounts.
Writers have skewed the history. Solovine did not
write that Marić ‘occasionally’ or ‘ rarely’ contributed,
nor that she was ‘clearly more interested in physics
than in housework ’. There is no evidence that she was
an active participant. In none of the correspondence
between Einstein, Habicht, and Solovine, does Marić
appear as a ‘member ’ of the Academy, nor even in
Marić’s own letters.
So readers beware. Moreover, errors lurk even in
reliable places. For example, the Collected papers of
Albert Einstein (Klein,Kox and Schulmann, 1993: 617)
state that the Academy began in Easter of 1903. But
that is a mistake. The meetings began in the Spring of
1902, months before Mileva lived in Bern (see, for
example, Solovine, 1956: vi).
Einstein had lively discussions with Solovine and
Habicht. He also greatly enjoyed discussing his
research with his close friend Michele Besso, whose
help he acknowledged in his first paper on relativity.
What about discussions with Marić? Consider a
statement that her proponents never cite. Philipp
Frank, a colleague and friend who interviewed
Einstein for a biography, noted that Marić ‘was
taciturn and reticent ’ and that ‘When he [Einstein]
wanted to tell her, as a fellow specialist, his ideas,
which overflowed from him, her reaction was so scant
and faint, that often he just did not know whether she
was interested or not ’ (Frank, 1949: 39, 44, trans.
Checking the sources
In her book, In the shadow of Albert Einstein: the
tragic life of Mileva Einstein-Marić , Desanka
Trbuhovic-Gjuric (1969/1993: 79) claimed that the
Russian physicist Abram Joffe, in his article ‘In
remembrance of Albert Einstein’, pointed out that the
1905 papers were originally signed ‘Einstein-Marić’.
Following Trbuhovic-Gjuric, Evan Harris Walker
wrote a letter to Physics Today , published in 1991,
reiterating the claim. Walker claimed that, regarding
the 1905 papers, Joffe noted that ‘Their author was
Einstein-Mariti’ (Walker, 1991: 123). That phrase is
Walker’s translation from an article of 1955 in
Russian. Furthermore, Michele Zackheim, in her book
Einstein’s daughter (1999: 19), stated that ‘Abram F.
Joffe, a Russian scientist, wrote in Meetings with
Physicists: my reminiscences of foreign physicists,
that three original manuscripts, including the one
describing the Special Theory of Relativity, were
signed “Einstein-Marity” .’ Likewise, Bjerknes (2002:
195) stated that ‘Joffe (Ioffe) recounts that the paper
was signed “Einstein-Marity” .’ Furthermore, in 2003
the claim that Joffe cited Marić’s name on the 1905
manuscripts was aired in the television programme,
Einstein’s Wife. And, the companion website (see endnote
1) claims that ‘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
To add credibility to their claims, writers who
ascribe such words to Joffe often add that he was a
successful and respected physicist. Hence they attempt
to argue by appeals to authority along with allusions
to purported evidence. But what did Joffe actually
First, Zackheim and others are wrong in claiming
that in his book Meetings with physicists Joffe claimed
anything about how the 1905 manuscripts were
signed. He did not even claim to have ever seen them.
As for the article ‘In remembrance of Albert Einstein’,
published in 1955, it was an obituary for Einstein.
Literally translated, it reads:
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). (Joffe, 1955: 187, trans. A. M.)
This passage shows that, for example, Walker’s
‘translation’ is a gross misrepresentation: ‘Their
author was “Einstein-Mariti”.’ Likewise, a few other
writers have distorted Joffe’s words to make it seem
as though he made a controversial claim. It is unusual
that Joffe this one time happened to refer to Einstein
by the name ‘Einstein-Marity’. But that simple
peculiarity does not entail that he ascribed any
authorship to Einstein’s wife. It is clear that Joffe
meant that the author was one person, a male
employee at the patent office, namely Albert Einstein.
Still, proponents of Marić have tried to make
something out of the fact that Joffe happened to write
‘Marity’ instead of ‘Marić’. For example, Walker
claimed that Joffe just had to have seen an original
paper, with the name Marity on it, because otherwise
he would not have known the alternative spelling of
Marić, since it ‘apparently is not found in any of the
Einstein biographies ’ (Walker, 1991: 123). Again,
Walker was wrong. The name ‘Marity’ appears, for
example, in Carl Seelig’s well-known biography of
Einstein published in 1954 (p. 29). Moreover, when
Joffe first sought to meet Einstein in Switzerland, he
happened to meet Marić (Joffe, 1967: 889). At the
time, she used the name Einstein-Marity.
The key point remains the same. Joffe did not
claim that Marić co-authored or collaborated in any
of Einstein’s papers. And he did not claim that her
name was on the original manuscripts or that he ever
saw any such manuscripts. In multiple places throughout
his career, like anyone else, Joffe acknowledged
Einstein for having authored the famous works of
In a particularly careless confusion, the producers
of Einstein’s Wife and the companion website pictured
a fragment of a page that reads that the articles were
‘signed Einstein-Marity’, purportedly written by Joffe.
But the page pictured is instead from a popular science
book from 1962, by a Russian writer, Daniil
Semenovich Danin, who, again, did not even claim
to have ever seen the original manuscripts or to have
known anyone who had (Danin, 1962: 57).
Suppose, imagine, that some credible individual
actually had claimed to have seen manuscripts that
listed Marić as co-author. Would that constitute
evidence? It would only constitute the testimony of
an alleged witness. Further evidence would be
required to substantiate the claim. Likewise, imagine
that a famous scientist, or perhaps a wealthy writer,
gets divorced. And suppose that then the ex-spouse
claims to actually have been the true author of some
works. Such allegation, by itself, would not constitute
authorship. We might reply: ‘That is a serious
allegation.What evidence do you have to support it? ’
Lacking evidence, some writers cultivate rampant
speculations. For example, Bjerknes (2002) claims
that Einstein probably stole the credit from Marić and
that she, in turn, probably plagiarised the ideas from
Who really said what?
In her book, Zackheim (1999) claims that ‘Mileva and
Albert’s son Hans Albert told Peter Michelmore, an
Einstein biographer, that Mileva helped Albert “solve
Certain mathematical problems” .’ (p. 19). Is Zackheim
claiming that Marić spoke with Michelmore? We must
reject that impression because Michelmore never met
Marić. Better syntax would be: ‘Hans Albert Einstein,
son of Mileva and Albert, told Peter Michelmore …’.
Michelmore (1962) wrote that, while Einstein
struggled to solve puzzles of relative motion in
electrodynamics, ‘Mileva helped him solve certain
mathematical problems, but nobody could assist with
the creative work, the flow of fresh ideas’(p. 45) .
But is it true that Hans Albert really told that to
Michelmore? We do not know. It is conceivable that
he did. But strictly speaking, the historical evidence
does not certify the claim. We know what Michelmore
published. We do not know for certain what parts of
it were really told to him by Hans Albert. He visited
and interviewed Hans Albert for two days in February
of 1962, in California. In his book, Michelmore
admitted that Hans Albert never saw or proofread the
manuscript for the book:
he answered all my questions, and waited while
I wrote down the answers. He did not ask to
check my notes, or edit my book. He trusted me.
It was the sort of naiveté his father had. Thank
God for all naive people, and I use the word in
its noblest sense. (p. vii)
Unfortunately, when interviewees do not check
writer’s accounts, errors and inaccuracies often
Alongside correct and verifiable statements,
Michelmore’s book also includes incorrect information.
For example, he mentioned that while Einstein
studied at the Polytechnic in Zurich he befriended
‘Maurice Solovine, a Frenchman taking the physics
course ’ (p. 36). But actually, Moritz Solovine was
Romanian, born and educated in Romania, until he
moved, not to Zurich, but to Bern, where he met and
befriended Einstein in 1902, almost two years after
Einstein had graduated at Zurich. Michelmore also
wrote that once Mileva fell in love with Einstein, by
their final year of college, ‘Her personal ambition
had faded’ (p. 36). But we know from letters that she
remained interested in a career at least until mid-1901.
Such inaccuracies detract from the credibility of an
Years ago, John Stachel, editor of the Collected
papers of Albert Einstein, enquired whether Michelmore’s
family happened to posses Michelmore’s
manuscript or ideally the notes from the interview
with Hans Albert. The answer was negative. If we
had the notes from the interview, then perhaps we
might know what Hans Albert apparently told
Faced with such ambiguities, each historian must
decide whether to believe, disregard, or at least
incorporate, a given passage into a historical
reconstruction. Personally, in a manuscript that I am
finishing on the origins of special relativity, I chose
to incorporate Michelmore’s suggestive words about
Mileva. But I hope that readers will realise that the
sentence in question is not necessarily a photograph
of the events that happened. It is but a passing claim
that appears in a popular biography written by an
author who only interviewed a son of the individuals
in question, a biography that was not proofread by
the individuals discussed in it or by the interviewee.
It was written and published almost 60 years after the
event in question. Hans Albert himself could not
possibly testify to such an event, since he was a one-year-
old baby in the spring of 1905. Hence, if he
actually spoke such words in 1962, he was merely
voicing a conjecture or echoing words voiced by
someone else. The point is to distinguish this kind of
indirect claim from evidence from the historical
Several documents shed light on Marić around
1905. For example, Krstic provided this translation
of a letter from Marić to her friend Helene Savic,
written after the 1905 papers were published (see endnote
My husband spends all of his free time at home,
often playing with the boy; but … I would like to
remark that this, together with his official job, is
not the only work he does – he is writing a great
number of scientific papers. (Krstic, 1991: 94)
As usual in her letters to her intimate friend, Mileva
made no claim of working on science herself, ever
since she left college. Now notice the ellipsis in the
quotation above. What did Krstic omit? An uncut
translation of the original letter was published later
by a grandson of Helene Savic (see end-note 3). It
My husband often spends his leisure time at
home playing with the little boy, but to give him
his due, I must note that it is not his only
occupation aside from his official activities; the
papers he has written are already mounting
quite high. (Popovic, 2003: 88)
So we see that Krstic chose to omit a phrase in which
Marić herself further acknowledged Einstein’s
labours; she gave him his due credit.
Likewise, on 3 September 1909, when Einstein
was receiving much recognition from physicists,
Marić wrote to her friend ‘I am very happy for his
success, because he really does deserve it ’ (Popovic,
Scale of likely reliability for
- 1 Original notes and drafts of the scientist’s
labours and ruminations
- 2 Contemporary private diaries of the scientist,
peers, or friends
- 3 Contemporary documents such as letters to
- 4 Contemporary accounts of statements
among scientists and peers
- 5 Manuscripts, the original scientific work
- 6 Early retrospective accounts by the scientist
- 7 Early interviews of the scientist, proofread by
- 8 Later retrospective accounts by the scientist
- 9 Later interviews of the scientist, proofread by
- 10 Systematic interviews by historians,
psychologists, or other specialists
- 11 Informal interviews of the scientist
- 12 Recollections that exist only in an indirect
form, such as a transcribed lecture
- 13 Retrospective accounts that exist only in a
doubly indirect form
- 14 Late recollections by an intimate
- 15 Biography based on interviews, approved by
the scientist and interviewees
- 16 Account based on multiple interviews but not
proofread by the interviewees
- 17 Account of interviews with a close relative or
peer, proofread by that person
- 18 Material based partly on interviews from a
relative, peer, or acquaintance
- 19 Rough translations of biographies or sources
- 20 Hearsay, late indirect accounts of what
someone allegedly told someone else
Distinguishing among sources
Students and laypersons may lack a clear understanding
of the extent to which different sources
warrant different degrees of credibility. Therefore, it
seems useful to illustrate such differences. Historians
sometimes disagree on what weight to attribute to any
one document, but I can at least sketch my own
The list in Box 1 describes some of the different
kinds of information that may exist pertaining to the
genesis of a scientific work. To distinguish them, I
have ranked them in order of proximity to the
historical event, the instance of scientific creativity.
The greater the number of an item, the less credibility
I would tend to ascribe to it as a likely source of precise
information about that moment in time.
This list is not exhaustive. My aim is only to
distinguish among some different kinds of information.
The line following item 5 sets a boundary
between evidence generated during the production of
the scientific work and various kinds of hindsight and
In this scale, the biography written by Michelmore
falls on level 18. In contradistinction, a letter by
Einstein to his friend Conrad Habicht, written in May
of 1905, while he was drafting the paper on relativity,
counts as evidence of level 4. That letter, which historians
cite often, is a precious though narrow window
to the creative moment. There are many different kinds
of information between the two, to which we ascribe
various degrees of reliability.
For example, in 1922 Einstein delivered a lecture
in Kyoto, Japan, titled ‘How I created the theory of
relativity’. He delivered it in German without having
written it down, and, as he spoke, it was translated
into Japanese. The translator kept notes that were soon
published in Japanese. In my scale, I would rank this
Japanese rendition of the lecture as being of level 13.
It is ‘doubly indirect’ in the sense that Einstein did
not write it, and that we only have the version in
Japanese. It is not a very late document in Einstein’s
life, so that we may imagine that forgetfulness perhaps
did not distort his account very much. But still, the
transcript was not proofread by Einstein. Less
credible, for instance, might be a document placed in
level 14. Consider one such example: a letter written
in 1948 by Michele Besso. At 74 years of age, he
asked whether Einstein’s early reading of a book by
Ernst Mach, following Besso’s suggestion, had been
at the root of Einstein’s thoughts about clocks and
measuring rods when conceiving the theory of
relativity ( Besso and Einstein, 1972: 386 ) . Einstein
replied in the negative. He acknowledged a great
influence of Mach on his intellectual development in
general. But he noted that his reading of DavidHume,
which he discussed with Solovine and Habicht, had
been of greater importance (Besso and Einstein, 1972:
Readers can identify how the different claims
about Marić fall at various levels in the list above.
Any document, even a document from level 1, can
include errors, omissions, inaccuracies or even lies.
Likewise, information of all kinds can include truthful
claims, of course. The important point is to realise
that the further a document stands away from the
period it purportedly describes, the more layers of
potential inaccuracy. Inaccuracies can exist in the
translation, rewording, interpolation, and so forth. A
letter written, even decades later, by a participant in
the events in question, can still be very informative,
even though placed at level 14, though we should still
be careful with its contents. More so, an even later
account, by someone who was not present at the events
in question, involves greater uncertainties.
Unfortunately, we cannot always confirm or refute
all such uncertainties. But we should at least
Teachers should carefully grant different degrees
of trust to various sources. Most readers do not usually
have the time or opportunity to research and examine
the validity of a given source of information.
Nevertheless, one should cultivate a moderate
scepticism, especially against outstanding stories that
resonate with what we would personally like to
believe. We can teach students that historical claims
should be inspected carefully, as when testing
hypotheses in science. Too often, writers enamoured
with a sensational conjecture tend to misread
evidence. Too often, they seek not to test a hypothesis,
but to confirm it. But what makes a good story, or
plausible fiction, is not necessarily what makes good
This article was first published in School Science Review and is republished here by permission.
Copyright 2005, Alberto A. Martínez and
School Science Review.
1 Einstein’s Wife was produced by an Australian company, Melsa Films, in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Oregon Public Broadcasting in the United States.
2 Krstic (1991: 94) dated this letter as being from ‘the very beginning of 1906’.
3 Popovic (2003:88) dated this letter as being from December 1906, apparently following notes by Julka Savic, see p. xi. The historians who edited The collected papers of Albert Einstein Vol. 5 (Klein, Kox and Schulmann. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) also dated the letter as being from December 1906, owing to its contents (see p. 45). Popovic’s translation is a literal rendering of the original in German (copy at the Einstein Archive, item 70-724; someone wrote ‘juli 1906’ on the letter itself).
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