Einstein’s Wife: PBS continues to fail the test of integrity
The story so far: In 2003 the US Public Broadcasting Service first broadcast the documentary “Einstein’s Wife” (co-sponsored by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation), which purports to present evidence that Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Marić, was a brilliant mathematician and scientist who co-authored his epoch-making 1905 papers, and whose major contributions to his work had been carefully concealed throughout the twentieth century. In fact, as Alberto A. Martínez has demonstrated, the film is a travesty of the historical record. I belatedly came across the film and accompanying PBS website in late 2005, and, following a close examination of the historical evidence, in March 2006 I submitted a complaint to the PBS Ombudsman, providing documentation of the falsehoods, misconceptions and tendentious misrepresentations in the film and on the website.
After numerous communications over a considerable period, and following the Ombudsman’s throwing his weight behind my criticisms in a lengthy column, PBS commissioned the author Andrea Gabor, who had appeared in the film, to rewrite the “Einstein’s Wife” web pages. PBS was, from its own point of view, playing safe with this choice; in a book published in 1995 Gabor had devoted a chapter to Marić in which she had portrayed her in much the same inaccurate and tendentiously misleading terms as did the film. (I have drawn attention to Gabor’s serious deficiencies in historical scholarship elsewhere.)
In the meantime, in July 2007 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation took the principled step of disowning the “Einstein’s Wife” film. Unfortunately, PBS has decided to take an entirely different tack, one which enables it to continue to promote the meretricious film, the blurb for which describes Mileva Marić as a “brilliant mathematician [who] collaborated with Einstein on three famous works: Brownian Motion, Special Relativity Theory and Photoelectric Effect, which won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921”.
In September PBS posted its revised “Einstein’s Wife” web pages, minus the extensive school Lesson Plans (designed to be worked through closely in tandem with the DVD of the “Einstein’s Wife” film from which co-sponsors ABC has now dissociated itself). While no longer claiming that Marić provided major contributions to Einstein’s scientific work, Gabor portrays her as having contributed to it in the course of “longstanding give-and-take” discussions of his ideas, which “almost certainly yielded some help with mathematical proofs”. The main burden of the revised website is that the true story of Mileva Marić’s appreciable contributions to Einstein’s work was deliberately concealed from the public, and that she was “a brilliant and ambitious woman” whose desire for a scientific career was thwarted by “formidable institutional and social barriers” and Einstein’s “disregard” for her ambitions. I shall examine each of these contentions in turn.
Let’s first consider her academic achievements. Marić’s early promise was encouraged by her father, who arranged for her to continue her secondary education at the Zagreb Royal Large High School (1891-94), where she achieved excellent grades, including in mathematics and physics in her final year. She then transferred to the Zurich Higher Girls’ School to obtain her Matura(school-leaving certificate), the examinations for which she successfully took in the spring of 1896. Marić’s biographer, Trbuhović-Gjurić, does not record details of her grades in these Matura exams. However, we do have Marić’s grades for her entrance examination for Zurich Polytechnic taken in the same year, for which she was tested only in mathematics. Her grade average for these exams, on a scale 1-6, was around 4.25, which was hardly outstanding. Nor did her intermediate diploma exam results at Zurich Polytechnic live up to the “brilliant” description so often used to portray Marić’s academic abilities; her grade average of 5.05 placed her fifth of the six students in her group of mathematics and physics students. Finally, she failed the final diploma exam in 1900, with a grade average
(scale 1-6) of 4.00, achieving only 2½ in the mathematics component (theory
of functions), and she again failed when she retook the exams in 1901
without improving her grade average (this time under the adverse
circumstances that she was three months pregnant).
What this all indicates is that, far from being the “brilliant mathematician” of current mythology, Marić was one of that large category of young people who obtain excellent academic results at school, but find University level work much more challenging, and fail to live up to their early promise. In Marić’s case this applies particularly to her prowess in mathematics: her grade in the Zurich Polytechnic entrance exam in 1896 was modest, and in the maths component of the 1900 diploma exam it was less than half of that of any other student in her group.
Gabor writes that Marić was “a brilliant and ambitious woman” whose desire for a scientific career was thwarted by “institutional and social barriers”. Marić certainly went out of her way to study physics in the last year of her education at Zagreb Royal Large High School, where she was given special permission to join the physics classes that only boys were normally eligible to attend. Following her gaining the school-leaving certificate from the Zurich Higher Girls’ School, she enrolled at the Zurich Medical School for the 1896 summer semester before transferring to the Zurich Polytechnic course for a diploma to teach mathematics and physics in secondary schools. (We do not know the reason she attended the medical school.) Towards the end of the four-year diploma course, Marić was provisionally offered an assistantship under the physics professor Heinrich Weber, but, according to her close friend Helene Kaufler, “she did not wish to accept it; she would rather apply for an open position as librarian at the Polytechnic”. However, her failing the diploma examination in 1900 upset whatever plans she had. Early in 1901 she informed Kaufler that Einstein wanted “to continue improving himself in theoretical physics, in order to subsequently become a university professor”, while, for herself, she wondered “whether I will really get a job in a girls’ high school”. In the meantime she continued to work on her diploma dissertation (on thermal conduction) while preparing to retake the exam in the summer of 1901. She failed on her second attempt, and shortly afterwards ceased to work on her dissertation, which she had hoped would serve as the basis for a Ph.D. thesis.
What is evident from the historical record is that, had Marić passed the diploma exam in 1900 and gone on to complete the Ph.D. thesis she began to work on in 1900-1901 (for which she was being supervised by Professor Weber), she would have had the opportunity to pursue a scientific career had she wished to take it. Neither Gabor, nor any other author, has demonstrated that, once she had moved away from Serbia in 1894, institutional barriers prevented her from following a scientific career. That she failed to do so should be attributed to her examination failures.
While it is clear from her aborted attempt at a Ph.D. thesis that Marić retained hopes for a career in physics up until 1901, there is little indication of the burning ambition to be a scientist portrayed by Gabor and others. The early letters Einstein wrote to her frequently contain enthusiastic reports of his ideas on the extra-curricular physics that he is engaged with, whereas in none of Marić’s surviving letters are there any of her own ideas on such topics. Even where we have direct replies to letters of Einstein’s reporting ideas that he is working on, she makes no comment on them. Her letters consist almost entirely of personal matters, with occasional comments on her Polytechnic coursework and, later, her diploma dissertation. Following her twofold diploma exam failure, it seems that whatever ambitions she had had were considerably diminished, and probably completely abandoned, especially after the tragic loss of their out-of-wedlock baby daughter Liserl in 1903. In the letters Marić wrote to Helene Kaufler in the first years of her marriage she expressed no regrets that she had not been able to follow a scientific career. What one finds is her joy at Einstein’s early achievements, and intimations of her contentment in her new situation, especially following the birth of Hans Albert in 1904. In none of the letters to Kaufler over many years is there mention of physics except in relation to Einstein’s career, and not the least intimation of any work she herself is engaged in with her husband. In this context the words of Einstein’s biographer friend and colleague Philipp Frank (presumably obtained from Einstein himself) provide an indication of the diminution of her enthusiasm for physics: “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.”
A passage that is especially revealing about their respective roles occurs in a letter written in September 1899 in which, after reporting ideas he was investigating on the motion of a body relative to the ether, Einstein added: “But enough of this! Your poor little head is already full of other people’s hobby horses that you’ve had to ride.” A similar glimpse of their roles is obtained from a letter Marić wrote to Kaufler in which she reported her joyful feelings on reading Einstein’s first Ph.D. thesis that he submitted (unsuccessfully) in late 1901, and expressed her “real admiration for my little darling, who has such a clever head”.
Another factor suggested by Gabor in relation to the supposed thwarting of Marić’s ambitions is that Einstein played an inhibiting role, treating her scientific ambitions with “disregard”. This is contradicted by the numerous letters in their student days in which he tried to interest her in his extra-curricular ideas in physics, and encouraged her in her studies, later urging her on in regard to the proposed Ph.D. thesis.
Gabor invites readers to “explore the known facts of Mileva Marić’s life and her role as a pioneer in the history of women in science”, thereby supposedly revealing Marić to have been an academically gifted young woman whose burning ambition to become a scientist was thwarted by institutional barriers and Einstein’s disregard for her interests. The historical record indicates otherwise: the “image” portrayed is manufactured and made plausible only by tendentious tailoring of the evidence to produce a predetermined morality tale, spelled out by Gabor as follows: “Mileva’s life – and frustrated ambitions – serve as a metaphor for the struggle and prejudice that women in science encountered well into the 20th century.”
The truth actually revealed by the documentary record is that, as is the case with a great many students, while Marić achieved excellent grades as a school student, she found University level work (especially in mathematics) much more challenging, and failed to live up to her early promise, and that this was why she was unable to follow a career in physics. No one disputes the struggle and prejudice historically experienced by women aiming for a career in science. But in order to use the case of Mileva Marić for her purposes, Gabor has included false assertions, unjustified surmises, and tendentious selection and misrepresentation of the evidence. Whatever the worthiness of the cause, it cannot be acceptable to manipulate and distort the historical evidence in an inappropriate instance to make the individual in question fit into the requisite category.
Furthermore, as historians of physics Gerald Holton and John Stachel have both emphasized, it is demeaning to the memory of Marić to distort the historical facts in order to shoehorn her into a role she never claimed for herself. Her efforts to obtain higher education in science from the disadvantageous position of a girl growing up in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and her courageous struggles with a congenital hip disability, ill health, the break-up of her marriage, and the responsibilities of having a son with crippling mental illness in adulthood, make for a worthwhile story in its own right.
In her “Editor’s Letter”, Gabor claims that “in line with PBS’s commitment to making all changes ‘visible every step of the way’, pages that have been modified from the original website have been identified” by editor’s notes. This extraordinary claim, which is refuted by the fact that no one reading the current site would have the least idea of the previous contents, appears to be a transparent attempt to portray PBS as acting with integrity in relation to the complaints about the accuracy of much of the material in the original web pages. The same may be said in regard to the statement that “The site review involved interviewing and seeking feedback from physicists, including Einstein scholars, about the statements made and facts presented on the site.” This will no doubt be reassuring to readers, unaware that even Einstein scholars will have little knowledge of the historical record pertaining to Mileva Marić unless they have specifically undertaken a considerable expenditure of time and effort to obtain and examine the large volume of relevant literature. Gabor goes on to state that “the site was then edited to ensure that the site is historically accurate”, a claim that is at variance with the historical record, as I have documented.
In contrast to the principled stand taken by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation after it had received inadequate responses to my criticisms from the “Einstein’s Wife” film-makers, and only after the Ombudsman had posted critical comments about the film and website, PBS has come up with revised web pages that enable it to continue to propagate a tendentiously false story about Einstein’s first wife. Astonishingly, it is also still promoting the dishonest pseudo-documentary “Einstein’s Wife” which is replete with falsehoods, misconceptions, and misrepresentations of the historical record. This is in spite of the fact that PBS has been made aware that the three Einstein specialists whose tendentiously edited interviews appeared in the film have denounced it as a “sorry fiction” with “entirely false claims”, involving “distasteful manipulation of facts”, and containing a “whole series of entangled falsehoods”.
PBS’s Editorial Standards policies include the statement: “Producers of informational content must exercise extreme care in verifying information.” Despite the fact that it is abundantly evident that no effort at all was made to verify even the most blatantly erroneous assertions in the “Einstein’s Wife” film and the original website, PBS has failed to acknowledge publicly that both of these contravened its Editorial Standards, thereby indicating that these can be breached with impunity. Moreover, by continuing to promote the film, and posting a revised website including numerous assertions that have been shown on several occasions in communications to PBS to be false, it continues to be in breach of them. Furthermore, though for some four years teachers were able to download the reprehensibly tendentious material contained in the PBS Lesson Plans, to my knowledge it has made no attempt to notify schools and unsuspecting teachers that it has provided them with material containing grossly misleading contentions masquerading as authentic historical information.
There is one other element in this sorry tale. David Davis, VP National Production, Oregon Public Broadcasting, who has been communicating the information about changes to the “Einstein’s Wife” website and on the policy in regard to the “Einstein’s Wife” film, has apparently been playing a major role in the decisions being taken. However, he was himself a co-Executive Producer of the “Einstein’s Wife” film, indicating a prima facie conflict of interest.
The current “Einstein’s Wife” website contains statements that purport to demonstrate that it has taken principled decisions in response to complaints about inaccuracies on the original web pages. In reality, the fact that the “Einstein’s Wife” film is still being promoted and sold, and that the revised website remains a source of gross errors and misrepresentations of the historical record in the interests of maintaining a predetermined story, demonstrates that PBS’s attempt to portray itself as having acted in a principled manner in this affair is a sham.
6. In July 2007, the ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs spokesperson stated: “ABC agrees with a number of your contentions regarding errors and misrepresentations in the documentary. Due to the breaches of the ABC’s Code of Practice which you have identified, the ABC will not broadcast ‘Einstein’s Wife’ again. In addition, the ATOM ‘Einstein’s Wife’ study guide has been removed from the ABC website.”
7. PBS ‘Einstein’s Wife’
(Note: Following my documenting errors and misrepresentations on the revised website, PBS made a few token changes in October, but the great bulk of them remain.)
8. Critique of revised “Einstein’s Wife” web pages
Esterson, A. (2006a). Mileva Marić: Einstein’s Wife
Esterson, A. (2006b). Who Did Einstein’s Mathematics? A Response to Troemel-Ploetz
Frank, P. (1948). Einstein: His Life and Times. London: Jonathan Cape.
Gabor, A. (1995). Einstein’s Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great Twentieth Century Women. New York: Viking-Penguin.
Holton, G. (1996). Einstein, History, and Other Passions. Harvard University Press.
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. (1996). ‘Albert Einstein and Mileva Maric: A Collaboration that
Failed to Develop’ [pdf].
Stachel, J. (2002). Einstein from ‘B’ to ‘Z’. Boston/Basel/ Berlin: Birkhäuser. Extract: The Einstein/Maric letters.
Stachel, J. (ed.) (2005). Einstein’s Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics. Princeton University Press. Appendix: Refutation of the Joffe story.
Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1988). Im Schatten Albert Einsteins: Das tragische Leben der Mileva Einstein-Marić. Bern: Paul Haupt. (The German language edition is an edited version of the book by Trbuhović-Gjurić originally published in Serbo-Croat in Yugoslavia in 1969.)
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.