Walter Isaacson, Einstein, and Mileva Marić
In an article in Time magazine in 2006 Walter Isaacson wrote of Albert Einstein: “[In 1905] he had come up with the special theory of relativity… His marriage to Mileva Marić, an intense and brooding Serbian physicist who had helped him with the math of his 1905 paper, had just exploded.”
As I pointed out at the time, Einstein would hardly have needed help with the modest level of mathematics he used in the special relativity paper, the knowledge of which he had already acquired in his middle teens. As Jürgen Renn, an editor of the Albert Einstein Collected Papers, has observed, “If he had needed help with that kind of mathematics, he would have ended there.” I could have added that for someone who had twice failed a diploma to teach physics and mathematics in secondary school, and for whom we have no knowledge of any writings (even in letters) containing ideas on physics beyond her diploma dissertation, the appellation “physicist” to Marić is itself rather dubious, but that’s an issue I have dealt with elsewhere.
In his book Einstein: His Life and Universe, Isaacson evidently takes the view that as far as the physics was concerned, Marić made no substantive contributions to Einstein’s theories, and played no part in them beyond that of a being a sounding board for his ideas. He reiterated this view in Time magazine: “Well, she helped with the math… But a careful analysis of all their letters and later statements shows that the concepts involved were all his.”
What I want to deal with in this article is the notion that Marić “helped [Einstein] with the math” in the celebrated 1905 papers. Elsewhere I have refuted the more outlandish claims that Marić “did Einstein’s mathematics”, and here I want to focus on the evidence that Isaacson provides for his far more modest contentions.
Now although Isaacson had earlier in the book shown commendable caution in regard to claims or statements for which he could find no documentary evidence, this meticulous concern for accurate scholarship is less in evidence when he comes to the claims about Marić’s alleged involvement with Einstein’s work. At the end of the chapter in which he provides an excellent account of the background to the 1905 special relativity paper, he adds a section with the subheading “His Partner” in the first paragraph of which he writes that “Einstein was so exhausted when he finished a draft in June that ‘his body buckled and he went to bed for two weeks,’ while Marić ‘checked the article again and again’.”
Now Isaacson’s source for the latter contention is Peter Michelmore, whose book Einstein: Profile of the Man (1962), as Alberto Martinez notes in his invaluable article on “Handling evidence in history”, “includes incorrect information”. That it is unreliable as a source of information about the early period of Einstein’s career I have demonstrated in more detail elsewhere. (See also below.)
The next relevant quotation supplied by Isaacson is in the following context (p. 136): “That August , they took a vacation together in Serbia to see her friends and family. While there, Marić was proud and also willing to accept part of the credit. ‘Not long ago we finished a very significant work that will make my husband world famous,’ she told her father, according to stories later recorded there…”
Isaacson then reports: “Einstein happily praised his wife’s help. ‘I need my wife,’ he told her friends in Serbia. ‘She solves all my mathematical problems for me.’”
The citations provided by Isaacson for the Einstein quotation here are Overbye (2000) and Trbuhović-Gjurić (1993). However, since Overbye cites Trbuhović-Gjurić, the latter is the single source in question. But note that Overbye is a little more cautious than Isaacson – as well he might be. He writes that Einstein is “reported to have said” the sentences quoted by Isaacson immediately above.
An examination of the context in which the Einstein quotation is reported by Trbuhović-Gjurić raises strong doubts about its reliability. Her biography of Mileva Marić contains numerous unconfirmable third-hand reports from friends and acquaintances of the Marić family obtained by the author mostly more than half a century after the events they purport to record. (I have demonstrated elsewhere that on issues relevant to this article, Trbuhović-Gjurić’s book is a highly unreliable source of information in general, and it has been described by the Einstein biographer Albrecht Fölsing as a combination of fictional invention and pseudo-documentation.) Trbuhović-Gjurić writes that Einstein made the statement in question to a gathering of friends of Miloš Marić, Mileva’s student brother, at which he was present (presumably in 1905). The information was provided by one Dr Ljubomir-Bata Dumić, who also recalled:
We raised our eyes towards Mileva as to a divinity, such was her knowledge of mathematics and her genius… Straightforward mathematical problems she solved in her head, and those which would have taken specialists several weeks of work she completed in two days… We knew that she had made [Albert], that she was the creator of his glory. She solved for him all his mathematical problems, particularly those concerning the theory of relativity. Her brilliance as a mathematician amazed us.
What is evident from such sentiments (e.g., “we knew she had made Albert, she was the creator of his glory… She solved for him all his mathematical problems”) is that what Trbuhović-Gjurić presents as serious information are actually examples of gossip and rumours from credulous friends and acquaintances of the Marić family obtained many decades later. This is illustrated by a statement made to Michele Zackheim by an elderly relative (resident in the Marić family’s hometown, Novi Sad) of the granddaughter of a friend of Marić’s from their student days. He told Zackheim in relation to Marić:
I remember the stories about her, because he was the most famous man in the world – and of course my family took great pride in her company. We also understood that she helped the professor with his theory. Did you know that Mileva was better in mathematics than her husband? No one can stand to give Mileva her due… Everyone is protecting the great man, the Einstein.
What this illustrates is that among the people from whom Trbuhović-Gjurić obtained her reports (mostly in the 1960s), proud rumour and gossip about ‘their’ Mileva was rife. (It should be said here that it is not inconceivable that, with his self-deprecating sense of humour, Einstein may at some time have said something along the lines of “my wife does my mathematics”, and that this could be one origin of the rumours passed down through the generations at Novi Sad.)
Let’s examine more closely the statement that Marić was better at mathematics than Einstein. Although Marić excelled in mathematics at high school, she fared rather less well on the teaching diploma course at Zurich Polytechnic. She had difficulty mastering descriptive and projective geometry for the intermediate diploma examination, and in her final diploma exam she obtained only grade 5 (on a scale 1-12) for the mathematics component, theory of functions, a topic absolutely fundamental to mathematical physics. None of the other four students in the group scored less than 11 in the same component. When she retook the diploma exam the following year she only slightly improved her grade in theory of functions, and failed the exam for a second time. On the other hand, Einstein was precociously gifted at mathematics from an early age. In the same year as the celebrated papers on which he is supposed to have needed help with the mathematics, a report on his Ph.D. thesis from the Zurich University Institute of Physics by Professor Alfred Kleiner commended his ability at mathematics in the following terms:
The arguments and calculations to be carried out are among the most difficult ones in hydrodynamics, and only a person possessing perspicacity and training in the handling of mathematical and physical problems could dare tackle them.
Kleiner added that since “the main achievement of Einstein’s thesis consists of the handling of differential equations, and hence is mathematical in character and belongs to the domain of analytical mechanics” he had sought the expert opinion of the head of mathematics, Professor Heinrich Burkhardt, who reported on the most important part of Einstein’s calculations as follows:
What I checked I found to be correct without exception, and the manner of treatment demonstrates a thorough command of the mathematical methods involved. (Emphasis in original).
So while we have documented evidence that Einstein was a superb mathematician when he put his mind to it, the only reliable evidence we have about Marić indicates that she did not live up to her early promise in mathematics – the sad fate of many a student who excels at lower levels of the subject.
In the light of the above, it is difficult to give credence to the first part of another quotation provided by Isaacson (p. 137), citing Peter Michelmore’s Profile of Einstein: “Mileva helped him solve certain mathematical problems, but no one could assist with the creative work, the flow of ideas.” However, given their relative abilities at mathematics it is highly unlikely that Einstein would have required help from Marić in solving mathematical problems. Note also that an examination of the context shows that Michelmore actually makes this statement in relation to Einstein’s working on his special relativity theory, the mathematics in relation to which would have given him no difficulties.
In the end what we are left with is Isaacson’s conclusion (p. 136) concerning Einstein’s early achievements:
From all the evidence, Marić was a sounding board, though not as important as [Michele] Besso. She also helped check his math, although there is no evidence that she came up with any of the mathematical concepts.
In fact the extent to which she was a responsive sounding board for Einstein’s constant flow of ideas after their student years is unknown, whereas we have documented information about the considerable role played by Besso. In addition to the intense discussions they held during the time they both worked at the patent office in Bern (Einstein acknowledged his indebtedness to Besso’s “many a valuable suggestion” at the end of the 1905 relativity paper), the correspondence between them testifies to Besso’s lifelong grappling with Einstein’s ideas in physics. On the other hand, looking at all relevant sources such as the considerable correspondence between Einstein and his academic colleagues and scientific friends, and reminiscences of the latter, there is no hint of any corresponding role by Marić. Nor did she ever make any claim of providing any assistance in his work, and there is not the slightest suggestion of such in any of her surviving published letters to her close friend Helen Kaufler. In the period prior to Einstein’s production of the 1905 papers she writes of the household duties which were taking up most of her time, and of her joy in the antics of the infant Hans Albert, but there is no hint of any active involvement with physics. The papers published in this period she unequivocally assigns solely to Einstein, and when in December 1901 she wrote of his first (unsuccessful) Ph.D. thesis, her words do not indicate the role nowadays suggested for her: “I have read this work with great joy and real admiration for my little darling, who has such a clever head.”
John Stachel, founding editor of the Albert Einstein Collected Papers project, has challenged the chief proponents of the Marić “collaboration” thesis to provide reasons why 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 nor to anyone else; nor any other objective evidence of her supposed creative talents. We do not even have hearsay accounts of conversations she had with anyone else that have a specific, scientific content, let alone a content claiming to report her ideas.
Concerning the contention that she checked Einstein’s mathematics there is little in the way of reliable information, and she made no claims herself to this effect. Even such limited contentions are dependent on third-hand reports, the reliability of which cannot be confirmed. More generally, given Marić’s failure to obtain a teaching diploma, and the absence of hard evidence of any original work on her part, there seems little justification for the frequent description of her as a “Serbian physicist”, or “mathematician”.
In the end what really matters is admirably summed up by Isaacson (p. 137):
There is, in fact, no need to exaggerate Marić’s contributions in order to admire, honor, and sympathize with her as a pioneer. To give her credit beyond what she ever claimed, says the science historian Gerald Holton, “only detracts both from her real and significant place in history and from the tragic unfulfillment of her early hopes and promise.”
I would only add the caveat that, in contrast to other central European countries at the time, in relatively progressive Switzerland even in the year before Marić started the four-year teaching diploma course there were 8 female students (out of 32) in the section for training mathematics and science teachers at Zurich Polytechnic, with 3 (out of 10) studying mathematics and physics. But this does not detract from Marić’s exceptional achievement in overcoming both personal difficulties and institutionalised obstacles to acquire a College education in physical science from which women were disbarred in much of Europe at the end of the nineteenth century.
One final point. In this section of his book Isaacson makes the extraordinary claim (p. 136) that, with one exception, the “PBS documentary Einstein’s Wife, in 2003, was generally balanced”. Since the documentary contends that Marić was the joint author of Einstein’s early papers up to at least 1905, this is so completely at odds with his own statement that “none of their many letters, to each other or to friends, mentions a single instance of an idea or creative concept relating to relativity that came from Marić” (or, one might add, on any other topic in physics), and his final summing up that Marić provided no substantive contribution to Einstein’s scientific achievements, that it must be regarded as an aberration on Isaacson’s part. (See my documentation
of the numerous errors and misconceptions that permeate Einstein’s Wife.)
NOTES (Citations refer to books and articles listed in the Bibliography)
1. The Intimate Life of A. Einstein. Time, 12 July 2006
3. Highfield, R. and Carter, P. (1993), pp. 114-115.
4. Stachel, J (2002), p. 36.
5. Mileva Marić: Einstein’s Wife
6. Isaacson, W. (2007), pp. 136-137.
9. Troemel-Ploetz, S. (1990), pp. 415-420.
10. Isaacson, W. (2007), pp. 90 [and Note 1, p. 575], 103.
11. Isaacson, W. (2007), p. 135.
16. Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1983), p. 93; (1991), p. 106 [my translation – A. E.].
17. Zackheim, M. (1999), pp. 185-186.
18. Renn, J & Schulmann, R. (1992), p. 12.
19. Albert Einstein Collected Papers, Volume 1 (ed. Stachel et al), 1987, doc. 67, p. 247.
20. Stachel, J. (2002), p. 29.
22. Albert Einstein Collected Papers, Volume 5 (English trans. A. Beck), 1995, doc.31, p. 22.
23. Michelmore, P. (1962), p. 45.
24. Besso, M. (1979).
25. Popović, M. (2003), pp. 70, 80, 83, 86.
26. Stachel, J. (2002), p. 36.
28. Stachel, J. (2002), p. 30.
Besso, M. (1979). Albert Einstein: Correspondance avec Michele Besso 1903-1955. Paris: Hermann.
Einstein, A. The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Princeton University Press.
Esterson, A. (2006a). Einstein’s Wife: Mileva Maric 1.
Esterson, A. (2006b). Einstein’s Wife: Mileva Maric 2.
Esterson, A. (2006c). Mileva Maric: Einstein’s Wife
Esterson, A. (2006d). Who Did Einstein’s Mathematics? A Response to Troemel-Ploetz.
Fölsing, A. (1990). Keine ‘Mutter der Relativitätstheorie’, Die Zeit, 16 November 1990.
Fölsing, A. (1997). Albert Einstein. (Trans. by E. Osers.) New York: Penguin Books.
Highfield, R. and Carter, P. (1993). The Private Lives of Albert Einstein. London: Faber and Faber.
Isaacson, W. (2007). Einstein: His Life and Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Martínez, A. A. (2005). Handling Evidence in History: The Case of Einstein’s Wife.
School Science Review, March 2005, 86 (316), pp. 49-56.
Michelmore, P. (1962). Einstein: Profile of the Man. New York: Dodd, Mead.
Overbye, D. (2000). Einstein in Love. New York: Viking.
Popović, M. (ed.) (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 Maric: The Love Letters. Trans. by S. Smith. Princeton University Press.
Reiser, A. (1930). Albert Einstein: A Bibliographical Portrait. New York: Boni.
Stachel, J. (2002). Einstein from ‘B’ to ‘Z’. Boston/Basel/Berlin: Birkhäuser.
Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1983). 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.
Troemel-Ploetz, S. (1990). Mileva Einstein-Marić: The Woman Who Did Einstein’s Mathematics. Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 13, No. 5, pp. 415-432.
Zackheim, M. (1999). Einstein’s Daughter: The Search for Liserl. New York: Riverhead.