On reading with a modicum of scepticism

That recycled accounts of events or reports frequently contain inaccuracies going beyond anything in the original is a phenomenon well documented in the psychological literature.[1] I recently happened upon an extreme example of this, made more notable by the fact it occurs in an issue of the highly respected magazine, National Geographic – though not, I hasten to add, the familiar English-language publication. The article in question was published in the Hungarian National Geographic in 2005, the “Einstein Year” centenary of the publication of Einstein’s celebrated 1905 articles in Annalen der Physik. It pays tribute to several individuals whom it describes as “forgotten Hungarian collaborators” with Einstein, albeit that in the next paragraph it is acknowledged that for the most part they were not actually of Hungarian origin. Pride of place is given to Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Marić, whose birthplace was Titel in Serbia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The most remarkable paragraph is the following:[2]

Maric didn’t just simply enter into the history of science as Einstein’s wife, but as a mathematician who definitely developed the general theory of relativity together with Einstein. When the first scientific paper was written about this, originally they were both shown as authors, at the last minute, however, Einstein crossed out his wife’s name on the manuscript. When the editor of the scientific paper asked him why did he do this, Einstein answered: “Wir sind ein Stein.” That is, playing with his own name, “one stone”, which is how he categorised the pair of them.

The basic factual errors here include that the paper in question was Einstein’s exposition of his general theory of relativity (which actually came a decade later) and the assertion that Marić was a mathematician, as well as the false claim that she co-authored the paper.[3] But most remarkable is the central story itself, a garbled version of what was originally itself a tall story. This report of Einstein’s supposedly explaining why he took Marić’s name off the paper originates from a passage (with no references supplied) in Trbuhović-Gjurić’s biography of Marić,[4], translated as follows by Santa Troemel-Ploetz in her 1990 article in Women’s Studies International Forum:[5]

Together with Paul Habicht she [Marić] worked at the construction of a machine for measuring very small currents by way of multiplication. It took a long time, not only because she had so much to do [Einstein's mathematical problems, ST-P], but also because of her thoroughness and perfectionism. She had already distinguished herself in the physics lab in Zurich. When both she and Habicht were satisfied with the results, they left it to Albert Einstein, as patent expert, to describe the apparatus.

This relates to an electrical device that Einstein developed with his friend Paul Habicht, who had just started a small instrument-making workshop, in the period 1907-1911, the progress of which can be followed by numerous letters exchanged between the pair. While Marić may have assisted in the testing at some stage, there is no mention of her in the correspondence, and no evidence she played any appreciable role in either the theory or the construction of the device.[6]

Trbuhović-Gjurić concludes her account, in relation to the fact that device was patented under the name “Einstein-Habicht”, as follows:

When one of the Habicht brothers asked why she had not given her own name to the application for the patent, she answered: What for, we are both only one stone (“Ein Stein”). Then Habicht also decided to give only his last name.

Again, no reference is supplied for this unlikely story, which is undoubtedly an example of the folklore passed down the generations by one or other of the proud folk of Novi Sad (the Marić family’s home town), recorded by Trbuhović-Gjurić in the 1960s. That this story should end up in a reputable magazine as if it related to the 1905 special relativity paper, with the words put into Einstein’s mouth, serves to illustrate just how unreliable are hearsay stories,[7] especially when related by interested parties.

The Hungarian National Geographic article continues with more dubious contentions:

Marić most likely helped Einstein to develop the mathematical principles, since he wasn’t really an expert in this science, as he was a physicist. Another argument also supporting Marić being the co-author is that Einstein was not the first to discover the theory of relativity, as there were two mathematicians before him, one being the famous French Poincaré who also published a similar theory. These theories were published in mathematical papers, – this is why the world did not get to know about them -, and it is doubtful that Einstein himself would have been reading mathematical papers, it is more likely that Marić knew these journals. The role of Marić however still has to be clarified by science historians, and many questions remain to be solved by them in this area.

Now Marić failed the Zurich Polytechnic physics and mathematics teaching diploma examinations in 1900 almost certainly as a consequence of her very poor grade in the mathematical component (theory of functions), only 2.5 on a scale 1-6.[8] (None of the other four candidates in the group got less than 5.5.) Yet here we are told not only (absurdly) that Einstein was not competent to handle the conventional mathematics he used for the special relativity paper (which would not stretch a first year university physics student), but that Marić’s mathematical talents were such that she would have been reading mathematical journals and reporting on them to Einstein. In addition the remarks about precursors to Einstein’s special relativity theory are ill-informed and misleading.

The above garbled report of an original story that is itself highly dubious perfectly illustrates how untrustworthy are Trbuhović-Gjurić’s third or fourth hand reports of Marić’s supposed contributions to Einstein’s work obtained from friends and acquaintances of the Marić family some sixty years after the events in question. (In her influential 1990 article Troemel-Ploetz treats these reports with extraordinary credulity.)

The misinformation in wide circulation on this topic is exemplified by a statement in the 2008-2009 Europa Diary, distributed to 23,000 schools in the European Union and with a print run of 3 million copies:[9]

Did you know? Mileva Marić, Einstein’s first wife, confidant and colleague – and co-developer of his Theory of Relativity – was born in what is now Serbia.

So, despite the detailed refutations of the story that Marić collaborated with Einstein on his celebrated 1905 papers by several historians of physics,[10] huge numbers of schoolchildren throughout the European Union (and their teachers) will no doubt have taken this as historical fact. Yet the purported evidence for it is based on poor scholarship, recycled by equally flawed articles or books.[11]

Unfortunately erroneous assertions, albeit on a lesser scale, may be found in the writings of highly respected authors. For instance, in E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation, the author and academic David Bodanis writes of Marić that “she really was a good student – on the university final exams where he scored 4.96, she came close, with a 4.0…”[12] But Bodanis fails to record that these grade averages in the Zurich Polytechnic final teaching diploma exams in 1900 were on a scale 1-6, which means the difference was appreciable, not small. In fact Einstein’s grade average was actually 4.91, and the highest grade for the five candidates in their mathematics and physics group was 5.45. Whether one measures it by direct grade averages or by approximate percentages, the difference between Marić’s grade and that of Einstein (in fourth place) was almost twice that between Einstein’s and the highest grade.

Was Marić as good a student as Bodanis is at pains to emphasise? She certainly achieved excellent grades (especially in physics and mathematics) in the end-of-year examinations at high school in Zagreb in 1894, two years before she entered Zurich Polytechnic, and her grades in the Matura (university entrance level) in 1896 must have been good to enable her to be accepted for the physics and mathematics teaching diploma course at the prestigious Zurich Polytechnic. However she was required to take the mathematics component of the Polytechnic’s own entrance examination, and achieved a moderate grade average of 4.25 on a scale 1-6.[13] (Einstein, incidentally, excelled in the Matura examinations, despite being a year younger than the normal age for sitting them.[14])

While her coursework grades at the Polytechnic were moderately good, Marić came fifth out of six candidates in the intermediate diploma examinations,[15] and twice failed the final diploma examinations. On the second occasion (1901), under the adverse circumstance of being some three months pregnant, she failed to improve her 1900 grade average.[16] (Einstein was top in the intermediate examinations, but in his final two years he neglected his Polytechnic coursework to study extra-curricular physics, and his grades suffered accordingly.)

Bodanis compounds his misleading assertions by stating that Marić “missed her chance to retake her final university exams”,[17] when in fact she did re-sit the final Polytechnic teaching diploma examinations the following year as noted above. This erroneous information enables Bodanis to intimate that Marić’s failure to achieve a scientific career was down to Einstein’s “sexism”,[18] a contention that also occurs in the 2005 PBS NOVA production “Einstein’s Great Idea: E = mc2 , based on Bodanis’s book. The notion that Marić’s missing out on a scientific career was essentially Einstein’s fault, rather than academic failure at the highest level as was actually the case, is now close to conventional wisdom. (It is by no means certain that she even wanted such a career. Her closest friend, Helene Kaufler, wrote to her [Helene's] mother in July 1900 that Marić had been offered an assistantship, but that she “did not wish to accept it; she would rather apply for an open position as librarian at the Polytechnic”.[19])

The widely disseminated myth that Einstein was responsible for Marić’s failure to follow a career in science can only be maintained by exaggerated claims about her academic prowess, and in ignorance of the evidence in the correspondence from their student days of Einstein’s encouraging Marić in her studies and expressing his hopes of their having a future life together researching physics.[20] The undoubted fact that with many women, especially in her era, factors other than lack of academic success were frequently a barrier to a career in science does not mean that this was so in Marić’s case.

Unfortunately erroneous and misleading contentions frequently attain wide currency, and it seems that many people fail to treat factual assertions in print with appropriate caution. It is always worth bearing in mind John Stachel’s dictum: “I must emphasize that bare assertions, particularly by interested parties, do not constitute proof of such assertions, even when these assertions are repeated in print, even in a book.”[21]

Addendum

The fallacious story of Mileva Marić’s supposed contributions to Einstein’s scientific achievements is the subject of one of the chapters in a forthcoming book by Alberto Martínez:

Science Secrets: The Truth About Darwin’s Finches, Einstein’s Wife, and Other Myths.

NOTES

1.  Neisser, U. and Hyman, I. E. (eds.) (2000). Memory Observed: Remembering in Natural Contexts. Second Edition. New York: Worth Publishers.

2.  Einstein és elfeledett magyar segítői. National Geographic Magyarorszag, April 2005. (Professional translation.)

3.  See Stachel, J. (2005): Appendix to Introduction, Einstein’s Miraculous Year: Five Papers that Changed the Face of Physics. Centenary Edition: Princeton University Press.

4.  Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1988). Im Schatten Albert Einsteins: Das tragische Leben der Mileva Einstein-Marić. Bern: Paul Haupt.

5.  Troemel-Ploetz, S. (1990). “Mileva Einstein-Marić: The Woman Who Did Einstein’s Mathematics.” Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 13, No. 5: 415-432.

6.  See Esterson, A. (2010). Scholarly Standards in Feminist Science Studies. See also A. Maas, “Einstein as Engineer: The Case of the Little Machine”, Physics in Perspective, 9, 2007: 305-328.

7.  Hunter, I. M. L. (1964). Memory. Penguin Books: pp. 160-161.

8.  Einstein Collected Papers, vol. 1, doc. 67. Princeton University Press, 1987.

9.  Europa Diary 2008-2009.

10. For example, Gerald Holton, John Stachel and Alberto A. Martínez. See The Einstein Controversy.

11. For example, Andrea Gabor (1995), Einstein’s Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great Twentieth Century Women. New York: Penguin Books. For a comprehensive critique of Gabor’s chapter on Mileva Marić, see Esterson 2007.

12. Bodanis, D. (2000). E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation. London: Macmillan: p. 90.

13. Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1988): pp. 26-28, 60.

14. Einstein Collected Papers, vol. 1, doc. 13; A. Fölsing, Albert Einstein. London: Penguin Books: pp. 44-45.

15. Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1988): pp. 43, 63.

16. Stachel (2002). Einstein from ‘B’ to ‘Z’. Boston/Basel/Berlin: Birkhäuser: pp. 40-41; p. 52, n. 22.

17. Bodanis (2000): p. 223.

18. Bodanis (2000). p. 90.

19. Popović, M. (2003). In Albert’s Shadow: The Life and Letters of Mileva Marić, Einstein’s First Wife. Johns Hopkins University Press: p. 61.

20. Renn, J. and Schulmann, R. (eds) (1992). Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić: The Love Letters: pp. 13-14, 15, 25, 32, 33, 38, 39, 54, 71.

21. Stachel, J. (2002), p.32 (Reply to Troemel-Ploetz). See also A. A. Martínez (2005): Handling evidence in history: the case of Einstein’s wife.  

March 2011

About the Author

Allen Esterson has written articles on books by Walter Isaacson: Walter Isaacson, Einstein, and Mileva Marić, Patricia Fara: Scientists Anonymous, and Adrian Desmond and James Moore: Desmond and Moore’s Darwin, and on Darwin’s Illness and the PBS co-produced documentary “Einstein’s Wife”: Einstein’s Wife: Mileva Marić. In addition to his book Seductive Mirage: An Exploration of the Work of Sigmund Freud, he has written several journal articles on Freud.

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