Mileva Marić: The Other Einstein
Mileva Marić: The Other Einstein.
A short film written and directed by Alana Cash (Vibegirl Productions)
“Mileva Marić: The Other Einstein”, whose writer and director has also made films on Anna Freud and Marie Curie, is worth detailed analysis because it contains claims about Marić’s alleged collaboration on Einstein’s epoch-making work in physics in the early period of his scientific career some of which are in wide circulation and stated as fact in a number of books. This provides another opportunity for subjecting these claims to close scrutiny.
Before moving on to significant contentions it is worth noting a couple of less important errors and misconceptions in the early section of the film. The narrator states that in the period when Marić attended a Serbian secondary school in Novi Sad (1886-1892) she “earned the nickname ‘the holy one’ because she was consistently at the head of her class”. Why academic prowess would lead to such a nickname is obscure, and indeed Marić biographer Desanka Trbuhović-Gjurić reports that the reason she was called “Svetac” (the Saint) was on account of her reserved and pacific character (1988, p. 22). The narrator goes on to say, oddly, that “She would later learn that Albert Einstein had the same nickname in school”, though this is not recorded in any of the major biographies of Einstein, nor in any of the many others I have read. These errors are compounded a little later when the narrator says that “Each had earned nicknames because of their superior intellect”.
The narrator reports that in the summer 1896 Marić enrolled at the Zurich University Medical School to study medicine, but after one semester she acted on her first preference for studying physics. Dr Rudolf Mumenthaler (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology [ETH, formerly Zurich Polytechnic] Library), then takes up the story and states that the final diploma she obtained at the Swiss Higher Girls’ School in Zurich for the academic year 1895-1896 did not suffice for her to gain entrance to Zurich Polytechnic, so in late summer she entered and passed the Polytechnic entrance examinations. On this he is mistaken in that he makes no mention of the fact that Marić passed the Matura (university entrance level examinations) in the spring of 1896 at Bern Federal Medical School (which enabled her to enter the Zurich University Medical School immediately afterwards). Normally obtaining the Matura would suffice for entry to Zurich Polytechnic, but for some reason Marić was required to take the mathematics entry examinations, for which her grade average was a moderate 4.25 (on a scale 1-6) (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, pp. 33, 35, 60).
In the detailed critical examination below statements made in the film will be in bold type, followed by my comments.
Narrator: In many ways Albert and Mileva were alike… and now [at Zurich Polytechnic] they were seeking the same degree.
The four-year course for which they enrolled in 1896 was not for a degree. It was to obtain a diploma to teach physics and mathematics in secondary school.
Narrator: At the end of her first semester at Swiss Poly Mileva left for the University of Heidelberg to audit the lectures of Philipp Lenard, a famous professor of theoretic physics.
Philipp Lenard was primarily an experimentalphysicist. (It was actually after completing a full academic year at the Polytechnic that, in early October 1897, Marić went to Heidelberg.)
Note: The brief discussion of the Lienard-Wiechert equation by a physicist that occurs at this point has nothing to do with Lenard.
Regina Balmer Capella (editor, Paul Haupt publishers): She arrived in Zurich as one of the first women to make their studies in mathematics and she was a brilliant student…”
The oft-repeated claim that Marić was a brilliant student needs closer examination. She certainly obtained excellent grades in physics and mathematics in her final year at the high school she attended in Zagreb from 1892-1894. That was two years before she enrolled at Zurich Polytechnic, immediately prior to which she had attended the Higher Girls’ School in Zurich in 1895-1896. Her biographer Trbuhović-Gjurić provides details of her teachers and subjects studied, but does not record her 1896 leaving diploma grades. Nor does she record Marić’s grades for the Matura examinations she took in 1896. All we have at this time are her grades in the mathematics component of the Polytechnic entrance exams, for which she obtained a very moderate grade average of 4.25 on a scale 1-6. So we are not in a position to say she was a brilliant student at pre-university academic level, and her grades in the Polytechnic mathematics entrance examinations do not indicate that she was. Moreover, her end-of-semester grade average for the first year at the Polytechnic was a rather low 4.2, and she failed to achieve a 5 in any of the five topics she took that year, hardly indicating she was a brilliant student. (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, pp. 26, 33, 35, 43, 60.)
Regina Balmer Capella: …and then she met Albert and in the beginning they shared the work, they shared the studies, and just after she came back from Heidelberg… she realised that she was in love with Albert, and then she began to go behind him, and began to aim for his work and not any more for her personal work.
Here we’re in the realms of “it must have been so” (to explain Marić’s eventual failure to obtain a teaching diploma). There is no evidence for Capella’s contention that Marić began to neglect her own studies and aim for Einstein’s work. They mutually enjoyed studying together, and Einstein was keen to share his extra-curricular reading with her, but there is nothing to demonstrate that she subordinated her academic work to his. On the contrary, such evidence we have (in their student correspondence) indicates that she was a conscientious student who studied hard (at her parents’ home) prior to examinations. Several letters testify to Einstein’s regularly encouraging her in her studies – in these early years of their relationship he harboured the expressed wish that they would eventually forge a joint future devoted to science. (That if anything Einstein supported Marić rather than the other way round is suggested by Einstein’s writing to her in late 1901: “Soon you’ll be my ‘student’ again, like in Zurich.” [Letter, 19 December 1901])
It is worthy of note that Marić’s end-of-semester grade average for the first year at the Polytechnic was 4.2 (scale 1-6), whereas her grade average post-Heidelberg (1898-1900) during which time she became emotionally involved with Einstein was a considerably improved 5.1 (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, p. 43). Even allowing for the fact that she was stronger in the subjects (e.g., physics topics) studied in the second half of the course, this hardly indicates that she subordinated her studies to Einstein’s.
Narrator: Einstein attended lectures [at the Polytechnic] of Hermann Minkowski on his development of four dimensional space-time and from this they [Einstein and Marić] began to formulate the basis of the special theory of relativity.
Einstein did not use Minkowski’s four dimensional space-time concepts in his 1905 special relativity paper. As Cornelius Lanczos writes on Einstein’s paper, “today these questions are handled in a totally different way, having at our disposal the four dimensional Minkowskian approach, which was not available in 1905” (The Einstein Decade, 1974, p. 136). In any case Einstein did not begin to formulate his theory as published in 1905 for several years after attending Minkowski’s lectures. As for Marić’s supposed involvement, there is not a single letter of hers that expresses any ideas on, or indeed any particular interest in, the ideas on the electrodynamics of moving bodies with which Einstein regaled her in some half-dozen of his letters during their student years. Nor is there any indication in Einstein’s letters of her mentioning the topic in her letters that were not kept by him at the time, as surely there would have been given his enthusiasm for the subject.
Narrator: Professor Wilhelm Fiedler intimidated Marić and gave her an unsatisfactory grade in projective geometry.
Like numerous such contentions one finds in the literature, this sounds plausible – until one examines the evidence. First, it is evidence-free, another contention of the “it must have been so” variety. Second the documentary evidence is inconsistent with the contention. Fiedler lectured on three topics, descriptive geometry, projective geometry and geometrical location. Of these, it was only in projective geometry that Marić obtained a poor grade (3.5). Are we to suppose Fielder intimidated her in this subject, but not in the other two for which she received respectable grades (grade 5 in geometrical location)? That geometry was not her strong point is evident from two other directions. In the Polytechnic entrance mathematics examination she took in 1896, her grade in descriptive geometry was a rather poor 3.75 (scale 1-6). And in a letter to Einstein at the time she was “cramming” for her intermediate diploma exam in late summer 1899, she described geometry material as “the hardest to master” – and indeed she obtained only 3.75 in projective geometry, while achieving a moderately good grade 5 in analytic geometry. (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, pp. 60, 61, 63.)
Narrator: Einstein often skipped classes to work in the laboratory where Mileva would join him to work on their own experiments.
When Einstein skipped classes it was mostly in order to follow up his extra-curricular interests in theoretical physics. The above can only refer to the work they were doing individually (not joint experiments) in the laboratory for their respective dissertations, both on heat conduction. (Letters, Einstein to Marić, 30 August/6 September 1900; 13 September 1900; 28 May 1901.)
Narrator (on the final diploma examinations in 1900): Although her grade point average was passing, inexplicably Marić was denied a diploma by the Board of Examiners.
It is quite extraordinary that at this point no mention is made of the fact that in the mathematics component of the final diploma examinations Marić’s grade was a very poor 2.5 (scale 1-6). (No other student in their small group obtained less than 5.5 for this exam.) Far from it being inexplicable, this alone suffices to explain why she failed to obtain a teaching diploma in 1900. Given in addition that her grade average for the end-of-semester grades in the mathematical topics differential and integral calculus, analytic geometry, projective geometry and differential equations was a very moderate 4.2, it is entirely explicable why the Board of Examiners declined to award her a diploma for teaching mathematics and physics in secondary schools. (Note: Marić’s grade average for the final diploma examinations was 4.0 (scale 1-6), which might have earned her a diploma were it not for her very poor grade in the mathematics component, theory of functions.) (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, p. 64.)
Narrator: It is likely that she experienced the bias of professors who did not see a future for a woman in the sciences.
Having failed to disclose the manifest reason for Marić’s failure to obtain a diploma, the film now resorts to an evidence-free “it must have been so” explanation. In regard to the suggestion that the examiners “did not see a future for a woman in the sciences”, it should be emphasized (never stated in the film) that the qualification was for teaching physics and mathematics, not for a career in science. Even if they had a bias against a woman taking up a scientific career, there is no reason to suppose they would object to her teaching the subjects. Moreover, according to Marić’s close friend Helene Kaufler (later Savić), prior to the examinations the physics professor Heinrich Weber had provisionally offered Marić a post as an Assistant (though Kaufler wrote to her mother that Marić did not wish to take up the offer, preferring instead to apply for a position as a librarian at the Polytechnic.). (Popović 2003, p. 61.)
In any case, John Stachel has documented from the ETH records that some women had already graduated from the mathematics and physics teaching diploma section at Zurich Polytechnic (and no doubt several more from the science teaching diploma section as a whole). (Stachel 2002, pp. 30)
Narrator: A year after graduation Albert had not obtained a permanent job because of his poor grades and bad study habits.
It is not the case that Einstein’s final diploma grades were “poor” – in none of the four subject topics examined in 1900 did he obtain less than a 5. (This was not the case with any of the other four candidates in their group; Einstein’s grade average was pulled down to 4.91 by his relatively low grade of 4.5 for his dissertation.) In any case, it seems unlikely that most prospective employers would enquire into the precise grades rather than taking note that he had been awarded the diploma. The physics professor Heinrich Weber, with whom the strong-willed Einstein was on bad terms, had failed to offer him an assistantship, and he strongly suspected that Weber was unwilling to provide potential employers with a favourable reference.
Narrator: [Late 1901] Albert continued to write asking about the health of the unborn baby and making reference to the theories that he and Marić were developing. [Quoting from an Einstein letter]: “I will be so happy when we are together again and can bring our work on relative motion to a successful conclusion.”
There is no evidence that Marić played any role in the ideas being developed by Einstein which he was reporting to her at that time. Indeed, Marić had been studying for her second attempt at the diploma in the first half of the year, and working on her dissertation that she hoped to develop into a Ph.D. thesis through to October/November 1901, when she decided to give it up. After her second exam failure in July 1901, now some three months pregnant she had immediately gone to stay with her parents in Serbia, where she remained most of the following year having given birth to a baby daughter in January 1902. In this whole period, from March 1901 through most of 1902, the couple scarcely saw each other, and the idea that they were working together on the theoretical notions Einstein was reporting in his letters doesn’t bear serious consideration.
The reading of the quotation above from a letter Einstein wrote to Marić (27 March 1901) exemplifies the failure by proponents of the contention that Marić contributed substantively to Einstein’s work on advanced physics to present all the relevant evidence. First, there is the failure to consider the context of the quoted sentence (of which more below). More important, whereas this one unspecific allusion to “our” work in relation to the electrodynamics of moving bodies is frequently cited, almost invariably there is no mention of the half-dozen other letters in the period from August 1899 through December 1901 in which Einstein writes of his ideas on the subject, providing specific details of what he is working on. As Stachel writes:
In summary, the letters to Marić show Einstein referring to his studies, his ideas, his work on the electrodynamics of moving bodies over a dozen times (and we may add a couple more if we include his letter to Grossmann), as compared to one reference to our work on the problem of relative motion. In the one case where we have a letter of Marić in direct response to one of Einstein’s, where it would have been most natural for her to respond to his ideas on the electrodynamics of moving bodies, we find the same response to ideas in physics that we find in all her letters: silence. (Stachel 2002, p. 36)
In regard to the context of the above frequently quoted sentence, the background is one in which the couple were now separated with little prospect of their being together in the immediate future. Roger Highfield and Paul Carter quote the whole paragraph, in which Einstein is seeking to reassure Marić of his continuing love, observing: “By italicizing the key sentence, one shows how it sat marooned, not in one of Einstein’s many passages of close scientific argument, but amid an outpouring of reassurance that his love for Mileva remained absolute despite their separation” (1993, p. 72). I would add that the unspecific sentence should also be seen the light of Einstein’s frequent attempts to interest Marić in his extra-curricular work, his long-term hope being that they would have a joint future devoted to science.
For Stachel’s discussion of this whole issue see the Bibliography (below), under Stachel (2005).
Narrator: Believing an illegitimate daughter would affect his position at the Patent Office, Einstein convinced Mileva to return to Novi Sad in November 1903 and relinquish their 17 month old daughter to adoption.
This is nothing but surmise. It may be the case, but in fact no one knows the circumstances in which Mileva gave up her infant daughter, or even that she was adopted. It is quite possible that she died. (In September 1903 Einstein wrote to Marić, who was with their daughter at her parents’ place: “I’m very sorry about what has befallen Lieserl. It is so easy to suffer lasting effects from scarlet fever. If only this will pass.”)
Narrator: While Einstein was at his desk at the patent office, Mileva submerged herself in reading scientific journals and conducting research. When Albert returned home they worked together until well after midnight. Shortly after the birth of Hans Albert in 1904 the couple completed three papers on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, and special relativity. […] In Vojvodina they finished the fourth paper, the one containing the famous equation E = mc2.
There is no serious evidence for any part of this. For an examination and rebuttals of such claims, see Esterson 2006(a).
Insofar as these claims are not simply articles of faith for people who are determinedly convinced that Marić was a close collaborator on Einstein’s work regardless of refutations of specific erroneous or unsubstantiated claims (e.g., see Joffe story immediately below), they are highly imaginative extrapolations of third or fourth hand vague general statements obtained from proudly Serbian friends and acquaintances of the Marić family obtained more than fifty years after events they purport to reveal, with all the well-documented unreliability of such supposed evidence, made even more dubious by the fact that they come from interested parties. (See Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988; Krstić 2004; Highfield and Carter’s assessment of such statements is that they amount to no more than “home-town folklore” [1993, p. 110].) What is never explained is why Marić (as alleged) would have been freely talking of her working with Einstein to some relatives and their friends on visits to her parents’ place in Novi Sad, Serbia, yet never so much as hinted to her closest friend Helene Kaufler Savić that she was assisting Einstein, though letters she wrote to Savić in the relevant period profusely describe her current activities. (Popović, M. 2003, pp. 56-89.) In some fifteen letters Marić wrote to Savić during the years leading up to the publishing of Einstein’s celebrated 1905 papers, not one of them mentions, or remotely hints at, her being involved with Einstein’s researches. Nor do her words about Einstein’s work on physics sound like those of someone who was collaborating with him:
December 1900: “Albert wrote a paper in physics that will probably soon be published in the Annalen der Physik. You can imagine how proud I am of my darling.”
December 1901: “Albert has written a magnificent study, which he has submitted as his [doctoral] dissertation… I have read this work with great joy and real admiration for my little darling, who has such a clever head.”
December 1906: “My husband often spend 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.”
As John Stachel writes on this issue:
In [Marić’s] 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. (Stachel 2002, p. 36.)
Narrator: All four papers were published in 1905. One of the assistant editors at Annalen der Physik recalls seeing Mileva’s name as author on the original documents. Why she was not co-author upon publication is not explained.
This paragraph is only too characteristic of the poor level of historical scholarship of the film. It even adds one more error to an already erroneous story. This, as told by Trbuhović-Gjurić, is that the Soviet scientist Abraham Joffe stated in his “In Remembrance of Albert Einstein” that Einstein’s three epoch-making 1905 articles in Annalen der Physik were originally signed “Einstein-Marić”. She goes on to say that at that time Joffe was an assistant to Wilhelm Röntgen, who as a member of the board of the journal that was responsible for examining submitted articles, had asked his assistant to participate in the work, and Joffe had thus seen the manuscripts. Unfortunately Trbuhović-Gjurić does not cite Joffe’s actual words, nor distinguish her own contentions from those supposedly made by Joffe. (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, p. 97.)
In fact an examination of the passage in question, from an obituary of Einstein, shows that Joffe did not state that he had seen the original manuscripts, nor that it was signed “Einstein-Maric”. (Stachel 2005, pp. liv-lxiii.) Nor is there any evidence that Röntgen (an experimental physicist) was asked to review the original papers, or that Joffe (who in the paragraph in question explicitly attributed the authorship of the articles to Einstein, describing him as a clerk at the Patent Office in Bern) had ever seen them. In Joffe’s book “Meetings with Scientists” there is chapter on Röntgen in which he alludes to the time when he was a graduate student of Röntgen’s and was advised to study what we would now call the prehistory of relativity theory. Had Joffe had the opportunity to see Einstein’s original 1905 manuscripts it is inconceivable that he would not have mentioned the fact in this context. (Joffe 1967, pp. 23-24.)
For a full refutation of the story about Joffe, see the Bibliography under Stachel (2002); see also Alberto Martinez (2005).
Incidentally, this erroneous story of Trbuhović-Gjurić’s is just one of the several unreliable or unsubstantiated contentions in her book.
Narrator: [In 1911] Albert entertained a proposal from the German University in Prague. Mileva adamantly opposed the move… Albert would not receive a raise and the physics department was not exceptional, yet over Mileva’s objections Albert accepted the job.
The statement that Einstein would not receive an increased salary is erroneous. The offer from Prague was twice his current salary, and some 60 per cent higher than the enhanced salary proposed by the University of Zurich to try to retain his services. The narration also fails to report that at Zurich he was only an assistant professor, whereas in Prague, at what Einstein described as “a magnificent Institute”, he was given a full professorship. (Fölsing 1997, pp. 273, 278; Neffe 2007, p. 160)
Narrator: In Prague… the apartment was dirty and insect-infested.
This statement, evidently based on Michelmore’s unreliable popular biography of Einstein (see below), exaggerates even his account (Michelmore 1963, p. 49). In a rather sensationalised passage about conditions in Prague, Michelmore writes of a single incident when a fire broke out in the maid’s room one night, and after Einstein had emerged from the room after dousing the fire with water he was supposedly “crawling with fleas”. All this shows is that the maid’s room had fleas (probably originating in her second-hand mattress [Highfield and Carter 1993, p. 135]), not that the whole apartment was either “insect-infested” or dirty.
Major biographies, while noting that hygienic conditions in Prague were well below the standards of Zurich, provide a somewhat different picture of their household situation. On arriving in Prague the Einsteins moved into a spacious modern apartment with electricity in place of the kerosene and gaslights of Zurich. In addition, the substantially increased salary enabled them to employ a live-in housemaid for the first time. (Fölsing 1997, p. 278; Neffe 2007, p. 160)
Narrator: [In Zurich in 1912] Now Einstein turned to Marcel Grossman for help on the mathematics for the General Theory of Relativity. Mileva was jealous and angry. As an Einstein biographer wrote, “Mileva was as good at math as Grossman.”
First, there is not the least evidence that Marić was jealous and angry that Einstein requested Grossman to help him with the specialist mathematics he needed to develop General Relativity. The implication in this passage is that previously he had turned to his wife for assistance with mathematics, but there is again no serious evidence that this was the case. As we have seen, Marić’s grades in mathematics throughout her time at Zurich Polytechnic left something to be desired, and her weakness at the subject resulted in her failing to obtain a diploma. She received lower grades than Grossman in every single mathematics topic that they both took for their intermediate and final diploma examinations (Collected Papers, vol. 1, docs. 42, 67; Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, p. 63); the notion that she was as good at mathematics as Grossman, who became a full professor of pure mathematics at the Polytechnic at the age of 29, does not bear serious examination. The assertion is made (p. 31) in a short popular biography by the non-specialist writer Peter Michelmore that contains several factual errors, and includes imaginative scenarios with invented dialogue, which immediately places it outside the bounds of serious biography. It is simply not good enough to recycle an assertion merely on the basis that it is stated in a book regardless of reliably documented evidence to the contrary, and the nature and trustworthiness of the book itself.
Narrator: Desperately unhappy [in 1914 in Berlin where Einstein had been appointed professor at the University of Berlin and Director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics], Mileva returned to Zurich with her two children… World War 1 became an excuse for Albert not to visit or send money.
This is completely untrue. First, Einstein sent quite generous sums of money per annum to Marić on a quarterly basis, as the letters between Einstein and Marić in the relevant period demonstrate (Collected Papers, vol. 8, docs. 33, 40, 58, 200). Again, while, given their strained relationship, Einstein had no wish to see Marić, more than a score of letters up to the end of 1916 alone testify to his desire to keep contact with his boys and to his interest in their activities. As Highfield and Carter observe, “It remains remarkable how diligently Einstein strove to keep contact with his sons during 1915, for this was the year in which his scientific labours [on General Relativity] reached their fiercest intensity” (1993, p. 173). In fact he did manage to arrange visits to Zurich on some three occasions, one of which involved a hiking trip with Hans Albert in 1915.
As they negotiated a divorce they agreed that, should he receive the Nobel Prize, the money would go to Mileva.
In fact the terms of the divorce agreement stipulated that the anticipated Nobel Prize money would be deposited in a Swiss bank trust fund in Marić’s name, with the proviso that she had no authority over the capital without Einstein’s consent, but that she had free access to the interest. In the event of her death or remarriage the trust fund monies would go to their two boys. (Collected Papers, vol. 8, doc. 562)
Narrator: “[Marić] never clamoured for the fame that was bestowed on her ex-husband. Given Mileva’s natural shyness and her need to hide her first pregnancy, it is understandable that she never asserted her co-authorship with her husband.”
What the relevance of Marić’s need to hide her first pregnancy is to this issue is obscure. In any case, there is a much more straightforward reason than stated here why Marić never asserted her co-authorship of Einstein’s papers: she did not co-author any of them. As historian Robert Schulmann and historian of physics Gerald Holton have stated: “All serious Einstein scholarship has shown that the scientific collaboration between the couple was slight and one-sided.”
1. Proponents of the co-authorship thesis frequently assert that Marić assisted Einstein with the mathematics for the 1905 special relativity paper (e.g., Troemel-Ploetz 1990). Leaving aside that the mathematics in that paper is not beyond the capability of any competent university physics student, Einstein’s abilities in conventional mathematics can be judged from the Zurich University 1905 “Expert Opinion” on his Ph.D. dissertation. Professor of physics Alfred Kleiner noted: “The arguments and calculations to be carried out [in the dissertation] 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.” As “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” Kleiner sought the opinion of the mathematics professor Heinrich Burkhardt. Burkhardt reported that what he checked he “found to be correct without exception, and the manner of treatment demonstrates a thorough command of the mathematical methods involved” [Burkhardt’s emphasis]. (Collected Papers, Vol. 5, doc. 31)
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About the Author
Allen Esterson has also 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 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.