Scholarly Standards in Feminist Science Studies

In September 2009 I submitted an article to the feminist journal Women’s Studies International Forum, and in February 2010 I was informed that the journal had decided against publication. Nothing unusual in that, of course. No doubt the great majority of articles submitted to journals are rejected, for a multitude of reasons. But when I enquired why no reason had been given, the Editor-in-Chief replied that the paper had not been sent out for review as she did not feel that it had sufficient evidence in terms of references or citations to back up some of the claims that were made.

Now, whatever deficiencies there may have been in the article, insufficient citation was not one of them. In fact it was profusely referenced, with some sixty citations in an article of approximately 4000 words (Esterson 2009). The explanation was clearly spurious. Perhaps the subject matter, a critique of claims made in a Reader in Feminist Science Studies concerning the supposed contributions made by Einstein’s first wife to his celebrated 1905 papers, was inappropriate for the journal. Evidently not, as the journal previously published one of the most frequently cited articles on this very same subject: “Mileva Einstein-Marić: The Woman Who Did Einstein’s Mathematics” (Troemel-Ploetz 1990). I think we must look elsewhere for the explanation, which will perhaps emerge from an examination of the claims in question.

Women, Science, and Technology: A Reader in Feminist Science Studies (Wyer 2000) contains a chapter by the feminist sociologist Hilary Rose, reprinted from her book Towards a Feminist Transformation of the Sciences: Love, Power and Knowledge (1994). In a section under the subheading “A dangerous combination of love and science” (1994, pp. 143-144; Wyer 2000, pp. 56-57) Rose purports to demonstrate that Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Marić, made substantial contributions to his early scientific achievements, and that the failure to give her work due recognition exemplifies “the unbridled patriarchal power of appropriation” in the “early twentieth century scientific labour market”.

In the Introduction to the Reader in Feminist Science Studies, under the subheading “Scientific Behavior and the Scientific Method” the editors write: “In using the scientific method, it is assumed that scientists will adhere to a number of behavioral norms… They contain the essence, or spirit, of scientific enquiry…” (Wyer 2000, p. xix). Among five “scientific norms” the editors go on to list is that of “scepticism (all claims should be scrutinized for errors).” This should, of course, be an essential feature of all scholarly writings, and here I want to examine whether Rose’s historical contentions about Mileva Marić comply with to this exemplary precept.

After a very brief introduction in which she cites a biography of Marić by the Serbian author Desanka Trbuhović-Gjurić (1993 [1988]), Rose writes that the marriage was initially happy and mutually appreciative, exemplified by Einstein’s “explain[ing] to a group of Zagreb intellectuals that he needed his wife as ‘she solves all the mathematical problems for me’.”

Now one might have thought that the contention that Einstein’s first wife solved all his mathematical problems for him is something that required further investigation before endorsement. However, Rose is content to take the claim at face value. From her endnotes it is evident that she has not examined the biography she has cited, but relies on Troemel-Ploetz’s 1990 article for the information she is relaying (Rose 1994, p. 271, n.19; Wyer 2000, p. 66, n.9).

Had Rose consulted Trbuhović-Gjurić’s book she would have found that the “Zagreb intellectuals” were actually young comrades and friends of Marić’s medical student brother Miloš (1993, p. 93). Moreover, she would have seen that Trbuhović-Gjurić provides no reference for the quotation, nor even a specific occasion, so we are left to take the assertion on trust, something only too characteristic of the biography. Trbuhović-Gjurić’s evidence for such statements comes mostly third hand from friends and acquaintances of the Maric family obtained some sixty years after the events in question. Hometown folklore gathered from interested parties in such circumstances hardly constitutes reliable testimony.

One might have hoped that Rose would at least have made some attempt to ascertain whether the claim is tenable. Had she done so she would have found that whereas Einstein excelled in the mathematics he required in the early stages of his scientific career, it was Marić’s poor grade in the mathematical component (theory of functions) of her Zurich Polytechnic final teaching diploma examination (2.5 on a scale 1-6) that resulted in her failing the exam in 1900 (Albert Einstein Collected Papers, Vol. 1, 1987, doc. 67). Furthermore, the mathematics required for the 1905 papers to which Rose alludes in the following paragraph is not at a level that would have taxed Einstein’s mathematics abilities (Esterson 2006).

Rose now goes on to describe what she calls “two key episodes” that “document the process by which [Marić’s] work, if not actively appropriated, was certainly lost to [Einstein]”. She reports that “Mileva, through the collaboration with a mutual friend, Paul Habicht, constructed an innovatory device for measuring electrical currents. Having built the device the two inventors left it to Einstein to describe and patent…”

Here Rose is paraphrasing Troemel-Ploetz (p. 418), who in turn is quoting Trbuhović-Gjurić (1993, p. 83). But Trbuhović-Gjurić provides not a single reference to justify her assertions, and the only documents pertaining to this episode tell a very different story. There are around twenty letters exchanged between Einstein and one or other of the Habicht brothers (Conrad and Paul) in the years 1907-1911 in which the “little machine” (Maschinchen) is discussed, but there is no mention of any contribution from Marić (Collected Papers, Vol. 5, 1995). The development of the device for measuring small currents is well documented from the time Einstein reported his ideas for a new method of measuring very small quantities of electrical energy in a letter to Conrad and Paul Habicht dated 15 July 1907 (Fölsing 1997, pp. 239-241). (He had suggested the possibility of such a device in the final paragraph of a paper published in Annalen der Physik earlier that year [Collected Papers, Vol. 2, 1989, doc. 39].) Einstein and Conrad had become close friends since Einstein had moved to Bern in 1902, before his marriage the following year. Paul Habicht had started up a small instrument-making company in 1907, and used his laboratory for making and improving the device. There are nine letters from Paul to Einstein giving details of stages in the manufacture of the device, not one of which suggests that Marić was involved. At the end of three of these Paul adds conventional greetings to Einstein’s family, but he refers to “your wife”, not Mileva as one would expect if they had been working closely together in the way that Trbuhović-Gjurić claims. (In one letter to Einstein, dated 12 October 1908, Paul specifically refers to “your machine”.)[1]

In summary, the documentary evidence shows that it was Einstein who supplied the scientific knowledge and basic ideas that enabled Paul Habicht to manufacture the Maschinchen. There is not a single piece of evidence to support Trbuhović-Gjurić’s account of Marić’s major role in collaboration with Paul, and she supplies no information to indicate on what basis her contentions rest. But no matter. For Rose, this supposed episode illustrates “that the price of her selfless love… was that her work had become his.” (In the next sentence Rose makes the preposterous assertion that Marić “also lost her personal health through trying to do the mathematical work to support his theorizing and simultaneously take care of their children”.)

Rose next alludes is what she describes as “the even more disturbing episode of the articles published in 1905 in the Leipzig Annalen der Physik.” She continues:

Of the five key papers, two of the originally submitted manuscripts were signed also by Mileva, but by the time of their publication, her name had been removed. These two articles, written in what was widely understood as Einstein’s golden age, included the theory of special relativity which was to change the nature of physics, and for which he alone received the Nobel prize…

For this assertion Rose cites Troemel-Ploetz, who actually refers to three papers that “were written [by Einstein] together with his wife” – Rose has misread Troemel-Ploetz on this, and also when she erroneously writes that Einstein received the Nobel prize for his special relativity paper (Troemel-Ploetz 1990, p. 419; Trbuhović-Gjurić 1993, p. 97). However, the report by Trbuhović-Gjurić that is paraphrased by Troemel-Ploetz is an object lesson in how not to present an historical contention. She purports to provide the substance of a passage by the Soviet physicist Abraham Joffe in his article “In Remembrance of Albert Einstein”, published in 1955. Unfortunately she does not quote Joffe’s actual words, giving instead a paraphrase that includes the basic contention followed by supporting information that misleadingly reads as if it also came from Joffe. But the unreferenced supporting evidence is without foundation, as is her basic contention that Joffe stated that (in Troemel-Ploetz’s words) “the original manuscripts were signed Einstein-Marić”.

It is impossible in a short space to fully document the errors in Trbuhović-Gjurić’s contentions about Joffe, but this has been done in meticulous detail by John Stachel in his Introduction to the 1905 edition of Einstein’s Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics (Stachel, 2005, pp. liv-lxxii). As Alberto Martínez also documents, “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…” (Martínez, 2005, pp. 51-52). Martínez notes that in multiple places throughout his career Joffe acknowledged Einstein as sole author of the three papers. More specifically, relevant passages in Joffe’s book Begegnungen Mit Physikern (“Meetings with Scientists”) are inconsistent with all of Trbuhović-Gjurić’s contentions in the section in question (Joffe 1967, pp. 23-24, 92-93).

Rose claims that Stachel (whose name she gives as “Hackel”) “disturbingly… ignores the evidence” contained in Trbuhović-Gjurić’s biography, indicating that in this context she considers that “assertions” is a synonym for “evidence”. In fact Stachel had rebutted the main contentions at a session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February 1990 (Stachel 2002, pp. 26-38). It is instructive to compare Rose’s cavalier attitude to what constitutes “evidence” with that of Stachel at that session: “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” (Stachel 2002, p. 32).

In relation to the claims that she has recycled, Rose contends that Trbuhović-Gjurić’s biography has “raised doubts in the scientific community”, and cites a letter in Physics Today by Evan Harris Walker (Walker 1989; Rose 1994, p. 271, n.21; Wyer 2000, p. 66, n.11). Now Walker (who died in 2006) had a Ph.D. in physics, but he was hardly representative of the scientific community, having for some time been president of the Walker Cancer Research Institute. Rose writes that Trbuhović-Gjurić indicates that “Einstein was the creative thinker”, but he “could not have realized his theoretical insights without Mileva’s mathematics”. Leaving aside that only someone ignorant of the subject matter in question could write such scientific nonsense, one is left wondering how Rose can reconcile this statement with Walker’s contention in relation to the 1905 special relativity paper that “the background material, and most importantly, those most basic capricious ideas…came from Mileva, while the mathematics and proofs came largely from Albert” (Walker 1989, p. 11). That two of the original proponents of the thesis that Marić collaborated with Einstein on his 1905 papers can arrive at such opposite conclusions is in itself a measure of the paucity of the evidence on which the claims are based.

Contrary to Rose’s assertion about “doubts in the scientific community”, the historian of physics Gerald Holton and historian Robert Schulmann note that “All serious Einstein scholarship has shown that the scientific collaboration between the couple was slight and one-sided” (Holton and Schulmann 1995). (See Pais 1994, pp. 1-29; Holton 1996, pp. 170-93; Stachel 1996, pp. 207-219; Stachel 2002, pp. 26-38; Martínez 2005, pp. 49-56.) As for Walker’s contribution to the debate, Stachel stated in 1990: “I know nothing about cancer research, but if I had to judge Walker solely on the basis of his letter on Einstein, I would have to conclude that he is a fantasist, who judges reality on the basis of his own desires” (Stachel 2002, p. 26). (See also Esterson 2008.)

Illustrating the poor level of scholarship to be found in the article on which Rose relies, Troemel-Ploetz asks: “Why did [Einstein] not acknowledge in public that it was [Marić] who came up with the idea to investigate ether and its importance (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1983, p. 76)?” The reference is to a passage in Trbuhović-Gjurić’s biography containing the following quotation purportedly from Einstein:

Mileva believes in my abilities, she believes that I am able to perceive the truths in the processes of nature, regardless of the erroneous beliefs relating to them. It is she who first directed my attention to the significance of the ether presumed to exist throughout the universe. (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1993, p. 87 [my translation]).

Trbuhović-Gjurić states that Einstein made this statement to Miloš Marić, Mileva’s brother, supposedly in 1905. However, she provides no reference for the quotation, which certainly didn’t come directly from Miloš himself, as he stayed in Russia (later the Soviet Union) after being taken prisoner during the First World War, and didn’t return home before his death in 1944 (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1993, p. 161). In any case, we know the assertion in the second sentence is erroneous, as Einstein wrote an essay on the ether when he was only sixteen, before he had even met Marić (Collected Papers, Vol. 1, 1987, doc. 5). Furthermore, while there is no evidence that Marić had any specific interest in the ether, it was Einstein who wrote to her in August 1899 that he was “convinced more and more that the electrodynamics of moving bodies as it is presented today doesn’t correspond to reality”, and that the introduction of the term “ether” had “led to the conception of a medium whose motion can be described, without, I believe, being able to ascribe physical meaning to it” (Renn and Schulmann 1992, p. 10). In another letter the following month, at a time when Marić was revising for examinations, Einstein reported that he had come up “a good idea for investigating a body’s relative motion with respect to the luminiferous ether”, adding: “But enough of this! Your poor little head is already crammed with other people’s hobby horses that you’ve had to ride” (p. 14). Evidently interest in the ether was Einstein’s hobby horse, not Marić’s. That the words that Trbuhović-Gjurić attributes to Einstein contain an assertion that is documentably false serves to illustrate the unreliability of several like claims to be found in her biography.

Where does that leave us? A highly regarded feminist sociologist has uncritically reproduced claims about alleged contributions to Einstein’s celebrated 1905 papers by his first wife on the sole basis of an article which itself is almost entirely based on contentions in a book that fails to comply with the most fundamental scholarly standards. Trbuhović-Gjurić’s biography, containing no index or bibliography and almost entirely devoid of reference citations, is described, with justice, by the Einstein biographer Albrecht Fölsing as containing a combination of fictional invention and pseudo documentation (belletristischer Erfindung und Pseudodokumentation) (Fölsing 1990).

It is disappointing to find claims based on such dubious historical evidence further disseminated in a Feminist Science Studies Reader in the Introduction to which the editors enunciate the principle that factual claims should be treated with caution and scrutinized for errors. That Hilary Rose is by no means alone among feminist academics in failing to comply with this exemplary dictum in regard to Mileva Marić’s alleged scientific contributions is illustrated by a similarly misleading account by Andrea Gabor, deprecated by Holton and Schulmann for its “flights of journalistic fantasy” (Gabor 1995, pp. 3-32; Holton and Schulmann 1995; see Esterson 2007). In their treatment of this subject matter both authors reveal a propensity to endorse claims that are in accord with their preconceptions regardless of the calibre of the purported evidence. It is perhaps unsurprising that the editors of Women’s Studies International Forum are reluctant to be a party to revealing information of a nature likely to be unpalatable to many of its readers.


1 It should be noted that, while lending no support to the story of Marić’s supposed leading role in collaboration with Paul Habicht, the biographer Carl Seelig writes of Einstein’s and Habicht’s “attempts to perfect [the machine] with occasional help from Mileva” (Seelig 1956, p. 60).


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Allen Esterson

April 2010

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