The Mileva Maric Controversy

Einstein married his classmate, Mileva Maric, the only woman in theoretical physics to enter Zurich Polytechnical Institute the same year. She was four years his elder and a disciplined student, having worked very hard to gain entrance to boys/men’s institutions in order to study physics. Here’s where the controversy enters: How much credit should she be given for the theory of relativity? PBS did a documentary on her, Einstein’s Wife, that met with a firestorm of criticism such that the website was later changed, though, to my eye, no one on the program was giving her credit, but rather pointing to the possibility that she had worked on it. One biographer, a Serbian woman writing in Russian, Desanka Trbuhovic-Gjuric, claims that Mileva’s name was on one submission of the manuscript, which she had seen on microfilm. And then there’s the unlikely fact of Einstein having produced four papers in 1905, all on radically different subjects, when heretofore he had not demonstrated himself a particularly diligent worker. One of those papers contained content on the motion of molecules that can only be traced to Mileva’s work with Phillip Lenard at Heidelberg University the semester she fled from what she perceived as a threat in her growing intimacy with Einstein. (Indeed, a threat it turned out to be! But that’s for a later post.) This is not conclusive evidence, surely, for it’s known that Einstein always needed a sounding board and it’s logical that Mileva would have served that role without the ideas being hers. Nonetheless, in the love letters Einstein wrote to Mileva before their marriage, he made repeated reference to “our work” and there’s that peculiar fact that in the divorce settlement, he offered her all the proceeds from the Nobel Prize he later won. Why that settlement? He had other sources of income. Their son, Hans Albert, also reports seeing his parents working together at the table, discussing, writing, reading. But he was still a child and the content was beyond his understanding.

After she failed to pass her exams at the Polytechnic and was not granted a degree–she had taken that one semester in Heidelberg and was three months pregnant with Einstein’s illegitimate daughter–it might be argued that his would be the name they would put on the manuscripts, similar to the way Zelda Fitzgerald sold some short stories under F. Scott’s name to garner more money.

But that’s a speculation. Having just finished a novelization of the Darwin’s family life, I’m aware that much work done by the women of the household (all the editing, for example) went unacknowledged. It was difficult to be an accomplished woman in that era.

Here is an article that examines each piece of evidence, claiming that the Maric contribution is revisionist history. .

About Nancy Pinard

Professionally-speaking, Nancy Pinard is an author-educator who spends her days writing, teaching, reading, and researching for her writing and teaching. She is the author of two published novels, Shadow Dancing and Butterfly Soup, and numerous short stories. She has taught the craft of fiction writing in many venues including Sinclair Community College, University of Dayton Life-Long Learning Institute, Antioch Writers' Workshop, Mad Anthony Writers' Workshop, and Molasses Pond Writers' Workshop. Personally, her faith is what sustains, inspires, and motivates her to continue to explore meaning through literature. "You are right in demanding that an artist approach his work consciously, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist." — Anton Chekov to Alexei Suvorin, October 27, 1888
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7 Responses to The Mileva Maric Controversy

  1. Lynn Dille says:

    Nancy — as always, you’ve piqued my interest and drawn me in. When you first mentioned writing a novel on Einstein’s life, I thought exclusively of the man. How fascinated I am after having read just those few teasers about Einstein’s wife. I want to know her story, too. Can’t wait to hear more . . .

  2. Marianne says:

    Fascinating! I would love to know more!

  3. Fascinating post! I had no idea. I didn’t even realize Einstein had been married. I once heard you read at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop — it was an excerpt from your book about Darwin, which I very much enjoyed. I look forward to reading it, as well as your new book about Einstein.

  4. Nancy: I fear there are several misconceptions in your piece about Mileva Maric, some of them possibly deriving from Andrea Gabor’s seriously flawed chapter on Mileva Maric you cite in your 9 October blog. See:

    If you look again at the article by Alberto Martinez to which you link at the end of your piece, you’ll see that Trbuhovic-Gjuric’s claim about Mileva’s name being on the 1905 relativity manuscript is completely false. See also a more detailed refutation here:

    It is not the case that before 1905 Einstein had not been a particularly diligent worker. Einstein didn’t produce the 1905 papers out of the blue – he had been thinking about, and working on, some of the ideas contained in them for several years before (in the case of ideas on relative motion for some eight years). There is a precedent for such intensive work in science: Isaac Newton had an equivalently productive year in 1666/67 when he produced groundbreaking work in developing calculus, and on optics and gravitational theory. No one suggests he had any assistance for this remarkable feat.

    It is a myth published by writers who are ignorant of the science involved to say that one of the 1905 papers contained work that “can only [sic] be traced to Mileva’s work with Philip Lenard at Heidelberg University”. Lenard’s course was on elementary (for University) heat theory, and nothing more than knowledge Einstein gained in his equivalent course at Zurich Polytechnic (and considerably more by self-study of extra-curricular material from Maxwell and Lorentz). In any case, the relevant 1905 paper goes far beyond anything they would have learned in the first couple of years of a University course.

    Einstein’s references to “our” work (which were only during their time as students) are sometimes related to their respective Zurich Polytechnic diploma dissertations (for which they both chose heat conduction) and have nothing to do with Einstein’s extra-curricular self-study. Other references to “our” work are some general statements in the context of Einstein encouraging Mileva towards his desire they have a future life together devoted to science. These are far outnumbered by letters in which Einstein refers to *specific” ideas that *he* is working on. For a comprehensive discussion of this issue, see:

    When Mileva failed the final Zurich Polytechnic teaching diploma exam the first time (in 1900, with a very poor grade in the mathematics component) she was not pregnant. It was on her second attempt in 1901 that she was some three months pregnant.

    There’s nothing peculiar about the divorce settlement. Letters between the two show that Einstein proposed that any future Nobel Prize money be deposited in a bank in trust for their sons (with Mileva being able to draw the interest for herself) to persuade a reluctant Mileva to allow the divorce.

    Whatever dubious claims are made second or third hand in books, what Hans Albert actually said (directly in a radio broadcast discussion) is that with the marriage [January 1903] his mother gave up all her ambition of working on physics (*Einstein: The Man and His Achievements*, ed. G. J. Whitrow, 1967, p. 19).

  5. Nancy Pinard says:

    I feel I was clear in my post, repeatedly indicating that the subject matter is controversial and speculative and referencing sources that disagree with the PBS documentary. Part of the difficulty in making decisions regarding this subject is that while Maric kept Einstein’s letters, he kept very few of hers. Her side of the correspondence is very spotty, so to say that her discussions of physics are “far outnumbered by letters in which Einstein refers to *specific” ideas that *he* is working on” is true. What is more true is that the evidence of whatever she said about physics in letters to him is lost to history.

  6. What we do have are two letters of Maric’s (10 September 2010 and 3 May 1901)in direct response to ones from Einstein in which he has excitedly reported ideas on extra-curricular physics on which he is working. In her response to these letters Mileva makes no mention of the physics topics on which Einstein has written, and writes only about personal matters.

    Again, in letters to her closest friend Helene Kaufler Savic, whenever Mileva mentions papers published by Einstein she always attibutes them to Einstein without the slightest hint that she played any role in the production of the articles.

  7. Nancy, I have just seen that you have misread what I wrote about the early Einstein/Mileva correspondence (from when they were students). You write: “so to say that her discussions of physics are ‘far outnumbered by letters in which Einstein refers to *specific” ideas that *he* is working on” is true…” What I wrote was that *in Einstein’s letters* the times that *he* writes of *his* ideas far outnumber the occasions he uses the word “our”.

    There are *no* discussions of physics, and certainly not of the kind of extra-curricular advanced physics that Einstein frequently wrote about, in *any* of Mileva’s letters, other than a rather jocular report on an elementary lecture on the kinetic theory of gases that Mileva attended when she spent a semester at Heidelberg University during her second year on the Zurich Polytechnic course.

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