Chekhov on Writing about Thorny Issues

In a letter to writer/publisher A. S. Suvorin, Chekhov wrote, “You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude toward his work, but you confuse two things:  solving a problem and stating a problem correctly.  It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist.”

I used this quote as a guideline in writing the Darwin book, where a reader might expect me to resolve the theological conflict between Charles and Emma and thereby make some pronouncement about my position.  But that is not the place of fiction.

This quote might be my guide once again, on the controversial issue of Mileva Maric’s possible contribution to Einstein’s work.  I will merely state the problem correctly:

He is married to a physicist classmate who once attended class and took meticulous notes while he went to coffee houses and read the work of contemporary physicists.  Gradually, he enticed her to join him there.

They enjoyed discussing physics together and read the same materials.

She sat in on his meetings of the Olympia Academy, contributing little to the discussion.

Einstein told her Serbian friends that she solved all his mathematical problems for him.

When he divorced her, he immediately reunited with his friend, mathematician Marcel Grossmann, the other meticulous note taker at the ETH. Grossmann was by then chair of the department and a specialist in geometry.

Geometry was the course that Maric failed twice, the score that prevented her graduating from the ETH.

The geometry of the fourth dimension was worked out by the math professor at the ETH who had once called Einstein a “lazy dog.”

Einstein regretted having paid so little attention to math when at the ETH.  He hadn’t understood its necessity in relation to theoretical physics.

Several international conferences have convened around the subject, the apparent conclusion being that she did his math but there is no evidence that she generated the creative ideas.

This is a but a partial list of the facts, composed from memory after a hiatus on Einstein research, but I shall continue building it as I re-engage and read more.

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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6 Responses to Chekhov on Writing about Thorny Issues

  1. Sorry to be so pedantic (again), Nancy, but I’m responding to your saying “this is a partial list of facts”:

    Geometry was not the course that Maric failed in her first Zurich Polytechnic final diploma exams, it was the fundamental topic “theory of functions”, in which she obtained a lowly 2.5 on a scale 1-6. (The other four students in their group attained at least 5.5.)

    Re the story (hearsay from friends and relatives of the Maric family obtained some 60 years after the event) that Mileva solved all Einstein’s mathematical problems, usually in the context of the 1905 special relativity paper:

    (i) the mathematics in the special relativity paper was quite elementary, of a standard any competent university physics student could deal with

    (ii) Einstein was precociously gifted at traditional mathematics (all he needed for his work up to around 1910), and had achieved the level close to that in the special relativity paper by the time he was fifteen.

    Einstein asked his mathematician friend Marcel Grossman for help when he returned to Zurich from Prague, having found he needed four-dimensional Riemann geometry and tensor calculus if he was to be able to make progress on general relativity. This was in 1912, two years before he separated from Mileva, and seven years before their divorce.

    The notion that several international conferences concluded that Mileva “did his math” (the subject she was rather weak on, while Einstein had a mastery of the mathematics he needed for his celebrated 1905 papers) is news to me.

  2. Nancy Pinard says:

    Hi Allen,

    You’re right. I checked Isaacson, (p. 136), the source of those facts, and it says the conferences concluded she “checked his math.” Are you in agreement with that?

    The material about the level of math needed for the 1905 paper is revealing. Thank you. That answers that question.

  3. Hi, Nancy. Thanks for your response.

    The statement by Isaacson (p. 136) that Mileva “helped check his math” comes from Isaacson himself and is separate from the paragraph on the AAAS 1990 conference session on the claims about her collaborating with Einstein. This was certainly not a conclusion drawn at that session, as there were a number of contributions, but no question of any agreed conclusion. (Incidentally, you can read John Stachel’s contribution to the conference here: )

    I have no idea what truth there is in the contention that Mileva checked Einstein’s mathematics. It is certainly very possible that she did so for the 1905 papers, but insufficient reliable evidence for me to conclude that it was definitely the case.

    I do know that the relevant sources cited by Isaacson are unreliable. For instance, he describes the PBS 2003 documentary “Einstein’s Wife” as “generally balanced”, but in fact it contained so many inaccuracies that the accompanying website was completely rewritten after the PBS Ombudsman recommended the DVD be withdrawn and the website “pulled” pending investigation by an appropriate panel:

    The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, co-producers of the documentary, also upheld my complaint: “Due to the breaches of the ABC’s Code of Practice which you have identified, the ABC will not broadcast ‘Einstein’s Wife’ again. In addition, the ATOM ‘Einstein’s Wife’ study guide has been removed from the ABC website.”

  4. I deal specifically with Isaacson’s comments on Mileva and mathematics here:

  5. Nancy Pinard says:

    Is there a biography or two you prefer? The ones I currently own are Folsing, Clark, Brian, Isaacson, Neffe, Overbye, and Highfield. Neither Folsing nor Clark cite Trbuhovic-Gjuric, though the others do. I’ve seen the Phillipp Frank, though I didn’t check whether he cited her. (I tend to order the ones with material that engenders scenes in my mind, since fiction is written in scene.)

  6. My personal preference if for Folsing. For one thing, his references are almost invariably to original sources, whereas the other authors often cite sources that refer to other, non-original, sources (if at all). It is true he doesn’t cite Trbuhovic-Gjuric, but he gave his views on her book in an article in Der Zeit in 1990. You can read a translation of the article here:

    Clark’s and Frank’s biographies were both written many years before the publication of Trbuhovic-Gjuric’s *Im Schatten Albert Einsteins*.

    A comment about the Highfield and Carter biography: Although they are good on the scientific aspects of Einstein’s life for a popular audience, I dislike their general treatment of his personal life. There is certainly much that can be criticized (though a lot of misleading myths circulate widely), but H&C always look for a way of interpreting whatever he did in a negative light. This is not just my opinion. The philosopher David Papineau wrote (in The Independent) of the authors’ “attempts at sensationalism”, Helmut Rechenberg (in the Times Higher Education Supplement) of their “somewhat polemical and fantastical” treatment of Einstein’s personal life, and Robert Klenigal (New York Times) wrote that they “seem inclined to interpret Einstein’s character and personality harshly”.

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