Some Convincing Evidence

In my ongoing collection of evidence that Mileva either did or did not contribute to Einstein’s theories, I come upon two passages in Highfield and Carter’s The Private Lives of Albert Einstein which would indicate that she did not.

Mileva is in Heidelberg, writing to Albert about a lecture by Phillipp Lenard, professor of experimental physics.  Highfield and Carter say this, (complete with British spellings):

“The professor had been describing the kinetic theory of gases, which explains their properties by the behaviour of their constituent molecules.  This was just the kind of problem that would be central to much of Einstein’s work in 1905, but Mileva’s account suggests a certain scientific naivity [sic].  She wrote, . . . ‘It seems that oxygen molecules travel at a speed of over 400 metres per second, and after calculating and calculating, the good professor set up equations, differentiated, integrated, substituted and finally showed that the molecules in question actually do move at such a velocity, but that they only travel the distance of 1/100 of a hair’s breadth.’  This irreverent tone is appealing, but it seems that Mileva had missed the key points of what Lenard was saying.  The mathematics that apparently dazzled her would not have been directed at determining the velocity of molecules–since this can be obtained quite simply–and the tiny distance they travelled [sic] between collisions should hardly have come as a surprise to her.  It depends on how many collisions each molecule experiences with others within a given time interval.  Although this was only a light-hearted anecdote, it suggests that Mileva lacked Einstein’s intuitive grasp of physics.”  (Highfield, 41-42)

While I am dependent on Mr. Allen Esterson to confirm that Highfield and Carter are correct in their analysis of the math, this kind of evidence–the documentation that she does not have Einstein’s understanding–is much more compelling to me than a statistical analysis of the reliability of witnesses a number of years after the fact.

The second point I find compelling in Highfield and Carter is that when the two were separated–Albert in Milan applying for jobs and Mileva in Zurich studying to resit the exams she had failed, Albert is immensely productive.  Again, from Highfield and Carter:

“A great spate of ideas continued to flow out of him in her absence.  There was a flash of insight about heat and energy that struck him during the train journey to Italy; fundamental doubts about radiation that arose as he read an article by Max Planck; a ‘wonderful idea’ he had arrived at for applying ‘our theory of molecular forces’ to gases.  His mind was in flux as he announced a series of revisions and extensions to his previous views.  This creative flow hardly suggested that Mileva’s presence was necessary to his inspiration. ” (Highfield, 70)

Einstein, in one letter goes on to ask her to look up data in the library and suggests some experiments they can conduct together to develop his new notion.   (Highfield, 70)

This then seems to be convincing documentation of her contribution.  She clearly could understand what he was saying and was able to participate on that level–as someone like his previous love interest, Marie Winteler would not have–but the idea that she did the work seems revisionist.

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
This entry was posted in Einstein, Mileva Maric, reading, Research methods. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Some Convincing Evidence

  1. Lynne Hugo says:

    This is really interesting and seems to provide an “answer” to the point you’ve been researching. I’m wondering about the point of view of the biographers. When was Private Lives published? Are the authors male? Is the social/societal context of the book itself one in which women’s contributions tended to be dismissed? I’m not assuming that’s the case, since I’m not familiar with the book. I think the POV of authors is always relevant to try to discern. (I really appreciate your own transparency regarding, “state the problem correctly” which is think an excellent approach, respecting the readers’ critical thinking ability.)

  2. Nancy Pinard says:

    PRIVATE LIVES was published in 1993, and yes, the authors are both male. If anything, I feel they are harder on Albert than Mileva in terms of their censure of how Albert treated her after the initial bloom was off their love–not relevant to her contribution, however. I know she had trouble with projective geometry–she complained in letters about how hard it was for her–and she failed her final in theory of functions. It doesn’t make sense to blame it on her pregnancy because she wasn’t pregnant when she failed it the year before. Both times she got the same mark.

  3. Nancy: Like Lynne, I applaud your continuing efforts to grasp the situation without jumping to premature conclusions. To assist in that endeavour, a couple of points about your comments above.

    Note that the letters to which Highfield and Carter allude were from their student days, and are not related to the groundbreaking papers published by Einstein several years later. You note:

    “Einstein, in one letter goes on to ask her to look up data in the library and suggests some experiments they can conduct together to develop his new notion.”

    It is important to appreciate that both Einstein and Mileva chose heat conduction for their Zurich Polytechnic theses (1900). Short of going through all the letters (H & C do not cite specific letters in their references for page 70), I can’t comment specifically on their paraphrase, but the only experimental work in which they would have been interested in common would have related to this Polytechnic work. All the extra-curricular material that Einstein was working on was of a theoretical nature. Yes, Einstein asked Mileva on a couple of occasions to look up factual material for him, but (I repeat) this was in their student days. (He was also constantly trying to involve her in his own ideas.)

    So this is not “convincing documentation of her contribution” because it has nothing to do with, e.g., his celebrated papers published five or more years later.

    On the subject matter in the letter cited in detail by H & C, this dates from 1897, and relates to elementary kinetic theory of gases and the mathematics involved (calculus and algebra) had been mastered by Einstein by self-study by the time he was sixteen.

  4. Nancy Pinard says:

    Yes, undergraduate/pre-marital dates of these events are noted. Though Highfield mentions 1905, my time line is clear.

    Do you agree with Highfield that Mileva “missed the key points” of what Lenard was saying?

  5. Nancy: It’s been more decades than I care to remember since I looked at the topic in question, but I’ve now dug up an old College physics text to remind me of the details. Highfield is right insofar as that the way one finds the velocity of the molecules of a specific gas such as oxygen does not involve complicated differentiating, integrating and so on in the way Mileva wrote – it only requires a fairly straightforward application of algebra. (I recall we did this calculation when I was in the last couple of years at grammar school in London in the 1950s, though I fear standards have declined considerably since then.)

    However, I wouldn’t be inclined to say in such generalised terms as Highfield from what Mileva wrote that she “missed the key points” of what Lenard was saying. I think he is taking a brief item in a letter to a prospective boyfriend rather too seriously. This is why I have written somewhere that Mileva reported in a jocular fashion to Einstein the gist of the lecture, because that is the tone that I picked up from the way she wrote the sentence in question. I very much doubt she thought of herself as giving him an accurate account of the details.

  6. fwiw, I agree with you…the discussion on the kinetic theory of gases is at another level altogether from the ideas that led to relativity.

Leave a Reply