Why Did Mileva Fail her Exams?

In looking at the history of Mileva’s academic career and thinking about what motivated her after she became pregnant with Einstein’s child, I ask myself that question.

Prior to July 1900, she had never failed an exam.  That month was the first time she took the tests.  Her failure makes sense, given she had not only taken a semester off to go to study in Heidelberg, but also had taken up with Albert at the Cafe Metropole, discussing contemporary physicists rather than attending class.  Prior to this, according to her friends at Plattenstrasse 50, she had stayed up all night, reading and studying, followed by an hour of sleep before attending class.  That said, after July 1900’s failure, she spent a year mostly without Albert (who graduated in 1900) where she could go back to her former habits, where she had exclusive use of Marcel Grossmann’s meticulous notes from classes she missed, plus was working with Weber on her doctoral thesis and studying to retake the tests.  She wasn’t pregnant until May 5, 1901 when she went with Albert to Lake Como, so I’m to think she spent that entire school year doing nothing?  It hardly sounds like her.

I’m asking myself what she really wanted when she went to take those tests the second time.  Here’s my speculation:

She wanted Albert. She wanted them to be together, to work together, to raise their baby together. She needed to read what he was reading, which was not the same as taking a degree. She saw the cradle beside the table where her foot might rock it while they were working. She saw the coffee pot perking on a little stove, a pot of soup simmering, Albert’s pipe in a rack, the laundry drying beside the stove. Beyond this room was a little bed, made up in a patched quilt, where they would spend the nights keeping each other warm.

Was passing her exams the best way to get that?  Hmmm.

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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8 Responses to Why Did Mileva Fail her Exams?

  1. Lynne Hugo says:

    A really interesting idea. I’m wondering how you decide among possible explanations. Do you have any clues that point to her emotional state? I’m wondering about her possible perception that, in your well-painted post-baby scenario, they would work together more effectively if she had passed her exams. (Maybe Albert would have needed her more, further solidifying the relationship.) This might increase her motivation–and her despair were she not retaining studied material. Is it possible that Mileva’s functioning was impaired during this period? Perhaps something happened emotionally (depression?)that affected her ability to work, or it was a very difficult pregnancy with terrible nausea. I’m not able to quite wrap my mind around the notion that this strong, smart independent woman thought she needed to fail to be with Albert. Why would succeeding not help her be with Albert just as well as failing? Just thoughts…you know these people! I definitely don’t. Of course you have to go where historical evidence leads you; I know that. I just hate for her to start disappointing me already!

  2. Nicoley says:

    I do not know very much about Einstein or his personal life, but I am wondering why Mileva thought that she couldn’t have Albert if she passed her exam? If it is true that she never failed an exam previously, then she must have been a very driven person. I want to assume that it was her preoccupation with being a new mother that caused her to fail the exam, not that she was worried about Albert leaving if she was too smart. If she failed because she was worried about ‘having’ Albert, well, then, I am not afraid to admit that I do not like her very much. It makes her seem (to me) weak. But, like I said, I don’t know much about either of them…

  3. Hello, Nancy! I love reading your notes as you write this book about Einstein and Mileva. The blend of history and fiction has always been a great task for a writer.

    By the way, I left a note over on Ash Joie Lee’s blog that I was coming here to read, so you might find either comments here from people coming from there, or you might want to visit her blog, just to see the MeetnGreet: http://ashjoielee.com/

    EnJOY your day, Nancy!

  4. Allen Esterson says:

    Some information on Mileva’s examination record. The last school exams for which we have any knowledge of her grades were taken in 1894 at the Zagreb High School, two years before she graduated from the Zurich Higher Girls’ school in 1896. (Desanka Trbuhovic-Gjuric gives all her courses and teachers for her year at the Swiss high school in 1895-96, but there is no mention of her end-of-year grades, nor any information about her Matura [university entrance level] exams other than that she passed.) She was required to sit the mathematics part of the Zurich Polytechnic entrance exam in September 1896, and obtained a moderate grade average of 4.25 on a scale 1-6.

    In the Intermediate teaching diploma exam at the Polytechnic she obtained a grade average of 5.05, and came fifth out of six students in her group studying physics and mathematics. There was no question of any preoccupation with being a mother when she took the final diploma exam in 1900, as she wasn’t pregnant at that time. She failed, most likely because of her very poor grade in the mathematics component, theory of functions, only 2.5 (scale 1-6). (It was on her second attempt the following year that she was some three months pregnant.)

    It seems to be taboo to suggest that while Mileva excelled at physics and mathematics at her Serbian high school (we don’t know how well she did in her pre-university exams), she found University level work more challenging, like many another student who does very well at high school.

  5. Allen Esterson says:

    “…discussing contemporary physicists rather than attending class.”

    Nancy, I don’t know of any evidence that Mileva skipped classes along with Einstein. Such evidence as we do have suggests she was a model student. In his third year, Einstein’s coursework grade for Practical Physics was 1, the lowest possible on a scale 1-6, because he skipped most of the classes for that course. Mileva’s grade for the same course was 5, indicating she attended regularly.

    “Prior to this, according to her friends at Plattenstrasse 50, she had stayed up all night, reading and studying, followed by an hour of sleep before she attending class.”

    I’d be interested to know where this comes from, Nancy. I’ve read just about all the sources, and have never seen this before.

  6. Nancy Pinard says:

    <p>I just spent a few days searching to see where I got that notion–which was actually planted so firmly in my mind, I was shocked when I didn’t find it. It’s likely testimony to a mind that spins scenes from what I read, a skill necessary for a fiction writer.<br />

    I found two speculative statements, one in Overbye (p. 56 ) and another in Highfield and Carter (p. 56). Actually, though, I think it’s more a matter of how I imagined the scenes that Albert refers to in letters: “When I read Helmholtz for the first time I could not–and still cannot–believe that I was doing so without you sitting next to me. I enjoy working together & I find it soothing & and also less boring.” Pairing this with references like “We understand one another’s dark souls & also drinking coffee and eating sausage etc” put me in the cafe. But I see that I’m extrapolating and on your point–that Mileva failed because she didn’t understand the material, paired with her housemates reports of her study habits and the grade in Pernet’s lab class–it’s more likely that this reading and eating took place at Plattenstrasse 50. </p>
    <p>I thank you for correcting my impression.</p>
    <p>What I still can’t quite grasp is, if she didn’t understand the math, how could she have checked Einstein’s math when he was writing the papers of 1905 and beyond? Didn’t Hans Albert report that? His report that the marriage was on the edge in his eighth year turns out to be spot on. He seems to be a reliable narrator, though at age 8, he may not have known what she was doing. Perhaps the math required by the papers was not that difficult? Because Hermann Minkowski and Marcel Grossman were required to do the math on the General Theory of Relativity.</p>
    <p>Any insight on that? </p>
    <p>Also, what would have been the content of the oral exams? Were these orals to defend the thesis? Or was there an oral component to each subject’s exam?</p>

  7. Allen Esterson says:

    Thanks for the response, Nancy. You’ve made some good points that I’ll deal with below.

    First the comments by Overbye, who is deputy science editor of the New York Times. Maybe because he’s a journalist, he occasionally likes to spice things up a bit. Here is something he wrote in a Q&A on the prestigious blog EDGE:

    “Mileva was his classmate at the Polytechnic in Zurich; he started chasing her around the lab table their first year there. She was so upset by this that she actually dropped out of school for half a year and went off to Heidelberg to try and get her mind clear.”

    There is not a scrap of evidence for this, especially the silly first sentence. No one knows why she took a semester out of her course at the end of the first year to enroll for a one-semester course at the University of Heidelberg. So Overbye sometimes needs to be treated with caution.

    In the first part of Overbye’s paragraph that you cite (starting on p. 55), Overbye writes about the run-up to their final exams in July 1900 that they were “battered” by “the defection of friends”. More nonsense, especially in regard to Einstein. The reality in the case of Mileva is that she rather deserted her friends to spend time with Einstein, not the reverse as Overbye has it. On his writing that Mileva was “exhausted from accompanying her Johnnie on his midnight excursions”, this is more journalistic license. First, Mileva went home to Novi Sad to study for her final exams. Second, there is no evidence that when Einstein and Mileva studied together they went on into the early hours. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t, we just don’t know.

    Now the Highfield and Carter reference: I don’t see anything specifically relating to what you wrote above, but much of the main paragraph on that page is entirely speculative (indicated by the paragraph starting with the word “Perhaps”).

    You’re absolutely right about the couple working together (including reading extra-curricular books), and as you suggest, the studying took place at Einstein’s lodgings, not among the girls at Plattenstrasse.

    You write: “What I still can’t quite grasp is, if she didn’t understand the math, how could she have checked Einstein’s math when he was writing the papers of 1905 and beyond? Didn’t Hans Albert report that?”

    First (as you suggest), the mathematics in the 1905 papers was quite elementary. For instance, that in the special relativity paper is not beyond the knowledge of a competent first year physics major (Einstein had achieved it by self-study by the age of fifteen). Second, I know of no evidence that Mileva checked the mathematics. She may have done, or she may not, there is authentic evidence either way. The only words of Hans Albert about this period of which know comes in *Einstein: The Man and His Achievement*, pp. 19-22, and he does not say so there. Michelmore says so, but his book is very unreliable – for instance, he says Mileva was as good at mathematics as Marcel Grossman, which is nonsense. (Grossman became a professor of pure mathematics before he was 30, and assisted Einstein in the esoteric pure mathematics he was later to need for the General Relativity Theory he started on in 1912.)

    “Because Hermann Minkowski and Marcel Grossman were required to do the math on the General Theory of Relativity.”

    Herman Minkowsky formulated the Special Relativity theory in mathematical terms (rather than the original physical terms of Einstein), but he died in 1909. It was Grossman who assisted Einstein in the esoteric (in the eyes of non-mathematicians) mathematics required for the General Theory. Einstein mastered the mathematics, and was to use it in his later unsuccessful attempts to find a unified field theory to cover all known forces on which he worked for the last third of his life.

    I don’t know of any details about the oral exams in 1900, except that there were separate exams for each of the five subjects taken by the candidates. (The grades are in the Einstein Collected Papers, Vol 1, doc, 67.)I don’t know if there was also an oral to defend the thesis. I doubt it, because it wasn’t a thesis in the same sense as a PhD thesis. It was a dissertation on a subject chosen by the candidate, so there may not have been any oral component to that – the dissertation may well have been simply judged on its merits. But one thing no one seems to comment on: I noticed that in the case of three topics among the official coursework grades (awarded by teachers at the end of the semester in which they took the topic) Einstein was accorded “Graduated”. It looks to me as if this indicates that the candidates’ coursework grades were taken into account as well as performance at the oral exams in 1900. Trbuhovic-Gjuric provides Mileva’s coursework grades, but does not mention which were marked “Graduated”. I would imagine some were, as her coursework grades were generally equal or close to Einstein’s. (She most likely would have obtained a diploma had her grade in the final mathematics exam not been so poor.)

  8. Allen Esterson says:

    Sorry, there are a couple of missing words in relation to Hans Albert. The sentences should have read:

    “She may have done, or she may not, there is no authentic evidence either way. The only words of Hans Albert about this period of which I know comes in *Einstein: The Man and His Achievement*, pp. 19-22, and he does not say so there.”

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