Nov. 27, 2006 at 11:00 PM ET
What part did Albert Einstein's first wife play in the origins of E=mc2 and all that? First we had the allusion to the years-long debate over mathematician Mileva Maric's role ... then we had the argument against Maric's involvement from physicist/author Allen Esterson ... then we had the other side of the argument from Senta Troemel-Ploetz, speaking up for Maric ... and now we have a closing rebuttal from Esterson:
"Troemel-Ploetz writes that John Stachel is in a tradition that 'always attributes achievements to men even if the men themselves claim their wives were the authors.' She evidently knows nothing of Stachel's writings, which show that he is far from being the kind of person she characterizes in this way. His concern in relation to Mileva Maric is that 'exaggerated claims for her role on the basis of the present evidence can only do a disservice to her memory' ('Einstein from B to Z,' 2002, p. 37).
"In her comments Troemel-Ploetz fails to address what she is purportedly responding to and merely repeats arguments that have been rebutted by Stachel and me. Her omission of a crucial part of Stachel's argument makes her statement amount to a caricature of his position. On Cosmic Log I wrote: 'Leaving aside the work they did together on heat conduction, the topic they both chose for their diploma dissertations at Zurich Polytechnic, John Stachel has documented a score or more instances of Einstein's writing "I" or "my" in regard to the material in question. For instance, against the one occasion that Einstein wrote of "our work on relative motion" there are a dozen instances of his writing "I" or "my" in regard to the same subject matter - which, in any case, at that time involved classical Galilean relativity, not the groundbreaking special relativity principle he arrived at only in 1905.'
"Why does Troemel-Ploetz never mention the following sentences in Einstein's letters?
"Summarizing Stachel's full argument, whereas on the numerous occasions on which first-person singular pronouns are used in relation to this topic Einstein is alluding to specific ideas or work, the single use of 'our' in reference to 'relative motion' is unspecific (letter 27 March 1901). It occurs in a context in which he is seeking to reassure Maric about concerns she has that acquaintances might be saying 'bad' things about her, and reflects his desire at that time to draw his beloved in to his extra-curricular ideas that dominate his activities. Furthermore, in not one of her surviving letters does Maric respond with any mention of any extracurricular work or ideas of her own, nor in the two instances where we have her letters responding directly to Einstein's containing his ideas on physics does she so much as mention what he had communicated to her. On this issue it is important to examine all the evidence in its entirety, and draw conclusions on that basis, not simply select whatever items provide some support for one's position.
"Please note that Stachel and I are not downplaying Maric's role at that time as an eager and valued listener to his ideas, a companion when reading physics books he had sought out, and an occasional assistant in this process. But in the absence of a single document in which Maric mentions any ideas of her own on extracurricular topics, we don't believe there is any hard evidence that she made substantive contributions to his work, and certainly no evidence that she contributed to the celebrated papers of 1905.
"Troemel-Ploetz quotes Einstein: 'How happy I am to have found an equal in you (eine ebenbuertige Kreatur) who is as strong and independent as I am.' Does Troemel-Ploetz really think that a sentence like this in a letter by someone passionately in love with his beloved can be taken literally? (The 'strong and independent as I am' part was, unfortunately for Maric, not subsequently borne out, demonstrating that the sentence has no evidential value.) Einstein saw himself and Maric as nonconformists who rejected conventional views. Significantly, the two immediately preceding sentences refer to his pleasure at what he sees as their joint rejection of 'the philistine life,' so the context does not justify taking the sentiment in question to refer to academic ability.
"Troemel-Ploetz quotes Einstein: 'Until you are my dear little wife, we want to eagerly work together scientifically so that we won't become philistines...' In the overall context of the documentary evidence, with its complete lack of indications of independent ideas in physics by Maric, this is consistent with Einstein's fond hopes for their life together to be a joint pursuit of science rather than any reflection of actual joint achievements already attained. Furthermore, Troemel-Ploetz omits a single word at the end of the sentence that puts a slightly different complexion on it. Einstein finishes with '..., gellst' [as reproduced in Collected Papers, vol. 1, doc. 131]. This adds a note of tentativeness to the sentence [it roughly translates as 'right?' as given in the Collected Papers translation] missing in Troemel-Ploetz's version omitting that final word. She also fails to mention that in the immediately preceding letter Einstein writes, 'Soon you'll be my "student" again, like in Zurich,' which gives some indication of their actual roles when they were both at Zurich Polytechnic.
"Troemel-Ploetz writes: '[Maric] had the same training and more than Einstein.' Presumably she means by this that they both studied for a diploma for teaching mathematics and physics in secondary school. Many thousands of people of that age had the same 'training' as Einstein, but this says nothing of their capabilities or achievements. (What she means by 'and more' is anybody's guess - unless she is referring to the fact that Einstein was in the habit of skipping classes to follow up his ideas in physics.) One relevant fact that Troemel-Ploetz omits to mention is that, whereas Einstein was precociously gifted at mathematics, and later obtained grade 11 in the mathematics component of the final Diploma exam despite his neglect of the subject, Maric's early promise was unfulfilled, and she obtained only grade 5 on a scale 1-12, less than half of the grade of the other four candidates in their group. And despite Troemel-Ploetz's attempt in her writings (and in the 'Einstein's Wife' documentary) to play down Maric's Diploma failure in 1900, the fact remains that on the grading system 1-6 her overall final Diploma average grade approximated to some 18 percent less than Einstein's, whereas his was only some 11 percent below the candidate with the top overall grade average (though as the latter majored in mathematics they were not strictly comparable). Of course exam marks are far from everything - but in Maric's case we have nothing else to go on but her Polytechnic grades as a measure of her abilities.
"In historical investigations such as this one must be guided by the hard evidence, not (as Troemel-Ploetz writes) by what is 'plausible,' or 'for all we know.' Nor should we take (as Troemel-Ploetz does in her 1990 article) as serious evidence the mostly third-hand statements obtained many decades after the event from interested parties taking nationalist pride in what they fondly believe to be a Serbian achievement.
"In his book 'Don't Believe Everything You Think' (2006), Thomas Kida reports the research of two psychologists who secretly recorded a meeting held in Cambridge, England. Two weeks later, the participants were asked to write down everything they could remember. Among other gross inaccuracies in their memories, many participants 'remembered' hearing comments that were never actually made. That puts into perspective the utter unreliability of thirdhand reports provided decades later, largely on the basis of which Troemel-Ploetz wrote in her 1990 paper that 'If it were not for the cultural imperialism of the U.S. academic establishment, it might be known in Princeton what is known in Novi Sad [the Serbian home town of the Maric family] - that Einstein-Maric was the scientific collaborator of her husband.' (Troemel-Ploetz, 1990, p. 415)"
This all may sound like a tempest in a teapot of scientific history, but the debate takes on extra interest in light of more contemporary debates over women in science. Are the days of gender discrimination in science and education far behind us, or do women still need to break through the glass pipette ceiling?