Nov. 3, 2006 at 5:51 PM ET
How much of a role did Albert Einstein's first wife play in the theory of relativity? In recent years, some historians have asserted that Einstein shared the credit for his research on the special theory of relativity with his spouse at the time, mathematician Mileva Maric. There's even been a PBS documentary on the subject - and Maric's case has been cited as a counterargument against those who suggest men are better than women at math and physics.
Now a physicist and historical author, Allen Esterson, is raising questions about Mrs. Einstein's math, based on his reading of the historical documentation. Check out his argument, which he laid out after reading my report on 12 top women physicists:
"It's true that during the period when they were students, a few of Einstein's letters allude to 'our work' and one to 'our theory of relative motion,' but this was at least four years before Einstein produced his 1905 papers, and there is no serious evidence that Maric played any role in these. 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.
"Again, far from being a 'mathematician,' Maric's very low grade in the mathematics component of her final diploma exam (grade 5 on a scale of 1 to 12) was almost certainly the reason for her failing to gain a diploma. (No other candidate in their group gained less than grade 11.) The widespread notion that Maric gave Einstein assistance with mathematics (as if he needed it for, e.g., the rather elementary algebra and calculus in the 1905 relativity paper!) can be traced to Senta Troemel-Ploetz's 1990 article 'Mileva Einstein-Maric: The Woman Who Did Einstein's Maths.' May I invite you to read my critique of this article ...
In March this year I emailed a detailed complaint to the PBS ombudsman in regard to their 'Einstein's Wife' Web site, which promotes the idea that Maric collaborated in Einstein's celebrated 1905 papers. In this endeavor I have the support of John Stachel, Robert Schulmann (historian for the AE Collected Papers project) and Gerald Holton. On the subject of the film 'Einstein's Wife,' featured by PBS, John Stachel wrote me: 'I admire you for having the guts to go through the whole series of entangled falsehoods, more the product of mendacity than innocent error...'"
"Gerald Holton likewise wrote: 'The essays on your Web site should be required reading by all who have been taken in by this film - the NPR officials, the unsuspecting readers of the story on the PBS Web site, the viewers of this pseudo-'documentary,' the helpless teachers who might fall for this lie.'"
Esterson lists more than two dozen points where he said the documentary or related materials stray from the historical record - and says he's still waiting to hear PBS's response.
Much of the documentation for Maric's involvement is based on thirdhand accounts and historical surmise. And one of the most vocal advocates for the husband-and-wife theory of relativity, research physicist Evan Harris Walker, passed away in August. Is the tale of Mrs. Einstein's math destined to fade away? It's more likely that it will live on as an urban legend, alongside the more substantial stories of women scientists.