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Defending Mrs. Einstein

We've gone back and forth over the role that Albert Einstein's first wife, Mileva Maric, may have played in the development of the special theory of relativity. Did she help her husband with the concepts or mathematics behind the theory? Or was Albert simply being generous when he referred to "our work"? We've heard from Allen Esterson, a physicist and historical author who's skeptical that Maric had much of an impact, and now I've gotten the other side of the story from Senta Troemel-Ploetz, a German linguist and author who has championed Maric's role:

"Dear Mr. Boyle: I am very sorry to be so late in answering - I was in Israel, actually reading the newly released Einstein correspondence and being the first person to do so, and then on a lecture tour in Germany. Your e-mail reached me when I could not read all my mail.

"As to your question: I do not know Esterson. Is he a historian of science, or just another physicist or journalist turned Einstein expert, without being able to read German or knowing anything about the historical context of women studying in Switzerland around the turn of the century?

"A case in point is [John] Stachel, who explains the "our work / our paper" in Einstein's letters with Einstein being in love, i.e., not meaning what he says. He is in a tradition that always attributes achievement to men even if the men themselves claim their wives were the authors. John Stuart Mill was still said to be in love when he argued his wife was a co-author - his wife was long dead.

"More importantly it seems that neither Stachel nor Esterson take Einstein at his word when he says even stronger things:

  • "How happy I am to have found an equal in you (eine ebenbuertige Kreatur) who is as strong and independent as I am."
  • "Until you are my dear little wife, we want to eagerly work together scientifically so that we won't become philistines...."
  • "When I look at other people, I realize what I have in you / what mettle you are made of."

"Einstein-Maric was Einstein's first critic, a most important function for anyone, but especially a dialogic creature like Einstein. She was with him 24 hours from January 6, 1903 on, i.e., during the most important years before the so-called annus mirabilis. She had the same training and more than Einstein. It is plausible that she was his collaborator, his intellectual and emotional support. For all we know, she may have done what Sophie Taeuber-Arp did for Jean Arp: 'to translate his ideas into reality.'

"It is quite possible that the 'our,' written very early in their collaboration, is an understatement rather than an overstatement for what happened once they were married. ..."

Later, Troemel-Ploetz wrote an addendum:

"Sophia Yancopoulos, an American physicist, speaks of the 'subtler issues of collaboration,' and we are far from knowing much about them. What we do know is that again and again the work of creative women was appropriated by men in the arts and the sciences, and men who fairly give credit to their female collaborators are the exception. Einstein was a very normal man, as I said in New Orleans anno 1990."

Feel free to add your further comments about Mrs. Einstein and her math below.