A 2004 PBS documentary (Einstein's Wife: The Life of Mileva Maric Einstein) highlighted the role that Albert Einstein's first wife, Mileva Maric, may have played in the development of his theory of relativity, quantum physics, and Brownian motion. He doesn't even mention her in his own stories about his life, however. Was she really the brain behind the scenes, his silent collaborator?
Mileva Maric and Albert Einstein's Relationship and Marriage
Mileva Maric, from a wealthy Serbian family, began studies in science and math at a male prep school and got high grades. She then studied at the university in Zurich and then Zurich Polytechnic, where Albert was a young classmate four years younger than she was.
She began failing in her studies after their love affair began and around the time she became pregnant with Albert's child-a child born before their marriage and which Albert may never have visited. (It is not known if she died in early childhood as she was ill with scarlet fever around the time Albert and Mileva finally married but may have been put up for adoption.)
Albert and Mileva married and had two more children, both sons. Albert went to work at the Federal Office for Intellectual Property, then took a position at the University of Zurich in 1909, returning there in 1912 after a year at Prague. The marriage was full of tensions including, in 1912, an affair that Albert began with his cousin Elsa Loewenthal. In 1913, Maric had the sons baptized as Christians. The couple separated in 1914, and Maric had custody of the boys.
Albert divorced Mileva in 1919 at the end of World War I. By that time, he was living with Elsa and had completed his work on General Relativity. He agreed that any money won from a Nobel Prize would be given to Maric to support their sons. He quickly married Elsa.
Maric's sister Zorka helped care for the children until she had a series of psychiatric breaks and Mileva's father died. When Albert won the Nobel Prize, he sent the prize money to Mileva as he had promised.
Her mother died after Albert fled from Europe and the Nazis; one of her sons and her two grandsons moved to America. The other son required psychiatric care-he was diagnosed with schizophrenia-and Mileva and Albert fought over funding his care. When she died, Albert Einstein was not even mentioned in her obituary. Maric is barely mentioned if at all in many books about Albert Einstein.
The Arguments for This Collaboration
- Einstein's letters show that he thought little of his wife's hopes and dreams to be a scientist.
- Letters show that she served as an assistant to her husband in writing his papers.
- Letters also show that she served as a sounding board, that he talked over his ideas with her and she gave him feedback.
- In some letters Einstein talked of their collaborating, though in general terms: “we'll diligently work on science together” for instance.
- A friend later reported that in 1905 Mileva had said that she and her husband had finished some important work together.
- Soviet scientist Abram F. Joffe who saw originals of three of Einstein's key papers said they were signed Einstein Marity, with Marity being a version of the name Maric.
- Albert Einstein gave his Nobel Prize award money to Mileva Maric.
The Arguments Against
- Being a sounding board and assistant do not equate to collaborating in the creation of Einstein's revolutionary theories.
- There's no hard evidence for any real contribution on the part of Mileva Maric to the content of Einstein's theories.
- The statement to a friend in 1905 may be a later legend.
- The reference to “Einstein-Marity” likely reflects a Swiss custom of adding a wife's name to the husband's, according to some Einstein scholars, and the only reference that can be located to a reference to this dual name by Joffe is a clear reference to Albert Einstein alone.
- Mileva Maric never claimed publicly to be a collaborator on Albert Einstein's work, and never asked for credit.
- Einstein's giving his Nobel Prize money to his ex-wife was part of a divorce settlement, and was a way of supporting her and his two sons from their marriage. There's no indication it was done to acknowledge any contribution she made to his scientific work.
The conclusion, despite the documentary's original strong claims, seems to be that it's unlikely that Mileva Maric contributed substantially to Albert Einstein's work-that she was literally his “silent collaborator.”
However, the contributions that she did make-as an unpaid assistant, helping him while pregnant and her own scientific career was falling apart, possibly with the stress of the difficult relationship and her out-of-wedlock pregnancy-demonstrate the difficulties which were peculiar to women of the time and which made their actual success in the sciences far more of a hurdle than what men with equivalent backgrounds and earlier education had to transcend.