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Efforts to identify Mileva Marić’s contributions highlight the trouble with telling the tales of early women in science

Einstein’s Wife: The Real Story of Mileva Einstein-Marić

Allen Esterson and David C. Cassidy
MIT Press
2019
336 pp.
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Mileva Marić entered the Zurich Polytechnic in 1896, becoming one of the first women who fought their way into a university physics program. As a student, she wrote with excitement about the kinetic theory of gases, read books on the ether, and completed a diploma dissertation on heat conduction in metals. She also fell in love with a younger classmate, Albert Einstein, who described in his letters the future he hoped they would share as a scientific couple.

Marić’s academic ambitions sadly never materialized. She struggled with her dissertation and final exams. The Committee of Examiners decided against awarding her a degree, closing the door on her university career.

Still, after a traumatic and unplanned pregnancy, Marić did marry Einstein. In the end, the union was not a happy one. After an acrimonious divorce, Marić would be left to raise the couple’s two sons alone in Switzerland, while a remarried Einstein rose to fame in Europe and America. But in their years together, did Marić and Einstein collaborate on scientific projects as they had promised each other? Might Einstein’s prolific scientific output during his years with Marić be explained by her significant, but unacknowledged, scientific contributions to his work?

No direct evidence remains of such a collaboration. Only a few academic records, legal documents, letters, and uncertain recollections by acquaintances remain to bear witness to Maric´’s life. Yet, a growing number of popular historians argue that these documents prove that Marić did work closely with Einstein on many projects, including relativity theory, only to see her work subsumed under her husband’s name.

Although a collaboration between Einstein and Marić would be a compelling story, it is, in the end, only a story, argue retired physics lecturer Allen Esterson and emeritus historian David Cassidy in their latest book, Einstein’s Wife: The Real Story of Mileva Marić-Einstein. Central to Esterson and Cassidy’s argument is the belief that historians, like scientists, must guard against speculation and anchor their claims in facts, especially when evidence is lacking.

The biographical outline of Marić’s life with which Cassidy opens the book offers a prime example of such a fact-based approach. Cassidy carefully chooses his sources, presents rigorous arguments to support his conclusions, and refuses to ascribe thoughts or feelings to his actors, unless they have indisputably expressed them in their lifetimes.

Such an empirical approach is intrinsically limited. It demands that, when faced with missing evidence, we remain silent. But as the adage goes, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Cassidy is right to say that we cannot conclude from Einstein’s occasional references to “our work” or “our theory” when writing to Marić that the two were engaged in a real scientific collaboration, especially when in her own correspondence Marić ascribes the work to Einstein. But, as Cassidy readily admits, we cannot disprove such collaboration either.

What are we then to make of popular accounts, such as the recent first season of the television series Genius, that have presented Marić as a close collaborator of Einstein? In the second part of Einstein’s Wife, Esterson offers a convincing but exceedingly detailed reading of these accounts as nothing more than misleading fictions rooted in circumstantial arguments, hearsay, and overinterpreted evidence.

The problem is that, when it comes to reintegrating women into our historical narratives, underinterpreting evidence might be as problematic as overinterpreting it. If Senta Troemel-Ploetz has defended so forcefully—albeit unconvincingly—the idea that Marić made significant contributions to Einstein’s work (1), it is because she is deeply aware that in cases like Marić’s, where evidence is lacking, a historical account merely paralleling the available facts may be as misleading as a purely speculative one.

Historians try to guard themselves against such mistakes by embedding their biographical accounts of marginalized persons into their larger historical contexts. Einstein’s Wife is no exception and includes an informative essay, penned by Ruth Lewin Sime, describing the barriers the 19th-century professionalization of science created for women.

Unfortunately, this otherwise excellent essay is much too short to fully balance the occasional failure of Esterson and Cassidy’s arguments to be sensitive to the realities women continue to face in academia. In their evaluation of Marić’s abilities, for example, they continuously rely on a comparison between Marić’s and Einstein’s grades. But given that even today, professors mark female students more harshly than their male counterparts, it is unclear why the two authors would give so much place to such data in their account (2).

Recovering in all their nuances the lives of women who, like Marić, were unable to pursue their scientific interests is essential for understanding the challenges female scientists still face today as they juggle academic ambitions, family duties, and social expectations. Evidence-based biographies such as Einstein’s Wife are essential for this task, but given our fragmented historical records, they will not be sufficient. There may be a place here for fiction after all.

References

  1. 1. S. Troemel-Ploetz, Women’s Studies Int. Forum 13, 415 (1990).

  2. 2. C.A. Moss-Racusin et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 109, 16474 (2012).

About the author

The reviewer is at the History of Science and Technology Program, University of King’s College, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 2A1, Canada.