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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Who produced Einstein’s theory of special relativity?

In the more innocent world of the 1950s there used to be on BBC radio a comedy programme called (appropriately) “Does the team think?” in which the participants were called upon to answer such tricky questions as “Who composed Beethoven’s 5th symphony?” An up-to-date version of this line of question might take the form “Who produced Einstein’s theory of special relativity?” Only in this case some people take the view that this is an entirely pertinent question, and indeed go further and would ask who wrote Einstein’s celebrated papers of 1905 on Brownian motion, special relativity, and the photoelectric effect.

It is not the case, of course, that they are suggesting that Einstein had no hand in writing these papers, only that he didn’t do it alone – he had a collaborator, his first wife Mileva Marić. The story goes that from their student days (1896-1900) they worked together on his extra-curricular interests in physics, and that this collaboration continued up to and beyond their marriage in January 1903. In fact, it is claimed, Marić co-authored the 1905 papers, only her name was removed from the papers when they were published in the prestigious German journal Annalen der Physik.

These contentions acquired something akin to official respectability in the US with the broadcasting of an Australian Government funded documentary called "Einstein's Wife" on PBS in 2003, under the auspices of Oregon Public Broadcasting. The documentary, Oregon PBS reported in a press release, “reveals the long-hidden relationship between Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić and the collaboration that revolutionized the world of physics.” That collaboration, we are told, was extremely successful: “In 1905, the pair submitted five papers for publication, three of which (Brownian Motion, Special Relativity Theory and the Photoelectric Effect) formed the most significant concepts of twentieth century physics. Soon after, while visiting Mileva’s family in Novi Sad, the two continued their work surrounding a particular problem. Some believe this is where Albert and Mileva discussed and debated what would become the formula E = mc2.”

In spite of these definitive pronouncements we are told: “Scholars continue to debate the scope of Mileva’s actual participation. For some, Mileva simply filled the role of a ‘sounding board’.” On the other hand: “Desanka Trubohvić, the first biographer to write about Mileva Marić, boldly suggested in her book that Mileva’s name was actually included in the original documents detailing the formula. If Trubohvić’s assertion is true, why was the name removed when the paper was published? As Dr Evan Harris Walker summarizes: ‘What are the facts? The facts are that there are about a dozen statements in Albert Einstein’s own hand stating that they were collaborating on our theory, our work, our work on the relative motion’.”

So what are the facts? The Oregon PBS press release states that the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary “reveals the truth behind one of the great scientific collaborations of the twentieth century”. On the other hand Robert Schulmann, an historian involved with the Albert Einstein Collected Papers project, and the physicist Gerald Holton have written: “All serious Einstein scholarship, by Abraham Pais, John Stachel and others, has shown that the scientific collaboration between the couple was slight and one-sided...The true collaboration which they originally planned when they intended careers as high-school teachers never did develop. Nor is there a shred of documentary proof of [Marić’s] originality as a scientist.”

In articles below I investigate the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary and the PBS website material, and closely examine the claims of the main proponents of the contention that Mileva Marić contributed substantively to Einstein’s early scientific achievements.

The documentary “Einstein’s Wife” gives a thoroughly misleading account of the role of Mileva Marić in Einstein’s early scientific achievements.

By Allen Esterson

In 2003 the prestigious Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States broadcast the documentary “Einstein’s Wife”, with extensive website material to accompany the programme. The documentary purports to provide viewers with the facts about the supposed contributions that Einstein’s first wife Mileva Marić made to his work. Before discussing the documentary itself, it is worth noting that the blurb on the DVD box indicates that reliable information is unlikely to be a feature of the programme:

“Marić, a brilliant mathematician, collaborated with [Einstein] on three famous works: Brownian Motion, Special Relativity Theory and Photoelectric Effect, which won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921.”

The contention that Marić was a brilliant mathematician is erroneous. Although she consistently achieved high grades in mathematics at school, this is not the case for her diploma course at Zurich Polytechnic. On the contrary, in the final diploma exam in 1900 her grade in the maths component was less than half that of any of the other four candidates, and it was largely due to this poor result that she failed the exam.[1] And when she failed the exam the following year it was her result in maths that again let her down. The assertion that Marić collaborated on Einstein’s celebrated papers of 1905 is equally unsubstantiated, resting as it does on erroneous claims which will be discussed below.

What follows below is an examination of various contentions made in the course of the documentary, which opens with a somewhat melodramatic re-enactment of the transfer of the Einstein Archive from Princeton Institute for Advanced Study to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1982, as stipulated in Einstein’s will. A scene showing the Archive in Jerusalem is presented, accompanied by the commentary: “Buried deep within these vast archives was an unpublished manuscript. This led to the discovery of secret love letters, written by Einstein to a first wife who was also a physicist.”

This account of the discovery of the letters in question has been described by the historian who was instrumental in bringing their existence to light, Robert Schulmann, as “Totally and unequivocally false”.[2] (An account of the discovery of copies of the letters among documents in the possession of Einstein’s granddaughter, Evelyn, is given by Roger Highfield and Paul Carter.)[3]

The narrator asserts that when these letters were made public they “rocked the international scientific community”, a claim that owes more to sensationalist newspaper reports than to reality. In fact no reputable physicist with expertise in Einstein’s work and knowledge of the nature of the claims has given them credence. As Robert Schulmann and Gerald Holton write: “All serious Einstein scholarship, by Abraham Pais, John Stachel and others, has shown that the scientific collaboration between the couple was slight and one-sided.”[4] Detailed refutations of the claims have been published by Stachel.[5]

As we shall see, the errors in the documentary are legion, and no account of these errors and the numerous other misconceptions can fully convey the misleading effect of material presented in such a tendentious fashion. Even in minor items there are distortions that play their role in setting the framework for the viewpoint that the programme makers are intent on imposing on events. The misconceptions start early on when the writer Andrea Gabor says in relation to the course that Marić and Einstein embarked on at Zurich Polytechnic in 1896 that Marić “specialises in theoretical physics”, whereas she was actually studying for a diploma for teaching mathematics and physics in high school. Then, after reporting that Marić spent a semester at Heidelberg University at the beginning of her second year of study (1897-1898), the narrator states: “It is months before Mileva replies to Albert’s letters.” In fact there was only one letter from Einstein at that time. Again, Marić is presented as addressing Einstein as “Mein liebste Albert”, creating the impression of an intimacy between the couple considerably earlier than actually occurred. In fact the letter in question lacks any introduction, and nearly two years after this (late summer 1899) Marić was still addressing Einstein as “L[ieber] H[err] E[instein]”.[6] (It was only around this time that the couple first started using the German familiar form of address towards each other, “Du”, in place of the formal “Sie”.)[7]

As already noted, during the winter semester at the beginning of her second year of study Marić attended classes at Heidelberg University and one of her teachers was Philipp Lenard, who, we are told by the narrator, was “one of the great pioneers of quantum physics”. The science journalist Dennis Overbye then informs viewers that Lenard worked on the photoelectric effect, which he briefly describes. This is immediately followed by the narrator’s saying: “Mileva is enthralled and keeps Einstein abreast of this brave new world.” There follows a quotation from a letter Marić wrote to Einstein in this period.

The misconceptions here set the tone for the rest of the documentary. Lenard was not a pioneer in quantum physics; his reputation is based on his experimental work on cathode rays and the photoelectric effect. His experimental results on the photoelectric effect were not published until 1900 and 1902. He could not have been lecturing to a relatively elementary physics class on work he only accomplished a few years later, and both the implication that Marić was enthralled by such work, and the suggestion that she kept “Einstein abreast” of it, are grossly misleading. In any case, correspondence between them was extremely sparse at that time, and the letter from which a passage is then quoted (the same one cited above) contains nothing more than a rather naive account by Marić of a lecture on the kinetic theory of gases, unconnected to Lenard’s later experimental research on the photoelectric effect.[8]

This is followed by the appearance of Evan Harris Walker taking the misleading contentions to a higher level: “When Albert and Mileva were publishing they took the data Professor Lenard had developed and developed a theory which forms part of the foundation of quantum mechanics. Very, very significant that she was the one with Lenard. It suggests that indeed she brought back much more than herself to Albert Einstein.” This is nonsense from beginning to end. As already noted, there is no evidence that the lectures of Lenard’s that she attended mentioned even his current experimental work on cathode rays (his papers on the photoelectric effect had not yet been published), and the suggestion that it was “very significant” in relation to Einstein’s future work that Marić had attended Lenard’s classes at that time is absurd. We know precisely when Einstein first had knowledge of Lenard’s initial experimental work on the photoelectric effect, as he wrote in a letter to Marić in May 1901 that he had just read “a wonderful paper by Lenard on the generation of cathode rays by ultraviolet light”.[9] Einstein’s revolutionary paper 1905 paper was on the later experimental results obtained by Lenard (1902), inexplicable in terms of classical physics. Nothing Marić might have told Einstein about Lenard’s lectures given in 1897 could have had any bearing whatsoever on this extraordinary achievement. And there is not the slightest evidence that Marić had any involvement in Einstein’s 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect.

The narrator tells viewers that “Albert and Mileva began cutting classes”, and that they are “keen aspirants to the more radical ideas” in physics. He continues: “They’re trying to solve the puzzles of the universe in mathematical form…”, and a little later: “Albert and Mileva’s habit of skipping classes to pursue their passion for the new world of physics sees them fail their final exams. But the board of examiners rounds Albert’s mark to a pass.”

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