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Thursday, February 28, 2008Who 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. 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”. (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.)
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.” Detailed refutations of the claims have been published by Stachel.
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]”. (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”.)
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.
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”. 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.”
It is customary to think about fashions in things like clothes or music as spreading in a social network. But it turns out that all kinds of things, many of them quite unexpected, can flow through social networks, and this process obeys certain rules we are seeking to discover. We’ve been investigating the spread of obesity through a network, the spread of smoking cessation through a network, the spread of happiness through a network, the spread of loneliness through a network, the spread of altruism through a network. And we have been thinking about these kinds of things while also keeping an eye on the fact that networks do not just arise from nothing or for nothing. Very interesting rules determine their structure.
SOCIAL NETWORKS ARE LIKE THE EYE
A Talk with Nicholas A. Christakis
On of the oft-repeated phrases on Edge is "New Technologies=New Perceptions". As we create tools we recreate ourselves. In the digital information age, we have moved from thinking about silicon, transistors, and microprocessors, to redefining, to the edge of creating life itself. As we have seen in recent editions of Edge — "Life: What A Concept!" (Freeman Dyson, Craig Venter, George Church, Robert Shapiro, Dimitar Sasselov, Seth Lloyd) at Eastover Farm in August, "Life: A Gene-Centric View" (Richard Dawkins and Craig Venter) in Munich in January; "Engineering Biology" (Drew Endy) in our most recent edition — we are redefining who and what we are.
Such scientific explorations are not limited to biology. Recently, Harvard professor and sociologist Nicholas Christakis has shown that there's more to think about regarding social networks such as Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, and Twitter than considerations of advertising and revenue models. According to The New York Times , ("On Facebook, Scholars Link Up With Data", by Stephanie Rosenbloom 12.17.07):
Each day about 1,700 juniors at an East Coast college log on to Facebook.com to accumulate "friends," compare movie preferences, share videos and exchange cybercocktails and kisses. Unwittingly, these students have become the subjects of academic research. To study how personal tastes, habits and values affect the formation of social relationships (and how social relationships affect tastes, habits and values), a team of researchers from Harvard and the University of California, Los Angeles, are monitoring the Facebook profiles of an entire class of students at one college, which they declined to name because it could compromise the integrity of their research.
Christakis notes that he is "interested not in biological contagion, but in social contagion. One possible mechanism is that I observe you and you begin to display certain behaviors that I then copy. For example, you might start running and then I might start running. Or you might invite me to go running with you. Or you might start eating certain fatty foods and I might start copying that behavior and eat fatty foods. Or you might take me with you to restaurants where I might eat fatty foods. What spreads from person to person is a behavior, and it is the behavior that we both might exhibit that then contributes to our changes in body size. So, the spread of behaviors from person to person might cause or underlie the spread of obesity."
In a page one story in The New York Times last summer ("Find Yourself Packing It On? Blame Friends" 7.26.07), Gina Kolata noted:
Obesity can spread from person to person, much like a virus, researchers are reporting today. When one person gains weight, close friends tend to gain weight, too.
Their study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, involved a detailed analysis of a large social network of 12,067 people who had been closely followed for 32 years, from 1971 to 2003.
The investigators knew who was friends with whom as well as who was a spouse or sibling or neighbor, and they knew how much each person weighed at various times over three decades. That let them reconstruct what happened over the years as individuals became obese. Did their friends also become obese? Did family members? Or neighbors?
The answer, the researchers report, was that people were most likely to become obese when a friend became obese. That increased a person’s chances of becoming obese by 57 percent. There was no effect when a neighbor gained or lost weight, however, and family members had less influence than friends.
It did not even matter if the friend was hundreds of miles away, the influence remained. And the greatest influence of all was between close mutual friends. There, if one became obese, the other had a 171 percent increased chance of becoming obese, too. ...
Christakis, along with his colleague James Fowler, "have started with several projects that seek to understand the processes of contagion, and we have also begun a body of work looking at the processes of network formation — how structure starts and why it changes. We have made some empirical discoveries about the nature of contagion within networks. And also, in the latter case, with respect to how networks arise, we imagine that the formation of networks obeys certain fundamental biological, genetic, physiological, sociological, and technological rules. "
"So we have been investigating both what causes networks to form and how networks operate."
[NICHOLAS CHRISTAKIS:] There is a well-known example in evolutionary biology about whether the eye was designed, or is “just so” because it evolved and arose for a reason. How could this incredibly complicated thing come into being? It seems to serve an incredibly complicated purpose, and the eye is often used in debates about evolution precisely because it is so complex and seems to serve such a specialized and critical function.
For me, social networks are like the eye. They are incredibly complex and beautiful, and looking at them begs the question of why they exist, and why they come to pass. Do we need a kind of just-so story to explain them? Do they just happen to be there, for no particular reason? Or do they serve some purpose — some ontological and also pragmatic purpose?
Along with my collaborator James Fowler, I have been wrestling with the questions of where social networks come from, what purpose they serve, what rules they follow, and what they mean for our lives. The amazing thing about social networks, unlike other networks that are almost as interesting — networks of neurons or genes or stars or computers or all kinds of other things one can imagine — is that the nodes of a social network — the entities, the components — are themselves sentient, acting individuals who can respond to the network and actually form it themselves.
In social networks, there is an interdigitation between the higher order structure and the lower order structure, which is remarkable, and which has been animating our research for the last five or ten years. I started by studying very simple dyadic networks. A pair of individuals is the simplest type of network one can imagine. And I became curious about networks and network effects in my capacity as a doctor who takes care of people who are terminally ill.
In addition to my training in social science, I was trained as a hospice doctor. When I was at the University of Chicago (until 2001), I had a very special clinical practice that involved taking care of people in their own homes, and on Sunday afternoons I would take my little black bag to the South Side of Chicago and visit people who were dying. I had a sort of schizophrenic practice. About a third of my patients were very educated people associated with the University of Chicago, and two-thirds were indigant people from the South Side.
I have the very distinct image in my mind of experiences of myself driving to a borderline safe community, parking my car, looking around, walking up the short steps to the door, knocking, and waiting for what often seemed like a very long time for someone to come to the door. And then being led into people's homes often by the spouse of the person who was dying. There were often other relatives around and my primary focus as a hospice doctor was not just the person who was dying, but also the family members. I became increasingly interested in this.
I began to see in a very real way that the illness of the person dying was affecting the health status of other individuals in the family. And I began to see this as a kind of non-biological transmission of disease — as if illness or death or health care use in one person could cause illness or death or health care use in other people connected to him. It wasn't an epidemic transmission of a germ; something else was happening. This is a very basic observation about what I now call “interpersonal health effects,” but as I began to have more and more clinical experience with such patients, I began to broaden the focus. I became interested not just in dyadic transmission of illness and illness burden, but also hyper-dyadic transmission.
For example, one day I met with a pretty typical scenario: a woman who was dying and her daughter who was caring for her. The mother had been sick for quite a while and she had dementia. The daughter was exhausted from years of caring for her, and in the course of caring, she became so exhausted that her husband also became sick from his wife's preoccupation with her mother. One day I got a call from the husband's best friend, with his permission, to ask me about him. So here we have the following cascade: parent to daughter, daughter to husband, and husband to friend. That is four people — a cascade of effects through the network. And I became sort of obsessed with the notion that these little dyads of people could agglomerate to form larger structures.
Nowadays, most people have these very distinct visual images of networks because in the last ten years they have become almost a part of pop culture. But social networks were studied in this kind of way beginning in the 1950s — actually there was some work done in the 1930s and even earlier by a sociologist by the name of Georg Simmel — with a culmination in the 1970s with seminal work that was done by sociologists at that time (people like Mark Granovetter, Stan Wasserman, Ron Burt, and others). But all these were still very small-scale networks; networks of three people or 30 people — that kind of ballpark. But we are of course connected to each other through vastly larger, more complex, more beautiful networks of people. Networks of thousands of individuals, in fact. These networks are in a way living, breathing entities that reproduce, and that have a kind of memory. Things flow through them and they have a purpose and can achieve different things from what their constituent individuals can. And they are very difficult to understand.
This is how I began to think about social networks about seven years ago. At the time when I was thinking about this, I moved from the University of Chicago to Harvard, and was introduced to my colleague James Fowler, another social scientist, who was also beginning to think about different kinds of network problems from the perspective of political science. He was interested in problems of collective action — how groups of people are organized, how the action of one individual can influence the actions of other individuals. He was also interested in basic problems like altruism. Why would I be altruistic toward somebody else? What purpose does altruism serve? In fact, I think that altruism is a key predicate to the formation of social networks because it serves to stabilize social ties. If I were constantly violent towards other people, or never reciprocated anything good, the network would disintegrate, all the ties would be cut. Some level of altruism is required for networks to emerge.
So we can begin to think about combining a broad variety of ideas. Some stretch back to Plato, and thinking about well-ordered societies, the origins of good and evil, how people form collectives, how a state might be organized. In fact, we can begin to revisit ideas engaged by Rousseau and other philosophers on man in a state of nature. How can we transcend anarchy? Anarchy can be conceived of as a kind of social network phenomenon, and society and social order can also be conceived of as a social network phenomenon.
NICHOLAS A. CHRISTAKIS, a physician and sociologist, is a Professor at Harvard University with joint appointments in the Departments of Health Care Policy, Sociology, and Medicine. For the last ten years, he has been studying social networks.
What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years? "Beloved," by Toni Morrison was chosen as the best American fiction of the last 25 years. Runners up were: Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike and Don DeLillo.
Toni Morrison on Beloved:
Toni_white The novel is not about slavery. ''Slavery is very predictable,'' she said. ''There it is, and there's some stuff about how it is, and then you get out of it or you don't. It can't be driven by slavery. It has to be the interior life of some people, a small group of people, and everything that they do is impacted on by the horror of slavery, but they are also people.''
''There are certain emotions that are useful for the construction of a text,'' she said, ''and some are too small. Anger is too tiny an emotion to use when you're writing, and compassion is too sloppy. Almost everything that makes you want to write, or feel like writing, is not useful in the act of writing. So it's the mediation between those two states, the compulsion and all those feelings, that make you compelled.''
For those who haven't read it, Beloved tells the story of Sethe, an ex-slave who has resettled to the outskirts of Cincinnati with her daughter, Denver. Near the beginning of the book, the two are joined by Paul D, once Sethe's fellow slave on a Kentucky plantation called "Sweet Home." (After years of thankless yearning, Paul D has at last become Sethe's lover.) It's 1873, the Civil War has been fought, and though slavery as a legal institution is over, it has only started its haunting of the African-American psyche. This Morrison dramatizes with the actual haunting of Sethe's house by Sethe's deceased baby daughter. We never learn that baby's given name, but in exchange for sex, Sethe has had a headstone carved for her girl, bearing the single word "Beloved." Paul D exorcises the house of the ghost, but later, upon returning from a carefree day spent at a carnival, Sethe, Denver, and Paul D discover a young woman sleeping near the front door of their house. The young woman goes by the name Beloved, and from all appearances she is a revenant, the embodied spirit of Sethe's dead daughter.
Morrison presents Sethe's turbulent inner life through a process both Morrison and Sethe herself call "rememory," a kind of psychic haunting in which the specifics of a traumatic incident are told and retold, even as the teller tries to block their full emergence into the conscious mind. The central traumatic episode of Beloved, to which the narrative returns again and again, is an infanticide: Twenty years earlier, Sethe beheaded her baby Beloved with a handsaw rather than allow her return to slavery. In Beloved, Morrison perfected a mode of narration, entirely her own but with roots in everything from the African griot to As I Lay Dying, built out of compulsive repetition, in which the onion, as it were, is constantly being both peeled and reconstituted; in which memories are constantly being both exhumed and buried; and in which the mind of the storyteller is both imprisoned and set free in the act of retelling. And so, like the return of Beloved, and the enduring curse of slavery itself, rememory is both a reconciliation and a vexation, both a healing and a wounding.
Beloved is indeed a work of genius. No other American novel of the past 25 years has so elegantly mapped the psychobiography of its ideal reader.
Morrison_3 In her work Toni Morrison has explored the experience and roles of black women in a racist and male dominated society. In the center of her complex and multilayered narratives is the unique cultural inheritance of African-Americans. Morrison has been a member of both the National Council on the Arts and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
'"Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man. What moves at the margin. What it is to have no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew. What it is to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company."' (from Nobel Lecture, 1993)
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, where her parents had moved to escape the problems of southern racism. Her family were migrants, sharecroppers on both sides. Morrison grew up in the black community of Lorain. She spent her childhood in the Midwest and read voraciously, from Jane Austen to Tolstoy. Morrison's father, George Wofford, was a welder, and told her folktales of the black community, transferring his African-American heritage to another generation. In 1949 she entered Howard University in Washington, D.C., America's most distinguished black college. There she changed her name from "Chloe" to "Toni", explaining once that people found "Chloe" too difficult to pronounce. She continued her studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Morrison wrote her thesis on suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, receiving her M.A. in 1955.
During 1955-57 Morrison was an instructor in English at Texas Southern University, at Houston, and taught in the English department at Howard. In 1964 she moved to Syracuse, New York, working as a textbook editor. After eighteen months she was transferred to the New York headquarters of Random House. There she edited books by such black authors as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones. She also continued to teach at two branches of the State University of New York. In 1984 she was appointed to an Albert Schweitzer chair at the University of New York at Albany, where she nurtured young writers through two-year fellowships.
While teaching at Howard University and caring for her two children, Morrison wrote her first novel, THE BLUEST EYE (1970). With its publication, Morrison also established her new identity, which she later in 1992 rejected: "I am really Chloe Anthony Wofford. That's who I am. I have been writing under this other person's name. I write some things now as Chloe Wofford, private things. I regret having called myself Toni Morrison when I published my first novel, The Bluest Eye". The story is set in the community of a small, Midwestern town. Its characters are all black. The book was partly based on Morrison's story written for a writers' group in 1966, which she joined after her six years marriage with the Jamaican architect Harold Morrison broke up. Pecola Breedlove, the central character, prays each night for the blue-eyed beauty of Shirley Temple. She believes everything would be all right if only she had beautiful blue eyes. The narrator, Claudia MacTeer, tries to understand the destruction of Pecola. Until 1983, Morrison did not publish short stories. 'Recitatif', about cross-racial friendship, appeared first in Imamu Amiri and Amina Baraka's Confirmation (1983), an anthology consisting of black women's writing.
SULA (1973) depicted two black woman friends and their community of Medallion, Ohio. It follows the lives of Sula, a free spirit, who is considered a threat against the community, and her cherished friend Nel, from their childhood to maturity and to death. The novel won the National Book Critics Award. With the publication of SONG OF SOLOMON (1977), a family chronicle compared to Alex Haley's Roots, Morrison gained an international attention. It was the main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and the first novel by a black writer to be chosen since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1949. Written from a male point of view, the story dealt with Milkman Dead's efforts to recover his "ancient properties", a cache of gold.
Morrison_2 After the success of Song of Solomon Morrison bought a four-story house near Nyack, N.Y. She was named in 1987 Robert F. Goheen Professor in the council of the humanities at Princeton University. In 1988 Morrison received the Pulitzer Prize for the novel BELOVED (1987), after an open letter, signed by forty-eight prominent black writers, was published in the New York Time Book Review in January. However, the novel failed to win the National Book Award in 1987, and writers protested that Morrison had never been honoured with either the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize.
Beloved was inspired by the true story of a black American slave woman, Margaret Garner. She escaped with her husband Robert from a Kentucky plantation, and sought refuge in Ohio. When the slave masters overcame them, she killed her baby, in order to save the child from the slavery she had managed to escape. Morrison later told that "I thought at first it couldn't be written, but I was annoyed and worried that such a story was inaccessible to art." The protagonist, Sethe, tries to kill her children but is successful only in murdering the unnamed infant, "Beloved." The name is written on the child's tombstone, Sethe did not have enough money to pay for the text ''Dearly Beloved.'' Sethe's house, where she lives with her teenage daughter, Denver, is haunted by the dead baby daughter. "Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage?" Sethe thinks. Paul D., whom Sethe knew in slavery, comes to visit her, and manages to drive the ghost out for a while. "For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a crocker sack, well, maybe you'd have little love left over for the next one." Time passes and Paul D. is seduced by Beloved, who becomes more violent. Denver leaves the house. Sethe is found at the farm, with the naked body of a very pregnant Beloved. The spell breaks, and Beloved disappears. Paul D. returns to take care of Sethe. The film version of the book from 1998 was directed by Jonathan Demme, who used much special effects and was interested in the horror aspects. Oprah Winfrey portrayed Sethe; she had optioned the book rights immediately after its publication. Three writers worked on the script: Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks. "If ever a film was burdened under the strain of its own portentousness, it's Beloved. Even the music by composer Rachel Portman, dominated by an interminably moaning solo voice, is mired in its own sincerity. As for Winfrey, it was an unabashed labor of love, and she threw all the resources of her television programs and her international celebrity into its promotion." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1999)
In JAZZ (1992) Joe, the unfaithful husband of Violet, kills Dorcas in a fit of passion. The fragmented narrative follows the causes and consequences of the murder. Morrison's first novel since the Nobel Prize was PARADISE (1998). Again Morrison set story in a small community, this time in Ruby, Oklahoma. Nine men attack a former girls' school nicknamed "the Convent," now occupied by unconventional women fleeing from abusive husbands or lovers, or otherwise unhappy pasts. Moving freely between eras, Morrison explores the founding of Ruby, an all-black township and the backgrounds of the convent women and the men determined to kill them. "The book coalesced around the idea of where paradise is, who belongs in it," Morrison said in an interview The New York Times (January 8, 1998). "All paradises are described as male enclaves, while the interloper is a woman, defenseless and threatening. When we get ourselves together and get powerful is when we are assaulted."