The Einstein Controversy

Albert Einstein’s legacy as one of the greatest academic minds the world has ever known is deservedly earned. His groundbreaking work in the early part of the twentieth century fundamentally changed the way scientists look at the universe. To this day, his formulation of the General Theory of Relativity is considered one of the greatest intellectual achievements in modern history.

While researching yesterday’s post I came across an old controversy that seemed to cast doubt on Einstein’s legacy. In 2003 PBS broadcast a made for TV special entitled “Einstein’s Wife” insinuating that he collaborated extensively with his first wife Mileva Maric without crediting her work.

When it first aired, the documentary sparked a tremendous controversy, one that raged until 2006 when PBS’s independent ombudsman issued a lengthy and critical assessment of the controversial program. He concluded that ultimately the TV special and accompanying website was “a factually flawed and ultimately misleading combination of film and Web presentations.”

Historians and other experts consider the majority of “Einstein’s Wife” to be way off the mark. Even the leading Einstein scholars featured in the program have refuted its conclusions. Robert Schulmann and John Stachel are both former editors at the Einstein Papers Project, which seeks to publish the complete works of Albert Einstein. Gerald Holton is a professor emeritus at Harvard on of the history of science and author of several volumes on the life of Einstein as well. These three experts recently sent me a copy of their joint statement about the controversy in hopes of greater accuracy in future biographies. Their complete text is as follows:

2008 Letter for APS Central blog

Albert Einstein’s stellar scientific reputation, especially strong among reputable physicists, has historically tended to obscure a small number of dissenting voices, but perhaps never more so than currently. In particular, one aspect of his early adult life has been the subject of controversy in recent times, namely, the claim that his first wife Mileva Maric made significant contributions to his momentous 1905 papers, a role she herself never claimed, or so much as hinted at in any of her correspondence.

To her great credit, Maric overcame personal difficulties and institutional obstacles before gaining entry to the prestigious Zurich Polytechnic, but thereafter she failed to obtain the diploma for teaching physics and mathematics for which she and Einstein studied, largely due to her low grade in math (and adverse personal circumstances on her second attempt). Historians of physics who have carefully examined all surviving documents and credible evidence have concluded that her contributions to Einstein’s early scientific achievements did not go beyond that of a sympathetic sounding board, though rather less actively so than his friends Solovine and Besso. (See: )

Nevertheless, tendentious presentation of misleading material by proponents of the thesis that Maric collaborated with Einstein on his momentous 1905 papers has produced a superficially plausible case. This campaign reached its apex in the PBS co-production “Einstein’s Wife,” first broadcast in 2003. We, as Einstein specialists, were enticed into being interviewed for what we were misled to believe was another made-for-TV documentary on Einstein. Our complaints when we found that the final product amounted to a perversion of the historical record were ignored.

The issue was reignited in early 2006 by a complainant to the PBS Ombudsman who documented that “Einstein’s Wife” and the accompanying PBS website and school lesson plans were replete with errors. PBS refused to acknowledge it was in breach of its editorial policies on accuracy, but support for the complainant from the Ombudsman eventually led to a rewriting of the website material in October 2007. Unfortunately the revised website continues to propagate a story containing serious factual errors. (See: )

The current situation is that PBS has ignored a recommendation by its own Ombudsman that the film be disowned and the website withdrawn. It is especially to be deprecated that for some five years schoolteachers were able to download the PBS “Einstein’s Wife” lesson plans, which were little short of a brainwashing exercise. (See: )

With several films on Einstein’s life currently in production, we feel it is important in the interests of historical accuracy to reiterate that there is no substantive evidence that Maric made significant contributions to Einstein’s pioneering work in physics. More specifically, the widely circulated notion that she was a brilliant mathematician is without credible substantiation, and is inconsistent with her academic record in this subject at University level.

None of this is intended to detract from Maric’s vital role in providing support for Einstein at a crucial stage of his career. On the contrary, it is demeaning to her memory to impute a scientific role on the basis of tendentiously misleading contentions that do not withstand scholarly scrutiny.

Gerald Holton
Robert Schulmann
John Stachel

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