Wednesday, December 17, 2008

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: http://tinyurl.com/3y3zhw )

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: http://tinyurl.com/2ex28y )

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: http://www.esterson.org/einsteinwife2.htm )

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




13 comments:

  1. Since all the basic concepts and defining equations of special relativity were published before Einstein's paper on the electrodynamics of moving bodies, why do we care?

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    1. What do any of you think that forced the selfish x@%$7* Albert to give the NOBEL PRICE he received to Mileva. ______________......,.,CZAR___________

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  2. It is a matter of keeping the historical record straight. Revisionists will always look to rewrite history for their own ends, and in this case that means defaming the intellectual honesty of one of the greatest academics of the 20th century. Intellectual honesty in all fields of study is vital to the progress of society, whether it be it the sciences, history or the arts. Allowing intellectually dishonest attacks insinuate wrongdoing where there isn't any is an incalculable disservice to the history of science. If Einstein were alive today, the allegations made by the documentary are borderline libelous. However he is not alive today to defend against these defamatory attacks against his character, and in the interest of preserving the facts of history, it’s important to revisit old controversies to truly learn from mistakes of the past. Was Albert Einstein a perfect human being? Of course not, he like anyone had his own share of failings and personal demons. But to dishonestly accuse him of intellectual theft is just wrong.

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  3. Quantum wrote:
    >It is a matter of keeping the historical record straight.<

    I think this gets to the heart of why it's important. This goes beyond issues about Einstein to the question of the integrity of historical research in general. All too often published historical assertions are recycled by other authors (not to mention by posters on the internet!) without sufficient regard for the reliability of the sources on which the original assertions were based. More specifically, this is the case – to a greater or lesser degree – with many of the more recent articles and books on Einstein (Albrecht Fölsing's biography is a notable exception). And it is particularly important in the case of purportedly factual TV documentaries, especially when broadcast by a reputable organisation like PBS, which also provided grossly misleading lesson plans for teachers to present to school students.

    Alberto A. Martinez's perceptive article on "Handling Evidence in History" (linked above) provides an object lesson on historical research in general:
    http://tinyurl.com/2dzrmo

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  4. Like the lost history of the big bang, records cant be one hundred percent straight. Behind every great man is a great woman. You make it sound that Einstein's intellectual gain is queer for collaborating with a woman, is wife at that. What about Galleleo and his daughter.

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  5. Now amazingly enough I just read a chapter from the book Einatein's Wife, which tells not only of Marci but of four other from that era in similsr situations. The book gives and cite info for reference verification. It states Mileva was strong in math and early scored better than Albert. It tells a much different story, of which the truth I'm sure is somewhere in between.

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  6. http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=28362

    It looks like several other individuals had previously published the critical E=MC^2 formula. Einstein made no mention of their work in publishing special relativity. I would suggest that it's reasonable that without Mileva, Einstein would have remained a nameless patent clerk.

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  7. A belated response to "Anonymous", who recommends the chapter on Mileva Maric in Andrea Gabor's book "Einstein's Wife" (1995): "The book gives and cite info for reference verification. It states Mileva was strong in math and early scored better than Albert."

    What matters is the quality and reliability of the references. For instance, far from being strong in mathematics, Mileva failed the mathematics component of the final diploma exam in 1900 with the very poor grade 2.5 on a scale 1-6. At no time did she ever score higher grades than Einstein in mathematics, in the Zurich Polytechnic entrance examination, their coursework grades, or in the intermediate and final diploma examinations.

    The chapter on Mileva Maric in Gabor's book is replete with other factual errors and misconceptions:
    http://www.esterson.org/Critique_of_Gabor_1995.htm

    At the time of its publication, Gerald Holton and Robert Schulmann criticized Gabor's chapter on Mileva Maric for its "flights of journalistic fantasy":
    http://www.nytimes.com/1995/10/08/books/l-einstein-s-wife-173995.html

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  8. i dont care, you dont care, we all dont care!!! yaaaayyy!!!

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  9. The controversy around Einstein's wife was just feminist propaganda to paint women as victims of their husbands.

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  10. His excuse for how he came up with it was he came up with it in his sleep. Anyone really believe that? He was busy working at the Patent office. The orginal paper was signed Marity-Einstein.

    And no this isn't feminist propaganda. If anything, women haters have in fact held women back or kept their names out of history. Why is it that in the history books we get to read about how a man invented the sewing machine but we don't read about the woman who invented the motorized dishwasher? Which one is used in most households?

    Someone as narcissistic as Einstein probably isn't really that smart but acts like a sponge to soak up someone else's brilliance. Ever meet a personality leech and narcissist? You will find that whatever you say that is smart suddenly it's all their work and they will take credit for it while undermining the person they were once nice to only to feed off of their brilliance.

    Einstein didn't really even contribute as much as Tesla. They chose Einstein as the center of focus for science and what did he really supposedly do? Most brilliant scientists do more than just one thing. Why is it Einstein could only come up with one?

    Did he invent?

    Why is he a science hero? He's not that brilliant.

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  11. Einstein was stuck "through and through." Without Hilbert, no correct theory (and it a theory).

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  12. "revisionism" and negative connotation association is the most powerful leverage of those controlling the media, against that control.

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