In the the late 1980s, the American physicist Evan Walker Harris published an article in Physics Today suggesting that Einstein first wife, Mileva Maric, was an unacknowledged coauthor of his 1905 paper on special relativity.
The idea generated considerable controversy at the time, although most physicists and historians of science have rejected it.
Today, Galina Weinstein, a visiting scholar at The Centre for Einstein Studies at Boston University, hopes to settle the matter with a new analysis.
The story begins after Einstein’s death in 1955, when the Soviet physicist Abram Fedorovich Joffe described some correspondence he had with Einstein early in their careers in a article published in Russian.
Joffe had asked Einstein for a preprints of some of his papers and wrote: “The author of these articles—an unknown person at that time, was a bureaucrat at the Patent Office in Bern, Einstein-Marity (Marity the maiden name of his wife, which by Swiss custom is added to the husband’s family name).” (Marity is a Hungarian variant of Maric.)
The conspiracy theories date from this reference to Einstein as Einstein-Marity, says Weinstein. The result was an increasingly complex tangle of deliberate or accidental misunderstandings.
The problem seems to have begun with a popular Russian science writer called Daniil Semenvich Danin, who interpreted Joffe’s account to mean that Einstein and Maric collaborated on the work. This later transformed into the notion that Maric had originally been a coauthor on the 1905 paper but her name was removed from the the final published version.
This is a clear misinterpretation, suggests Weinstein.
Walker reignited this controversy in his Physics Today article. He suggests that Einstein may have stolen his wife’s ideas.
There’s another interesting line for the conspiracy theorists. Historians have translated the letters between Einstein and Maric into English, allowing a detailed analysis of their relationship. However, one of these letters includes the phrase: “bringing our work on relative motion to a successful conclusion!” This seems to back up the idea that the pair must have collaborated.
However, Weinstein has analysed the letters in detail and says that two lines of evidence suggest that this was unlikely. First, Einstein’s letters are full of his ideas about physics while Maric’s contain none, suggesting that he was using her as a sounding board rather than a collaborator.
Second, Maric was not a talented physicist or mathematician. She failed her final examinations and was never granted a diploma.
Weinstein argues that Maric could therefore not have made a significant contribution and quotes another historian on the topic saying that while there is no evidence that Maric was gifted mathematically, there is some evidence that she was not.
There is one fly in the ointment. Maric and Einstein divorced in 1919, but as part of the divorce settlement, Einstein agreed to pay his ex-wife every krona of any future Nobel Prize he might be awarded.
Weinstein suggests that everybody knew Einstein was in line to win the prize and that in the postwar environment in Germany, this was a natural request from a wife who did not want a divorce and was suffering from depression.
Walker, on the other hand, says: “I find it difficult to resist the conclusion that Mileva, justly or unjustly, saw this as her reward for the part she had played in developing the theory of relativity.”
Without more evidence, it’s hard to know one way or the other. But there’s surely enough uncertainty about what actually happened to keep the flames of conspiracy burning for a little while longer.
Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1204.3551: Did Mileva Marić Assist Einstein In Writing His 1905 Path Breaking Papers?
A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of
The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.
The world’s biggest surveillance company you’ve never heard of
Hikvision could be sanctioned for aiding the Chinese government’s human rights violations in Xinjiang. Here’s everything you need to know.
Where to get abortion pills and how to use them
New US restrictions could turn abortion into do-it-yourself medicine, but there might be legal risks.
The US Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. What does that mean?
The final decision ends weeks of speculation following the leaking of a draft opinion in May, which detailed the Supreme Court’s resolve to strike down the ruling.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.