Letter From Web Site Editor Andrea Gabor
September 24, 2007
In March 2006, Einstein's Wife, a 2003 documentary aired on PBS, and an accompanying Web site came under fire from a U.K. physicist who wrote a lengthy critique of the film and Web site.
After reviewing the criticisms, including some from physicists whose commentary was published not on the PBS Web site, but on such sites as physicsweb.org, the PBS ombudsman responded, in part: "... while the story of Mileva Maric is fascinating, tantalizing and deserving of being told, I felt that it also exaggerates her role and takes the viewer and reader too far beyond what is known ... there is not enough sense of uncertainty in the film. Rather, it seems to set out deliberately to create the impression that she was a true partner in the full scientific sense ... the known facts and evidence do not back it up."
The ombudsman went on to recommend that PBS review the documentary and Web site and that, pending the review, it shut down the Web site and suspend sales of the film.
PBS's policy, however, is not to take the site down but to correct or update it as necessary. Accordingly, Oregon Public Broadcasting commissioned a review of the Web site with a view to making any necessary modifications. In line with PBS's commitment to making all changes "visible every step of the way", pages that have been modified from the original Web site have been identified with an accompanying editor's note.
The site review involved interviewing and seeking feedback from physicists, including Einstein scholars, about the statements made and facts presented on the site. The site was then edited to ensure that the site is historically accurate. However, clearing up problems of both fact and emphasis is just part of the challenge. Some of the assertions made by the documentary and Web site, as well as by their critics, simply cannot be determined on the basis of "factual evidence". Rather, some of the assertions are so deeply embedded in the very murky, private realm of the relationship between Albert and Mileva Einstein, who shared, for a while, both love and ideas, that no definitive proof can be found.
More importantly, there are two key dimensions of the Einstein-Maric story that neither the film nor the Web site addressed These are explored in an appended section, "Women in Science," written for the updated version of the Web site:
First, neither acknowledges the complex nature of scientific collaboration. It is possible to give Einstein the lion's share of the credit for the seminal papers of 1905, while still recognizing a long-standing give-and-take between husband and wife that, at the very least, almost certainly yielded some help with mathematical proofs or copyediting. (Even Einstein's staunchest defenders agree that she served, at the very least, as a "sounding board" for his ideas.)
There is a rich body of research on the nature of collaboration in modern science, and the fertile outcomes that emerge from even the most reluctant teamwork. For example, the discovery of the structure of DNA grew out of the research and rivalry among a small team of scientists.
Collaboration--and the often sticky problem of who gets the credit for ideas--is an especially thorny theme in the history of women scientists, many of whom labored as assistants or junior researchers in the labs of senior male colleagues.
Finally, as sympathetic as the film and Web site are to Mileva Maric, they do not put her story into historical context. Mileva was a pioneer in her efforts to become a woman scientist. Her failure to achieve an independent career has to be viewed in the context of an entire generation of women scientists, most of whom sacrificed family life in order to pursue a career, and virtually all of whom encountered powerful, institutional prejudice that, in several cases--Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin and Maria Goeppert Mayer are just a few examples--served to obscure their major scientific contributions, sometimes for years. Marriage to Einstein and the birth of her children almost certainly doomed any hope Mileva could have had for a career.
Andrea Gabor, Editor
About the Editor
Andrea Gabor is the author of Einstein's Wife, a 1995 book which explores the lives of five women, including Mileva Maric, and how they fared in their efforts to juggle marriage and careers. [The book has no connection to the eponymously named documentary] A former staff writer and editor at U.S. News Report and Business Week, Gabor is also the author of The Capitalist Philosophers and The Man Who Discovered Quality. She is an associate professor of journalism at Baruch College/CUNY.