The Mileva Question
If Einstein had never written another equation after 1905, history would still place him among the greatest minds of the 20th century. Even today, with the aid of super-computers, it is hard to imagine that any scientist could produce so much significant work, on such widely varied topics, within a single year. Skeptics have asked how Einstein did it without computers, while he was working full time. In fact, Peter Galison, the Joseph Pellegrino University Professor of the History of Science and of Physics at Harvard, has written a book, Einstein's Clocks and Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time, which offers a partial explanation. Galison argues that Einstein's ideas may initially have grown out of his work at the patent office, and that they reflect some of the most pressing, and seemingly mundane, technological concerns of his day: how to synchronize clocks across the vast network of European train lines and stations so that trains traveling in opposite directions on the same track did not collide. This was the context for Einstein's writings on simultaneity and the opening metaphor of his paper on relativity—what it means to set one's clock as a train pulls into a station.
Nevertheless, since the publication of The Love Letters, scientists and laymen have engaged in an intriguing game of what-if, speculating on what role—if any—Maric might have played in Einstein's work. There is little hard evidence to support the contention that Mileva played a significant role in developing the key theories associated with her husband's annus mirabilis. Much of the debate centers on the words of Abram F. Joffe (Ioffe), a respected member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and an assistant to W.C. Roentgen from 1902 to 1906, who saw the original version of Einstein's three most famous papers (on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, and the theory of relativity) and said that they were signed Einstein-Marity (Marity being the Hungarianized version of Maric.) Whether that reference was to one author or two is the nub of the debate. Most researchers now agree, based on a memorial to Einstein, written by Joffe, that he was referring to a single author rather than a husband-wife team. See Note 1
Nor does the personal correspondence between Mileva and Albert or between Mileva and her friends help clarify the question. Despite tantalizing references to a life of shared work—"We'll be students (horrible dictu) as long as we live...When you're my dear little wife we'll diligently work on science together so we don't become old philistines, right?"—the private letters are devoid of specifics. Moreover, while hundreds of Einstein's letters survive, only about two dozen letters by Mileva have been published. It is possible that some letters may still emerge. However, it is important to note that Mileva never demanded public credit for the work of 1905, nor claimed a role as Einstein's collaborator.
Rather, it is much more likely that Mileva's contributions were those of an assistant and a sounding board—a common role among both women scientists and wives of scientists, and one that rendered even the most talented and productive among them virtually invisible. In Mileva's case, it is likely that she discussed Einstein's ideas, proofread his papers and, possibly, helped with some of the mathematical proofs.
In the absence of hard evidence, speculating on Maric's precise contributions to Einstein's work is not very fruitful. What is more important is that Mileva's life—and frustrated ambitions—serve as a metaphor for the struggle and prejudice that women in science encountered well into the 20th century.
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