I have a general rule regarding these columns. “I don’t take requests.”
Just saying so usually works, but from time to time I get requests from obstinate people who won’t put their requests away. This is one of those times. Katie Comboy, Real Change’s Volunteer Coordinator, decided a few months ago that I should volunteer a column about Albert Einstein’s first wife Mileva Maric´ and how Bertel done her wrong. Then Camille Gix, on advocacy staff, stuck her advocacy into the fray.
I have no choice now but to spend a column talking about all the ways Einstein mistreated his first wife. Even if I don’t know them all.
A lot of this is based on the fact that Mileva was surely a math whiz. She had to be to get to where she was: a student at the Swiss Polytechnic in Zurich at the same time Einstein was there. Now Einstein had to overcome being Jewish to get there, but Mileva arguably had it worse. She had to overcome being female — there were no other women in that college at that time. So we know she had to have what it takes to pull that off.
When I write these things, I like to find personal connections to the subject. As I have mentioned recently, I, like Einstein, have also had two wives. So we are remarkably alike. Also, my first wife wanted to be a mathematician. Also I spent a year not as a student at the Swiss Polytechnic, but as a visiting researcher, doing postdoctoral research. Close. I was actually there March 14, 1979, which would have been Einstein’s 100th birthday. I was surprised that there was almost no celebration for their famous former student. They put more into an exhibition of great Swiss steel cable designs.
I never worked at a patent office.
My first wife was really nothing at all like Mileva in the main way that matters. Mileva shared ideas about physics and mathematics with her husband. My first wife decided early on she didn’t want our math careers to get mixed up. We studied and worked separately, so there could never be any chance of either of us exploiting the other’s talents in mathematics. Instead our careers took off in different directions, so we ended up in different states. But Albert and Mileva spent a lot of time sharing ideas.
The trouble is we don’t really know the specifics about the sharing. We have to make a reasonable guess based on the circumstances.
When I was at the Swiss Polytechnic, one of my favorite hangouts was a cafe housed upstairs in the dome of the institute. Unlike the main cafeteria, it was a good place to have collegial conversations. If it had existed back then, I imagined Albert and Mileva would have spent time together there. But what would they talk about? The special theory of relativity? The photoelectric effect?
The best evidence for their collaboration in science comes from their first son, Hans Albert, who recalled witnessing it well into the marriage. So there had to be something to it. An unreliable source related that specifically Mileva contributed to Albert’s thinking on the molecular theory behind Brownian motion and gasses.
It’s certainly possible that she helped in formulating the special theory of relativity. It’s unlikely, given her gifts and interests, that she could have sat out of discussions about that. But the timing of their separation and divorce seems to rule out collaboration on the general theory of relativity.
But in terms of his major work in 1905, it would be unbelievable if Mileva didn’t listen to Albert’s ideas about it all and freely offer her feedback. She should have gotten credit for her feedback and suggestions, even if Albert only thought of them as his due from a loyal wife. He shouldn’t have taken her for granted.
Speaking of taking her for granted, Albert didn’t seem to involve himself too much in the care of their sons. Although when he won the Nobel prize, he arranged for his sons to benefit from the award. So there’s that.
When you factor in his marital infidelity, you kind of get a picture of a guy who was lost in his own self. The fact that one of his mistresses, who became his second wife, was a cousin adds some psychological texture to that assessment.
Read more of the Sept. 13-19, 2023 issue.