Sunday, May 14, 2017

I doubt Mileva contributed much to Einstein's work

Tonight, National Geographic CZ airs the fourth episode of "Genius" about Einstein. (I will have to watch it later because of another cultural event.) There's physics in it but the series is obviously focused on Einstein's relationship to other people, especially (but not only) women.



Ms Emily Jordan at Salon.com was inspired by the series yesterday and she published a piece titled
Well Hello, Dolly: Mileva Marić, Albert Einstein and the myth of the Great Man
emphasizing Einstein's flaws as a male and the idea that women may also be geniuses. Women may surely be geniuses but I am not sure whether Mileva Marić is a great example of that. She was very smart... but a genius is a slightly different category.




Did she discover or co-discover relativity or something of this importance? In the series, we learn about the teenage Einstein's relationship with Maria, a girl in a family in Switzerland where he lived (and which supported Einstein much more than his own family). She was cute, she was also intellectually ordinary, she taught him some French, and we could see some nice romantic scenes involving bikes and crops. In some of these scenes, Einstein was already thinking hard about catching up with light. But Einstein left her... and she was heartbroken.

I have no reason to doubt that events like that took place.




Well, Einstein indirectly informed Maria that the relationship is over when he met Mileva Marić in the Swiss school. Samantha Colley stars as Mileva Marić in the series. According to the TV history, they first met in a classroom. The only two people. Einstein assumed he entered a wrong classroom. She impressed him with a monologue combining physics and ancient Greek philosophers whose main message was that he shouldn't assume that a woman couldn't be a physicist.

He clearly became obsessed with her and there are reasons to think that it was really her intellectual credentials that he found so attractive – because the probability is rather high that Maria was more attractive as a woman.

Now, Mileva was born with a deformed hip and as a result, she walked with a limp. This physical characteristic – but maybe not only this one – made her a target of mockery by her nasty classmates. She was generally not considered a bestseller on the romantic market. That's how the series puts it in between the lines and I tend to think it's a good description. Here, I think that the very fact that Einstein was into this woman should be interpreted as evidence of Einstein's superior moral credentials relatively to the average men.

The bad treatment by many men helped her to decide that she wanted to do physics – which she must have been rather excited by from her childhood – and thankfully, she had a highly supportive father back in Serbia who helped her to get to the Swiss school etc. in those times when women's access to STEM schools and occupations was more difficult then men's – in contrast with the situation in recent 50 years.

OK, so she was very good and she had a higher score in a mathematics exam than Einstein. They did talk about many things related to physics. She was competent in most things in the scholarly physics, interested in the foundations of statistical physics – at least if the series is to be trusted. But I still feel that what she was very good at was the scholarly physics. Again, that's the message I would extract from the TV program – and I do think that this description is realistic. For example, she liked to talk about the things "adjacent" to the humanities, like the remarks by the ancient Greek philosophers. I am confident that Einstein was very little interested in stuff like that – well, about as much as I am interested. Those ancient men were clearly rather far from the cutting-edge physics.

Now, her personality must have been attractive for Einstein and they became very close. The proximity also included some intense emotional outbursts. They had a child before they married – and the child died soon after its birth, as the third episode told us.

Einstein's parents – and perhaps some other folks – didn't like a Slavic girl with a limp. Einstein was "obliged" to marry a Jewish woman, of course. On the other side, people were suspecting that Einstein was a jerk who wouldn't take care of her. Mileva was found in the middle, sometimes telling Einstein that the critics of his personal approach could be right, while defending Einstein against these critics while she talked to them.

I haven't really verified whether all these details of the story – based on Walter Isaacson's book, I guess – are accurate. But they surely sound plausible and rather logical to me so far.

OK, I don't really know how the plot will evolve. It's saying many things about Einstein's personal life than what I have ever known. If you need to be reminded, personal gossip wasn't the part of Einstein I have been interested in much. But my feeling is that when Mileva and Albert agreed to be married, it simply changed Mileva's planning, superseded her environment's expectations that no one would ever marry her, and she mostly decided to be a loyal wife. Some sources say that there exists no evidence that would support the hypothesis that Mileva kept on working on physics after she married Einstein. I have no reason not to trust these sources. I know many examples when women who were good physics students immediately transform to reliable wives and mothers once Nature calls them to their duty. I know even feminist husbands who couldn't swallow this transformation – perhaps because they have been brainwashed to think that such natural effects are only talking place according to some nasty chauvinists.

Salon.com mentions that much later, after the divorce when he was probably already living with his cousin and second wife Elsa, Mileva threatened him with the publication of the memoirs. Einstein replied in 1925 that he "laughed" when he read about the threats. It looks like Ms Emily at Salon.com wants to suggest that Mileva could have revealed that she was the actual discoverer of relativity or at least, she has profoundly contributed to some of Einstein's important ideas in physics.

Well, I don't really think it follows. Everything I see is compatible with the interpretation that she simply wanted to publish some memoirs painting Einstein as a jerk – when it comes to the behavior to other humans, not to science. Something is telling me that if she were still capable of writing some convincing stuff about physics, she would do so – e.g. after she divorced Einstein in 1919. Also, Einstein gave all of his 1921 Nobel prize money to his ex-wife Mileva but I don't think this transfer had anything to do with the credit in physics.

So to summarize, I believe that all the hypotheses and "dreams in between the lines" that Mileva was actually the mother of relativity or something comparable are just myths and legends.

Women can be geniuses. When it comes to geniuses in the mathematical and physics sense, a woman's probability to be a genius is lower by more than one order of magnitude than a man's – and in the Einstein category, the probability gap almost certainly exceeds two orders of magnitude. But many of us have still had some extremely talented female classmates who could occasionally beat us in some scholarly benchmarks. They were usually more versatile than us and so on. It's cool. But the kind of ingenuity that is needed to discover a set of ideas such as relativity is a different level of talent. Average people can't distinguish a person who is smartest-among-ten-folks from a person who is smartest-among-one-million-folks (both are "rare" or "unusual" according to their standards) but one obviously needs to distinguish things like that if you want to meaningfully think about the question who could have discovered relativity.

One may also discuss whether this level of talent requires or is correlated with the spirit of a rebel. Both Mileva and Albert were – and had to be – rebellious relatively to the "unscientific" people around them. The fact that they were more nerdy or closer to science research than the average people couldn't have been overlooked. In this respect, they were similar. But Einstein was also rebellious relatively to the teachers and instructors and similar folks. I think that Mileva wasn't. Well, she sometimes did express some disagreement or her own ideas but she was guaranteed not to run into real problems.

At the end, I do believe that in Einstein's case and other similar cases, the main reason behind this rebellion was Einstein's internal knowledge that he was smarter than all these teachers of his. Just to be sure, I think he was smarter. And he was smarter than these adults already when he was a teenager. And he knew it. And he didn't try to hide this piece of information – probably mainly because he would find it dishonest.

Mileva wasn't rebellious in this sense. The reason is ultimately her being at most in the same league as these teachers. I mean folks like Heinrich Weber, their instructor who became Einstein's first adviser. In the initial episodes, we saw that Weber was one of Einstein's key soft supporters who helped him to overcome some barriers. However, Einstein had some battle with Weber as well and switched to Alfred Kleiner as the new adviser. Well, I guess that Weber was more achieved than Kleiner – Kleiner, an experimenter (with some work on retinas and molecular physics), is mostly remembered as Einstein's second adviser these days. (Don't get me wrong: the SI unit is not named after Heinrich Weber but after Wilhelm Weber. Some Bessel-like functions are named after Einstein's first adviser, however, and he did some work on specific heats that is still remembered.)

OK, to summarize. I don't think that Einstein was an angel but I also don't think that when it comes to his treatment of women, he was far from the median man. That's not what has made him important. His ingenious discoveries are the reason why we may appreciate him as a genius – even though he clearly had the talent before he discovered those important ideas. Einstein has never considered any woman to be quite in the same intellectual league as himself – with a marginal exception of his friend Marie Curie who was "roughly" in the same community – and I think he was simply right, whether politically correct writers like it or not. All women he has ever met were detectably less penetrating in physics (and yes, they were also less penetrating in other situations which is being used against Einstein).

Like Feynman, Einstein is often degraded by the feminist manipulators of the history as a sexist pig etc. – sometimes just for the innocent fact that they knew to be smarter than women around them. Sorry, I will keep on defending these men because they were right whether an obnoxious feminist likes this fact or not.

And that's the memo. (Thanks, Bill O'Reilly.)

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