Allen Esterson: Einstein’s Wife ... PBS Fails the Test of Integrity





[Allen Esterson is the author of Seductive Mirage: An Exploration of the Work of Sigmund Freud]

In July I had one of those good news/bad news days. First the good news. In response to the detailed complaint I had submitted in February 2007 to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation about their promotion of the film “Einstein’s Wife”,[1] I received the following from Simon Melkman, ABC Audience & Consumer Affairs:

“Due to the breaches of the ABC’s Code of Practice which you have identified, the ABC will not broadcast ‘Einstein's Wife’ again. In addition, the ATOM ‘Einstein’s Wife’ study guide has been removed from the ABC website.”

Now the bad news. On that same day I received from one of the Einstein specialists whose tendentiously edited interviews were included in the film the information that the US Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) has commissioned Andrea Gabor to re-write the “Einstein’s Wife” web pages (which would seem to imply that PBS intends to retain the film in their schedules). I’ll briefly outline the background to this decision.

In March 2006 I submitted a detailed complaint to the PBS Ombudsman concerning the gross errors and misconceptions on the PBS “Einstein’s Wife” web pages and the associated school Lesson Plans.[2] After much delay, David Davis, VP National Production, Oregon Public Broadcasting, informed me in December 2006: “We are looking for additional scholarly review to help us know how to proceed in making sure that the web site content is as accurate as possible.” In the meantime, against the advice of the PBS Ombudsman,[3] PBS has been continuing to schedule the film and to maintain the website, the latter now having an editorial note stating that the contents are under review and that PBS is conducting “a thorough review…before determining what, if any,[sic] changes should to be made to the site content”.

Note that David Davis informed me that their intention was to look for “additional scholarly review” of the website material. In fact they have already had the views of the three Einstein specialists who had been misled into appearing in the film. For instance the historian of physics, Gerald Holton, wrote concerning the criticisms I had forwarded to PBS:

I was glad to read of your interest in correcting the blatant perversion of the role of Mileva Marić in the Australian film, ‘Einstein’s Wife’. The essays on your websites should be required reading by all who have been taken in by this film – the NPR officials, the unsuspecting readers of the story on the PBS website, the viewers of this pseudo-‘documentary’, the helpless teachers who might fall for this lie.[…] The film’s falsification of Marić’s role in the work of Einstein, well explained in your postings and in other sources by knowledgeable historians of science, brings to mind two points: One is that if such a false product were published by a scientist, he or she would be deprived of eligibility of further funding, and (in the USA) punished by the Office of Research Integrity… […]

And from John Stachel, founding editor of the Albert Einstein Collected Papers:

Thanks for sending your articles. I admire you for having the guts to go through the whole series of entangled falsehoods… I particularly appreciate your account of how I was “set up” to be used as a foil for the ‘Joffe proof.’ What you may not know is that I was constantly reassured, in spite of my misgivings, by the Aussies who produced the show that it was not going to be tendentious in any way!

Finally, from Robert Schulmann, historian, associate editor Albert Einstein Collected Papers:

Soon after ‘Einstein’s Wife” was aired on PBS and after scrutinizing the PBS website dealing with the film, I wrote an email to the writer/producer, Ms. Geraldine Hilton, and her company, Melsa Productions. In it I expressed my anger at the distasteful manipulation of facts in which she had engaged. I never heard a word in response. Whatever her intentions, Ms. Hilton chose to misrepresent my comments in her film, adding insult to injury by crowing later that she had put one over on the Einstein scholars. Aside from the pettiness of this remark, I deeply resent how by misrepresentation and stripping of context Ms. Hilton’s film skewed statements made by Holton, Stachel, and myself, as well as twisted facts, most egregiously in the case of the so-called Joffe evidence. This goes well beyond personal insult. It is unconscionable that PBS be a party to distributing this dishonest presentation as classroom material to teachers and students, whose task it is to instruct and learn the proper use of evidence and respect for historical sources. At the very least, I think PBS should withdraw its recommendation of the Hilton film – and the film itself – as the basis for school curricula…

(These personal communications were all forwarded to PBS with permission from the three academics.)

One might have thought that these views from knowledgeable Einstein specialists would have been a sufficiently damning “scholarly review” to persuade PBS to ditch the whole project and admit that they had made a mistake in promoting the film. Not a bit of it. They have now commissioned a writer to maintain the project who is almost totally lacking in the scholarly credentials essential for the purpose for which she has been engaged.

Andrea Gabor is a journalist and author without any background in science.[4] She appeared in the “Einstein’s Wife” film, presumably on the basis of the fact that she has a chapter on Mileva Marić in her book Einstein’s Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great Twentieth Century Women (1995). As I have demonstrated elsewhere,[5] the chapter in question reveals a generally poor standard of scholarly research, and a tendentiousness that is all too accurately depicted by one of the ‘definitions’ to be found in Benson and Stangroom’s Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense:

Evidence: Something that can be tailored to the requirements of my arguments.[6]

So let’s sample some of what Gabor reveals about her scholarly standards in that chapter. Possibly the most egregious example occurs early in the chapter, where she writes:

Marić told Einstein early in their relationship that she doubted she would ever marry, because although she insisted that ‘a woman can make a career just like a man,’ she apparently also believed the two enterprises to be mutually exclusive. (p. 7)

Gabor obtained this snippet of information from a biography of Mileva Marić by the Serbian author Desanka Trbuhović-Gjurić.[7] In that book can be found not only a more extended account, complete with dialogue, of the alleged conversation between Einstein and Marić when they were students together at Zurich Polytechnic, but also three other scenarios from the same period, two of which contain several sentences of dialogue. One would have thought that Gabor’s critical faculties (or just plain commonsense) would have been alerted by the unlikelihood that such verbatim conversations from their student days could have been recorded in this fashion. And, of course, they weren’t. Trbuhović-Gjurić provides no reference for the scenarios, but they can be found virtually word for word, in the same chronological order, in a book on Einstein written for children by Aylesa Forsee.[8] A glance through Forsee’s book suffices to show that it is filled with such scenarios, replete with dialogue, that are manifestly invented to provide an imaginative story that the author has woven around events in the life of Einstein. Yet, such were her shoddy scholarly standards, Trbuhović-Gjurić not only recorded four of the fake scenarios in her biography of Marić, she added her own imaginative gloss on the fictitious dialogue: “In all these discussions, Albert, in his uncertainty, always deferred to Mileva’s judgements, which he considered incorruptible and infallible.”[9]

Quite possibly it is this sentence that led Gabor to suggest that when they started the Zurich Polytechnic course in 1896 for a diploma to teach physics and mathematics in secondary school, Einstein “must have been somewhat in awe of his unusual female classmate, who was three and a half years his senior”,(p. 7) apparently ignorant of the fact that Einstein was remarkably self-assured from a relatively early age and not inclined to be in awe of anyone, not even his teachers at the Gymnasium in Munich which he left at the age of fifteen. The Einstein biographer Albrecht Fölsing recognized that the “fictitious dialogues” and the “combination of fictional invention and pseudo-documentation”[10] contained in Trbuhović-Gjurić’s book disqualifies it as a source of reliable information, but this insight evaded Gabor and she cites it on some twenty occasions as if it were a serious work of scholarship.

The above example is important for what it reveals about Gabor’s deficiencies as an historian, but the subject matter is relatively trivial. Far more important are other serious errors that occur in the chapter in question, such as in the following passage:

Much of the debate revolves around fragmentary evidence suggesting that the original version of Einstein’s three most famous articles, on the photoelectric effect, on Brownian motion, and on the theory of relativity, were signed Einstein-Marity, the latter name being a Hungarianized version of Marić… Abraham F. Joffe, a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, claimed that he saw the original papers when he was an assistant to Wilhelm Röntgen, who belonged to the editorial board of Annalen der Physik, which published the articles. (p. 20)

Gabor again references Trbuhović-Gjurić’s book for this information.[11] However, in the article alluded to by Trbuhović-Gjurić as the source of her report, Joffe did not claim that he saw the original papers, nor that the papers were signed Einstein-Marity. As John Stachel has meticulously demonstrated, the account presented as fact by Trbuhović-Gjurić and recycled by Gabor is nothing but tendentious inference based on a false premise.[12] Gabor’s reliance on Trbuhović-Gjurić’s deeply flawed book has again led her astray.

The early correspondence between Einstein and Marić, uncovered in 1985 by Robert Schulmann, generated considerable interest and sensational press stories after it was first published. In a passage (p. xii) in which she refers to “Mileva Marić’s contribution to Einstein’s early work”, Gabor quotes from one of these letters in a context that creates a completely false impression as to its import: “How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on the relative motion to a victorious conclusion.”[13]

This sentence in a letter to Marić in 1901 does not, as the uninitiated are likely to assume, directly relate to Einstein’s development of his special relativity theory some four years later. And, as Stachel points out, against this one use of “our” here there are a dozen occasions in the letters to Marić when Einstein uses “I” and “my” when referring to his ideas on this same topic, the electrodynamics of moving bodies.[14] Holton observes in this connection: “But careful analysis of the matter by established scholars in the history of physics, including John Stachel, Jürgen Renn, Robert Schulmann, and Abraham Pais, has shown that scientific collaboration between the couple was minimal and one-sided. Einstein’s occasional use of the word our was chiefly meant to serve the emotional needs of the moment.”[15] Those who have been influenced by the erroneous claim that the sentence quoted by Gabor reveals that Marić collaborated with Einstein on the special theory of relativity should read Stachel’s comprehensive analysis of Einstein’s use of personal pronouns in the letters in question.[16]

There are numerous other errors and misconceptions in Gabor’s chapter, as can be seen from my more detailed critique. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the fact that PBS have commissioned to re-write their “Einstein’s Wife” web pages someone so lacking in the scholarly credentials that should be a requisite for such an undertaking indicates that they are intent on preserving the essentials of their deeply flawed website, with its Lesson Plans that come close to being a brainwashing exercise.[17] In the words of Robert Schulmann, who has knowledge in depth of the relevant material, it is unconscionable that PBS be a party to distributing dubious historical claims as classroom material to teachers and students, whose task it is to instruct and learn the proper use of evidence and respect for historical sources. Moreover, it is difficult to see how the website could be maintained unless PBS is intending to continue to promote the “Einstein’s Wife” film (including to school teachers and students), the gross deficiencies of which are apparent from the above comments by Einstein specialists, who deplore its “blatant perversion of the role of Mileva Marić”, its “distasteful manipulation of facts”, and the “whole series of tangled falsehoods” that it contains.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which co-produced the film, has demonstrated that it wishes to maintain respect for accuracy in the documentaries that it promotes and intellectual honesty in their production by withdrawing it from its schedules. For PBS to continue with its current plan can only bring it into disrepute. The PBS executives responsible for the decision to continue to promote “Einstein’s Wife” should think again.

NOTES

1. Einstein’s Wife: Mileva Marić 1
2. Einstein’s Wife: Mileva Marić 2
3. Einstein’s Wife: The Relative Motion of ‘Facts’
4. Andrea Gabor CV
Andrea Gabor books
5. Critique of Gabor (1995)
6. Benson & Stangroom (2004), p. 38.
7. Trbuhović-Gjurić (1983), p. 41; (1991), p. 47.
8. Forsee (1963), pp. 11-12.
9. Trbuhović-Gjurić (1983), p. 41; (1991), p. 46 (my translation – A. E.).
10. Fölsing (1990)
11. Trbuhović-Gjurić (1983), p. 79; (1991), pp. 111-12.
12. Stachel (2005), pp. liv-lxxii.
13. Renn & Schulmann (1992), p. 39.
14. Stachel (2002), p. 36.
15. Holton (1996), pp. 190-91.
16. Stachel (2002), pp. 33-36.
17. Einstein’s Wife: Mileva Marić 2

Bibliography

Benson, O. & Stangroom, J. (2004). The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense: A Guide for Edgy People. London: Souvenir Press.

Einstein, A. (1987-2006). The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Princeton University Press.

Esterson, A. (2006a). Einstein’s Wife: Mileva Marić 1

Esterson, A. (2006b). Einstein’s Wife: Mileva Marić 2

Esterson, A. (2006c). Mileva Marić: Einstein’s Wife

Esterson, A. (2006d). Who Did Einstein’s Mathematics?: A Response to Troemel-Ploetz

Esterson, A. (2007). Critique of Gabor (1995)

Fölsing, A. (1990). Keine ‘Mutter der Relativitätstheorie’. Die Zeit, Nr. 47, 16 November 1990. English translation

Forsee, A. (1963). Albert Einstein: Theoretical Physicist. New York and London: Macmillan.

Gabor, A. (1995). Einstein’s Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great Twentieth Century Women. New York: Viking-Penguin.

Holton, G. (1996). Einstein, History and Other Passions. Harvard University Press.

Martínez, A. A. (2005). Handling Evidence in History: The Case of Einstein’s Wife.School Science Review, March 2005, 86 (316), pp. 49-56.

Renn, J. and Schulmann, R. (eds.) (1992). Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić: The Love Letters. Trans. by S. Smith. Princeton University Press.

Stachel, J. (1996). Albert Einstein and Mileva Maric: A Collaboration that Failed to Develop.

Stachel, J. (2002). Einstein from 'B' to 'Z'. Boston/Basel/ Berlin: Birkhäuser.

Stachel, J. (ed.) (2005). Appendix. In J. Stachel,"Introduction", in Einstein's Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics. Princeton University Press, pp. liv-lxxii.

Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1983). Im Schatten Albert Einsteins: Das tragische Leben der Mileva Einstein-Marić. Bern: Paul Haupt. (The German language edition is an edited version of the book by Trbuhović-Gjurić originally published in Serbo-Croat in Yugoslavia in 1969.)

Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1991), Mileva Einstein: Une Vie (French translation of Im Schatten Albert Einsteins: Das tragische Leben der Mileva Einstein-Marić). Paris: Antoinette Fouque.



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