Blogs > Cliopatria > The PBS Show that Misconstrued the Role of Einstein's Wife

Aug 17, 2006 10:41 am

The PBS Show that Misconstrued the Role of Einstein's Wife

In March 2006 I submitted to the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service Ombudsman a complaint about the numerous errors and misconceptions that permeate the PBS Einstein’s Wife website material and associated Lesson Plans purporting to present evidence that Mileva Mari? made substantive contributions to (or even co-authored) Einstein’s celebrated 1905 papers on special relativity, the photoelectric effect and Brownian motion. PBS is currently considering the complaint, based on my detailed analyses of the Australian Einstein’s Wife documentary [1] and of the PBS website material. (See Mileva Mari? 1 and Mileva Mari? 2.)

Gerald Holton, who played a major role in the inaugurating of the Einstein Archive, is one of several physicists who have concluded on the basis of the documentary evidence that, in Holton’s words, Mari? “left no evidence of originality as a future scientist”.[2] Holton was a contributor to the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary, but was given no idea of the nature of the project. His view of the documentary is amply clear from the following message he emailed me on the subject:

I was glad to read of your interest in correcting the blatant perversion of the role of Mileva Mari? 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.

I suspect the Australian film crew and producers may well have known that they were producing a sorry fiction. For example, when they asked me to be interviewed for the film, they only said it was going to be (yet another) film about Einstein. If they had told me what they really were intending, I would of course not have agreed to appear, and would have told them how wrong they were.

The film’s falsification of Mari?’s role in the work of Einstein, well explained in your postings and in other sources by knowledgable 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. As the recent unmasking of the South Korean biologist who falsified data shows, the same derogation would also be appropriate outside the USA. Equally bad is that the falsification of Mari?’s role is really an insult to her. As I wrote (page 191, Einstein, History and other Passions, H.U.P. 2000, in Chapter 8) on the relationship between Mileva and Albert :

“Ironically, the exaggeration of Mileva’s scientific role, far beyond what she herself ever claimed or could be proved, only detracts both from her real and significant place in history, and from the tragic unfulfillment of her early hopes and promise. For she was one of the pioneers in the movement to bring women into science, even if she did not reap its benefits. At great personal sacrifice, as it later turned out, she seems to have been essential to Albert during the onerous years of his most creative early period, not only as anchor of his emotional life, but also as a sympathetic companion with whom he could sound out his highly unconventional ideas during the years when he was undergoing the quite unexpected, rapid metamorphosis from eager student to first-rank scientist.”

Two other contributors to the documentary, Robert Schulmann, the historian associated with the Albert Einstein Collected Papers project, and the founding editor of the project, John Stachel, were likewise unaware of the nature of the documentary and have disassociated themselves from it. The skilful editing of the contributions by Holton and Stachel ensured that the final product contained nothing that contradicted the viewpoint being propagated, with one exception. This is in relation to what Stachel has described as his being “set up” [3] in the scene purporting (falsely) to demonstrate that the Soviet scientist Abraham Joffe had stated that the original manuscript of Einstein’s 1905 special relativity paper was co-signed by Einstein and Mari?. (The means by which Stachel was set up is recounted in my article Mileva Mari? 1.)

Stachel has himself published comprehensive refutations of the claims about Mari?’s alleged contributions to Einstein’s publications.[4] Had the writer/producer of the documentary, Geraldine Hilton, and the PBS “Einstein’s Wife” website and classroom content production team been genuinely interested in a disinterested examination of the contentions about Mari? they would have made a serious attempt to find and report the published analyses of the principal claims by Stachel and Holton. The remarkably poor level of the research undertaken for this project is illustrated by the following statement on the PBS web page About Einstein’s Wife, “The West’s first hint of Mari?’s existence came with a 1983 German translation of a Yugoslavian biography”, the falseness of which can be ascertained merely by visiting one’s local library and examining any biography of Einstein published prior to 1983....

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