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Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa ✸ 193 11 e Cult of the Quiet Wife Here’s an intriguing tale:having enjoyed decades of extraordinary fame,Albert Einstein never admitted that his acclaimed theory of relativity owed partly to the secret contributions of his modest wife. Not only had they lived together during his most creative year, they had studied physics together and when he won the Nobel Prize he gave the money to her. Was she his secret collaborator? It’s a good story, but is it true? Proponents of Einstein’s wife have been arguing about this for years. It would be awful to discover that historians and physicists have systematically lied, based on some sexist bias, to deny credit where it is long overdue.If you trust authoritative historians you might simply disbelieve the story, dismiss it as a modern myth. Personally, I’d be glad to learn that Mileva Marić was Einstein’s secret collaborator. I want her to be the secret coauthor. But we should set aside our speculative preferences and instead look at the evidence. Better yet, we can trace how stories evolve. People sell reams of print by taking historical tidbits and stretching and sculpting them into provocative shapes. In 2003, television stations in the United States and other countries began to broadcast a documentary called Einstein’s Wife.1 It dramatized the life of Mileva Marić, highlighting the idea that she contributed to Einstein’s scientific works. It was accompanied by a PBS website (since updated in response to concerns about historical accuracy ) that featured an online poll that asked: “Was it really possible for Albert alone to produce all the phenomenal physics generated during 1905?” It continued: “Did Mileva Marić collaborate with Einstein? You 193 Decide! Take our online poll.” Thus viewers were invited to decide the past by voting. In a couple of years, more than 75 percent of the people polled had replied that Marić did collaborate with Einstein.2 How did so many people come to believe that? The fuss began in 1987, when historians, led by John Stachel, began publishingcomprehensivecompilationsof Einstein’sworks,manuscripts, and correspondence. Among the documents, they published old letters between Einstein and Marić. In a few of those letters, written around 1900, Einstein briefly used expressions such as “our research,” “our paper ,” and once,“our work on the relative motion.”3 Historians of physics were fascinated as they analyzed such letters,but concluded that they are just too vague and insufficient to establish whether Marić contributed to Einstein’s publications. Still, plenty of non-specialists also pondered roles that Marić could have played. The lure to speculate was understandable. For example, Einstein’s most intriguing comment, translated, reads:“How happy and proud will I be, when we both together have brought our work on the relative motion victoriously to its end!”4 Non-specialists quickly concluded that this letter refers to the theory of relativity. Written by Einstein’s own hand, could it be any clearer? But wait.The letter was written in 1901,and Einstein had no concept of the theory that he later formulated which became known as relativity . At that time he still believed in the invisible ether and sought ways to detect its relative motion experimentally. This problem of “the relative motion” was a widespread concern; many physicists aimed to solve it. As a college student in 1899, Einstein began trying to design experiments to exhibit the relative motion of the ether. As he mentioned to Marić: “I also wrote to Professor Wien in Aachen about my paper on the relative motion of the luminiferous ether against ponderable matter .”5 Then in 1901, Einstein shared his speculations or aspirations with Marić. But by 1902, he had abandoned the idea of detecting the ether motion. He abandoned the concept of the ether and hypothesized instead that light behaves like bullets—its speed is affected by the speed of its source.6 Later, in 1904, he discarded those conjectures too and hypothesized instead that the speed of light is independent of its source.7 194 ✸ e Cult of the Quiet Wife He struggled to modify the leading theory, that of Hendrik Lorentz, to improve it.8 But he failed again, and only in spring 1905 did he abruptly formulate a radically new theory that became known as special relativity, after ten years of reflection, including more than seven years of intensive struggles.9 On the basis of abundant documentary evidence, we know...


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MARC Record
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