Note from the author
This article is consistently the most visited on this site. It was commissioned by Physics World as part of a special issue celebrating the start of the International Year of Physics in 2005. The year was also known as Einstein Year, marking as it did the centenary of of his groundbreaking work in Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect and special relativity.
The brief was to examine the various myths and accusations which have been levelled at Einstein. Of these, perhaps the most pernicious is that Einstein was a fraud. As noted below, this accusation is particularly prevalent among racists who can't accept a liberal Jewish genius.
It's slightly annoying, then, to find that this article has been selectively referenced and linked to by a number of right-wing and neo-nazi sites, so as to suggest that it supports their idiotic ideas. It doesn't in any way.
I'll simplify the basic message of the article for anyone with such an agenda: Einstein was certainly a genius, but he was in other ways a typically flawed human being. You, on the other hand, are an idiot. Now grow the fuck up.
To everyone else, I hope you enjoy the article.
The other side
of Albert Einstein
Einstein has attained iconic status as a scientist and humanist but, as Tim Chapman discusses, he has also been labeled a plagiarist, philanderer, absent father and fraud.
Physics World, January 2005
Albert Einstein's standing as a
scientific genius and cultural icon are second to none. His
contributions to physics and his wider intellectual concerns have led
to countless accolades: he was named "Person of the Century" by Time magazine five years ago and
been voted the greatest physicist of all time by Physics World. But some believe
that such glowing tributes are wide of the mark, and point to darker
elements in Einstein's career and personal life.
Probably the most widely believed claim about Einstein's darker side concerns his first wife, Mileva Maric. Maric was also a physics student, three years older than Einstein, and rumours have spread since the early 1990s that she was the real brains of the partnership. The story reached its widest audience with the 2003 US television documentary, Einstein's Wife.
Maric came to general attention with the publication of the love letters between herself and Einstein as part of the Princeton Press' Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. The letters show that the two students discussed their work and planned to carry out research together, and that Maric supported her lover while he looked for work before they married in early 1903.
But did she collaborate on those vital papers of 1905 or even, as some critics claim, do the bulk of the work? Even the 2003 documentary admitted that the evidence was slim. The key piece of evidence waved by Mileva's advocates comes via the Soviet physicist Abram Joffe who, it is claimed, wrote in a 1955 obituary of seeing an original manuscript signed by 'Einstein-Marity' (a Hungarianised form of Maric), implying that the two originally shared credit. However, Joffe makes no claim about having seen the original papers, but believed that such a hyphenated surname was the Swiss custom.
"The fact there was nothing by Maric in her own name or co-signed with Einstein, either before she met him, while they were living together, or in the 30 years after they separated, I take as strong evidence that she never played a major creative role in his thinking," says John Stachel, director of the Center of Einstein Studies at Boston University, and editor of the Collected Papers.
Mileva did act as Einstein's amanuensis, checking his calculations and looking up data, but while he continued to discuss his work in his letters to her, Mileva often did not reply in kind. "We have one of his most important letters about the electrodynamics of moving bodies, and her response where she discusses everything else in his letter but that," Stachel adds. "There's no evidence she acted as anything more than a sounding board for his ideas."
Einstein may not have cheated Mileva of her intellectual rights, but he was still far from the ideal husband. A year before they married, Maric gave birth to a daughter, Lieserl, while Einstein was away. The child's fate is unknown – she is presumed to have been given up for adoption, perhaps under pressure from Einstein, who is thought to have never seen his first born.
After the marriage, Mileva bore two sons but the family was not to stay together. Einstein began an affair with his cousin Elsa Lowenthal while on a trip to Berlin in 1912, leaving Mileva and his family two years later.
Einstein and Mileva finally divorced in 1919, but not until after Einstein sent his wife a list of 'conditions' under which he was willing to remain married. The list included such autocratic demands as "You are neither to expect intimacy nor to reproach me in any way". After the divorce, he saw little of his sons. The elder, Hans Albert, later reflected: "Probably the only project he ever gave up on was me." The younger, Eduard, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and died in an asylum.
Einstein married Elsa soon after the divorce, but a few years later began an affair with Betty Neumann, the niece of a friend. By one account, Elsa allowed Einstein to carry on with this affair to prevent him sneaking around. That relationship ended in 1924, but Einstein continued to have liaisons with other women until well after Elsa's death in 1936. He didn't remarry.
Einstein wanted and enjoyed the company of women, and his intellectual celebrity certainly wouldn't have hurt his chances with the socialites of Berlin or, later, the women of America. The relationships rarely lasted, however – usually once they were established, Einstein cooled off and looked elsewhere. Avoiding deep emotional ties in this way may have given him the solitude he needed to pursue his work, but few would find such behaviour admirable.
Accusations of plagiarism aren't limited to Mileva – it's also been claimed that Einstein stole the work of a host of other physicists.
One question which may remain moot is quite how much Einstein drew from the work of Hendrik Lorentz and Henri Poincare in formulating the theory of special relativity. Elements of Einstein's 1905 paper parallelled parts of a 1904 paper by Lorentz and a contemporary paper by Poincare. Although Einstein read earlier papers by the two, he claimed not to have seen these later works before writing the 1905 paper.
One apparently damning fact is that the 1905 paper on special relativity had no references, suggesting that Einstein was consciously hiding his tracks. "At the time, I don't think it was that unusual," Stachel notes. "There's no evidence that he ever consciously took from some source and neglected to mention it in order to get the credit himself."
Equally, there are questions over general relativity. One frequent accusation is that David Hilbert completed the general theory of relativity at least five days before Einstein submitted his conclusive paper in November 1915. Although there are marked similarities between the two men's work, and the two did squabble for some time over primacy, Stachel and other researchers have found that the first proofs for Hilbert's paper did not include the crucial field equations for general relativity. He says that these proofs were also based on Einstein's earlier rejection of the principle of general covariance, a central tenet of general relativity that shows that the laws of relativity hold for any inertial frame. Einstein's 1915 paper, in contrast, showed that relativity could be made generally covariant by adopting a new geometric model of space-time.
The man they
love to hate
There's also a thriving set of more or less cranky claims that Einstein was, at best, misguided; and, at worst, a deliberate fraud. So why is Einstein such an attractive target? Stachel has identified three general reasons.
The first is anti-semitism. Many of Einstein's early critics in Germany were allied with the then-dominant Nazi party, including Nobel prize winner Johannes Stark. Some modern anti-Einstein theorists continue to quote these early critics without mentioning their political interest in promoting more "Aryan" physicists over the Jewish liberal Einstein.
In recent decades, some feminist critics have picked on Einstein in an attempt to show women are under-represented in the history of science. "On the human aspect there's much criticism to be made of Einstein's attitude to a number of women in his life, and Mileva Maric in particular, but that doesn't mean the ideas came from her or she was a great scientist," Stachel says.
Finally, there's simple iconoclasm. The physics community, in promoting Einstein as a kind of secular saint, has to take some of the blame. "Too much of an idol was made of Einstein," Stachel says. "He's not an idol – he's a human, and that's much more interesting."