by J. Rosalyn
The “other Einstein” is Mileva Marić, Albert Einstein’s first wife, a brilliant physicist who met Einstein when both were students at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, Switzerland in the late 1890s. Not much is known about Marić, but Marie Benedict, in this fictional account, has done a stellar job of extrapolating from existing historical data and using that data to write convincingly about Marić’s life.
Serbian, with a supportive father who told her to “be bold” and become a leading woman physicist at a time when most Serbian women (and women of other nationalities) did not even seek university degrees, Marić wanted desperately to make her “papa” proud of her. Her desire, however, for an academic life, clashed with the uniform goal for women of her day – marriage and children. This conflict played a large part in Marić’s decision to keep her relationship with Einstein platonic for a number of years. During this time, Marić helped Einstein with his studies, and allowed him to play his violin at the musical evenings she and her female friends held at her Engelbrecht Pension (student boarding house for women). Eventually, after much soul searching, Marić did allow herself to become romantically involved with Einstein. The romance, and subsequent marriage were laden with problems and traumatic events, including the heart-breaking, gut-wrenching death of Marić’s and Einstein’s first born daughter from scarlet fever.
Benedict focuses almost entirely on Marić’s thoughts and world view. An understandable approach since so little effort has been made by the scientific world to research Marić, her life, and her work, and establish what role she played in Einstein’s 1905 breakthrough on relativity. Einstein does not fare well in Benedict’s approach, perhaps that is his due, or perhaps more research must be done on his partnership with Marić. Benedict makes one fact clear, however, Einstein willingly broke with the rigid social and scientific norms of his day and treated Marić as an equal for at least a portion of their relationship.
Marić has been a little known figure in science history, and what writings there have been about her always mentioned Einstein. This has not been true about the thousands, perhaps millions, of writings about Einstein–very few mention Marić, and only recently has there been serious debate about whether Marić was the first to understand relativity, not Einstein. While Benedict lights up this debate in this fictional account, she clearly understands that the serious discussion has only just started. This is an important book.