EDGE: After Marie there 's Mileva?

OVERBYE: Mileva was his classmate at the Polytechnic in Zurich; he started chasing her around the lab table their first year there. She was so upset by this that she actually dropped out of school for half a year and went off to Heidelberg to try and get her mind clear. She knew that this could be nothing but trouble. She went through a lot of hard work to get to college. For a woman, studying physics in Europe in 1896 was an amazing accomplishment, and she knew that pursuing a scientific career going to get any easier from there.

So this young dude chasing her around the lab table could only derail her concentration, and she decided that getting involved with Einstein was not the best thing for her career. But he won her over in the end.

Einstein was not in the habit of going to classes. He spent most of his time reading books that weren't on the curriculum, about electromagnetic theory, for example, and keeping Mileva up all night talking about those same issues that he'd been wondering about, like what happens to a light wave if you're traveling along with it, and what 's the ether that's 's supposed to be vibrating and moving these light waves along? Why didn't it show up in the equations? It had been presumed since the time of Aristotle that space was filled with this kind of this ether, this substance, and that this was what vibrated when light waves traveled.

He graduated, she did not, partly because she was behind from being away for half a year; partly because he probably kept her up too late pursuing his own interests rather than doing the homework that they were supposed to be doing. He barely got away with it; she couldn't quite hack it. Her math grades particularly were the lowest of the six people in their class.

After graduation he couldn't get a job, so he kept getting yanked back to his parents' house outside Milan. And she kept getting yanked back to her parents' house in Novi Sad, in what is now Serbia. So they spent a lot of time apart, which is great for historians, because they wrote lots of letters. We have better accounts of the times they were apart than we do of the times when they were together.

He finally got a part-time teaching job, and they had a reunion in Lake Como and went on a trip across the Alps. She got pregnant. This was pretty much the disastrous turning point for her, because she wound up having the baby and she went back to Serbia. This was the nightmare that Albert's mother had been worrying about, that Mileva would get pregnant, and this would be the end of Albert's life. In fact, he offered to get some sort of menial job to support her; she turned him down. By the time she was ready to give birth, the famous patent office job in Bern became available, so he moved to there to take it, and she went to Serbia to have the baby.

We don't know what happened to the baby, she probably left it there to be adopted. It 's pretty clear that she didn't bring Lieserl, as they called her, back because it would have been a horrible scandal for Albert to show up in Bern to take this civil service job with an illegitimate baby. Swiss society was very conservative, and Swiss physics was a very small world. Einstein was already viewed as a weirdo, because he had a Serbian girl friend; his manners in some way were more Italian than Swiss, he wasn't in the kind of emotional lockup that was associated with Germans and Swiss.

So she made the supreme sacrifice, giving away the child to preserve Einstein's career. At that point the die was cast, but it took another ten years for their relationship to run its course. Eventually they married; he later said that he had married with a sense of unease. If the pregnancy had never happened, they probably would have drifted apart and never married, but at this point he owed her. She never did get her degree, so she moved to Bern and became a housewife, waiting hungrily for him to come home every day so they could talk about physics. That worked for a few years, and they were very productive years, especially 1905, which has been called his annus mirabilis in which he published his relativity paper as well as another very important paper on the quantum theory of light, among others. After 1905 he was on his way to becoming a big deal in physics, and he was more and more involved with physicists outside the home. People started coming to see him and he started going to visit them. He eventually left the patent office, and got a university job, and Mileva tagged along for several more years, but he pretty much forced her out of the vital center of his life, that is to say, physics.

Having said, all this, I should say that many women, including scientists who have no particular ax to grind about who invented relativity, have told me that they find Mileva's story chilling. The fact that she never got her degree, never got to do science, was shunted aside into housework and eventually forgotten by history — her grave in Zurich is even unmarked. They take it as an object lesson, an all too-familiar story.

EDGE: Let's move on to Elsa? Or was there a period in between?

OVERBYE: In 1912 Einstein took a trip to Berlin, during which he had a reunion with his cousin Elsa, whom he had known as a child. Elsa was related to him in two different ways. She was a first cousin through his mother and a second cousin through his father. In fact, Albert might have had something going with Elsa's sister Paula when they were kids; there 's some reference in his letters to Elsa about Paula:, "Whoever she has not lied to has not known bliss. You can't blame me; we were young and she was willing." But that 's all I know about Paula.

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