Albert Einstein is remembered as one of the most important scientists of all time, but what do we know about his wife? Not enough, according to author Marie Benedict, whose novel The Other Einstein came out in October. In the book, Benedict combines extensive research with her novelistic flair, and tells a gripping and inspiring story about Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Marić. Here, Benedict chats with Bookish about the power of persistence, the importance of women in history, and Mileva herself. Still want more? Enter to win a signed copy of the book below!
Bookish: The Other Einstein tells the previously untold story of Mileva Marić, Albert Einstein’s first wife. Who are other women, forgotten by history, that you think readers should learn more about?
Marie Benedict: In every facet of the past, women have served in critical roles, but, because men have written the history books until recently, the part that one-half the world’s population played has not been highlighted. As a result, the list of women forgotten by history whose stories I would like to tell is enormous!
If I had to narrow my list to key forgotten women of science—and not include women who played important parts in the arts, culture and politics—I would say: Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician from the 1800s often regarded as the first computer programmer (although she has recently received some focus, she still isn’t widely known); Lisa Meitner, an Austrian physicist who worked on the first discoveries of nuclear fission 1920s and 1930s; Rosalind Franklin, an English chemist from the mid 1900s who contributed to the understanding of DNA; Sofia Kovalevskaya, the first major Russian female mathematician from the late 1800s; Nettie Stevens, an American biologist from the mid-1800s who discovered how sex was genetically determined, Mary Somerville, a Scottish astronomer from the 1800s… and the list goes on and on! A terrific resource to learn more about ALL forgotten women is Women You Should Know.
Bookish: What is the most surprising thing you learned about Mileva through your research?
MB: Mileva was born with a congenital hip defect that caused her not only to limp quite noticeably but also to endure chronic pain. Now, this may sound like a rather odd thing about a person to single out, but the far-ranging impact this hip defect had upon Mileva’s life is astonishing. In her particular Eastern Europe culture, if a woman had a physical defect like Mileva’s hip, this meant that she was unmarriageable. So, from the time Mileva was an infant, her parents assumed that she would remain single her entire life. For most girls in her culture, this meant they were relegated to the home, with a future of caring for their aging parents. But Mileva’s father acknowledged Mileva’s unusual intelligence. And because he presumed she would never marry, he cultivated her learning and advocated for her education, something that was ordinarily illegal in their area of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So for Mileva, her hip defect was a curse but also a blessing in that it was her ticket to an education.
Bookish: You learned a lot about Mileva through her correspondence with Albert. How did reading her letters shape the way you wrote her voice?
MB: Oh, I felt like I grew to know the youthful Mileva by reading her letters! The way she wrote and the topics she discussed certainly displayed her fierce intelligence, elegant thinking, and wide array of interests. But Mileva’s letters also revealed her innocence in the realm of relationships of all types. Having borne the stigma of her hip defect all her life, by the time she reached university, she was new to the world of friendships and, especially, love. Her letters disclosed her very sensitive, plaintive inner emotional life along with her pervasive self-doubt. By diving into those letters and, consequently, her feelings, I began to understand how her emotional naiveté could have led to her tolerance of otherwise unacceptable behaviors from Albert, and ultimately, to the marginalization of her scientific career.
Bookish: What is it about Mileva that you most admire?
MB: Mileva was incredibly tenacious. She had to maintain unshakeable perseverance in order to overcome the hurdles she faced to gain admittance to a university physics program, such as her physical defect, her Eastern European heritage (which would have been considered unfavorable in light of the then-prevalent Germanic ideal), her gender, and the laws which made it illegal for a women to attend high school, not to mention university. That same tenacity was necessary for her to thrive and adapt when a pregnancy and the subsequent failure of her final exams derailed her scientific dreams.
Bookish: You’ve said that the goal of your writing is to give readers “a new lens through which to view history.” How has your own writing changed the way you view history?
MB: Because my writing focuses on excavating untold stories from the past, I feel like I cannot read a history book, examine a historical artifact, stroll through a museum, or even read the newspaper as I did before. It’s almost as if I’ve developed a specialized antenna that never turns off and hears the voices from the past that have been silenced.
Bookish: Even today, scientists are debating how much Mileva contributed to Albert’s work. Do you ever think we will learn the true extent of the work she did?
MB: I think it possible that new evidence might emerge that will shed light on the precise role that Mileva played in Albert’s theories, obviating the need for my personal combination of fiction and logic to fill in the gaps in our understanding. For example, an extant letter between Mileva or Albert and a friend during this time period could always surface, not unlike the letter between Albert and his son Eduard that recently went on the auction block in Boston, or an earlier draft of one of the four quintessential physics papers published in 1905 under Albert’s name might be found in someone’s attic. Until that time, however, we will have to imagine the full extent of Mileva’s contribution and draw conclusions based on references in their letters to their shared scientific projects and their mutual passion for physics—as well as the fact that they sat across the dinner table from one another night after night during Albert Einstein’s most prolific period.
Bookish: What would your advice be to girls and women who want to pursue a career in science?
MB: While women’s ability to participate in the sciences and to receive their rightful credit for their contributions has grown since the days of Mileva Marić, improvement is still necessary. I would advise women and girls to seek out mentoring and guidance from one of the many wonderful organizations formed recently to foster women in the sciences. Among the growing number of groups dedicated to this purpose are: Girl Who Code, Physics Girl, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, Women of Silicon Valley, National Girls Collaborative Project, FIRST, and recently, Melinda Gates announced that one of her new goals was the empowerment of women and girls in the sciences, technology in particular. The future for women in the sciences is looking brighter.
Marie Benedict is a lawyer with more than ten years’ experience as a litigator at two of the country’s premier law firms. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Boston College with a focus in History and Art History, and a cum laude graduate of the Boston University School of Law. While practicing as a lawyer, Marie dreamed of a fantastical job unearthing the hidden historical stories of women—and finally found it when she tried her hand at writing. She embarked on a new, narratively connected series of historical novels with The Other Einstein, which tells the tale of Albert Einstein’s first wife, a physicist herself, and the role she might have played in his theories. Writing as Heather Terrell, Marie also published the historical novels The Chrysalis, The Map Thief, and Brigid of Kildare.
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