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Even Einstein Was a Fool in Love

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Albert Einstein and his first wife, Mileva Marić

Albert Einstein and his first wife, Mileva Marić. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

NEW YORK—When it came to relationships, Albert Einstein was no Einstein. In fact, the famous genius’s romantic entanglements could rival the dysfunction of a typical Jerry Springer guest. That’s one takeaway of the performance piece “Dear Albert,” based on Einstein’s letters, which kicked off the World Science Festival on May 28. The staged reading, written by actor and science supporter Alan Alda, featured Cynthia Nixon, Paul Rudd and Francesca Faridany at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.

One of the most striking revelations of “Dear Albert” is just how messy, naïve and obtuse—in short, how human—Einstein’s dealings with women were. He clearly loved his first wife, Mileva Marić, writing to her before they wed, “I feel alone with everyone except you.” Yet that love eventually soured, in part because of his devotion to his work. “He lives only for [science],” Marić wrote to a friend. “We are unimportant to him and take second place.”

Eventually Einstein pleaded for a divorce, but Marić refused. He issued a shockingly pigheaded ultimatum, agreeing to live with her if she promised to clean the house, do his laundry, serve him three meals a day in his room, expect no physical intimacy, and “stop talking to me if I request it.” To this set of demands Marić, equally shockingly, agreed. But even that détente did not work out, and the two finally divorced in 1919.

By this time Einstein had been carrying on an affair with his first cousin, Elsa Einstein, for about seven years. Yet when he finally achieved his divorce—something he and Elsa had written longingly about for years—he briefly considered marrying Elsa’s daughter, Ilse, instead. Ultimately that didn’t happen, and Albert and Elsa were married within four months of his divorce.

Their marriage was certainly more successful than his first, although Elsa, too, felt the strain of her husband’s fame and dedication to physics. “I find him wonderful, although life with him is exhausting and complicated,” she wrote. Even he admitted that his work came first. “I sold myself, body and soul, to science,” he wrote to a friend.

In the end, the fact that Einstein struggled just as much as the rest of us in love—perhaps more than most—might be comforting. No one’s good at everything. “He couldn’t have had a more chaotic personal life,” Alda said during a discussion following the play. And perhaps, he suggested, this personal chaos was part of what drove Einstein to search so hard for simplicity and truth in nature.

Clara Moskowitz About the Author: Clara Moskowitz is Scientific American's associate editor covering space and physics. Follow on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Aiya-Oba 12:40 pm 06/2/2014

    Everyone is relative incompleteness of absolute completeness.-Aiya-Oba (Philosopher).

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  2. 2. M Tucker 6:45 pm 06/2/2014

    Marić refused to give him a divorce. Perhaps his “shockingly pigheaded ultimatum” was designed to force her to grant the divorce. According to Walter Isaacson she did not agree to his ultimatum. In any case Einstein finally promised her his cash award if he was to eventually win a Nobel Prize. Marić took that deal and she eventually saw that money in 1921.

    According to Isaacson, Einstein had dalliances with other women while he was married to Elsa. I have no way to verify that but they lived together for 17 years until her death in 1936. Today is the anniversary of their wedding.

    I think it is wrong to confuse professional excellence with personal or moral or ethical excellence. Einstein was “just this guy you know” who had an outstanding mind for physics.

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  3. 3. SergeiBurkov 8:57 pm 06/2/2014

    And it was not the end of the story. After Elsa Einstein got a mistress, Margarita Konenkova, a Russian spy and wife of a famous Russian sculptor Sergey Konenkov. She even tried to recruit him for the KGB, unsuccessfully. During the McCarthy purges the Konenkovs fled to Russia, where Mr. Konenkov became Stalin’s lackey — chairman of the Union of the Soviet Artists, Communist Labor Hero, etc.

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  4. 4. aaanouel 3:50 pm 06/3/2014

    Is there any nerd who isn’t? LOL!

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  5. 5. Primus 10:25 am 06/5/2014

    Mileva Maric,was a mathematician. Her contribution in Eistein’s work is absolutely.Humanity should be gratefully to this great woman.

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  6. 6. elautin 7:32 pm 06/5/2014

    “The top of a man thinks, the bottom half governs.” Albert Einstein.
    Does this approach the profundity of E=MC2? Such was the advice of a middle aged Einstein to a 22 year old Peter Bucky (Who was having relationship problems with his girlfriend.)

    “My divorce took longer than the War.” (World War 1)

    How many of us have had similar problems with our divorces/

    When returning home from school in Switzerland to his family in Northern Italy Einstein was chastised by his mother Pauling Einstein for having a relationship with that non-Jewish (goyim), older girl, from rural nowhere in the Balkans, with a clubfoot. Einstein’s mother then sent a series of scathing letters to the mother of that Hungarian girl who was taking advantage of her son.

    To no avail…
    A daughter born out of wedlock with his fellow physics student and then girlfriend Mileva Marić,

    Two sons were the result of the later marriage. The girl born out of wedlock, who knows? Possible adopted. One of their sons, Hans Albert, became a successful hydraulic engineer—although perhaps no Einstein (Wait he was an Einstein). The other son severely mentally troubled (Schizophrenic or manic depressive?).
    In the divorce agreement Albert agreed to give all the money from his Noble prize to Mileva. It was assumed he would win the Noble.

    When Einstein won the Nobel Prize, not for relativity, but for explaining the photoelectric effect. (Helping give birth to Quantum Mechanics—which Einstein did not believe in.) When Mileva received the money she bought a house (poor investment) and spent much of the rest to protect herself from her increasing violent son, later institutionalized for the rest of his life. (Genius and mentally ill are not so far apart.)

    Albert Einstein and Hans Albert Einstein did not get along, even after both moved to the United States.

    Yes, Albert Einstein is the ultimate figure in Twentieth Century Physics (probably the ONLY scientist that most people can name) but he was very human.

    When he was offered the Presidency of Israel, Einstein turned it down, much to the relief of many. In Einstein’s response letter to the offer he said, “All my life I have dealt with objective matters, hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official functions. For these reasons alone I should be unsuited to fulfill the duties of that high office, even if advancing age was not making increasing inroads on my strength.” At least Einstein knew his failings.

    In the marriage type of relativity, Albert was no Einstein. In divorce Albert was like the everyman. At least he had the universe to escape into.

    (From my book, The Real Marriage Penalty.” Everett Lautin

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  7. 7. Fireside 8:32 pm 06/5/2014

    Mid-East oil was an important concern in WW2, enough for FDR to promise the Saudi’s that we’d ensure Palestinian rights after the war. But, then Truman was asked why he ignore Palestinians, his response was: “Jews vote and Arabs don’t.” OK.
    So, was Einstein and agent of influence, like Lindberg had been with his reports of overwhelming Nazi air power?

    We associate Einstein with the theory of relativity and brilliance, but apparently Nobel committee didn’t because he never won a Nobel prize for the theory of relativity — no did. His Nobel was for the photo electric effect which (incidentally) the Nazis used to shoot down US bombers. [The ME163 rocket powered "Comet" had upward firing guns in its wing roots that were triggered when the Comet raced beneath the bomber and encountered its shadow.]

    And what is so spectacular about E=MC2?
    When Albert Michaelson “failed” to measure the absolute velocity of the Earth through the “ether”, he stumbled on the absolute speed of light. That made V2 a constant in the kinetic energy equation, which made E=M.

    The physics world buzzed over that one at the time. The big question was where to look for it of something so stunning, and the place chemists found it was in the mass defect of the binding curve of elements. That was a pretty impressive achievement — making that curve.

    It is odd that Albert had a lot of difficulty adjusting to Quantum theory (and doing tensor math) — which is associated with the area of physics for which he did get a Nobel prize.

    Re: Meliva’s money — She got the interest from Albert’s award, not the prize money.

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