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Einstein Was a Genius at Treating His Wives Like Shit

Physics is confusing, but it's clear that the Nobel Prize–winning scientist was a selfish, misogynistic philanderer.

Lauren Oyler

Lauren Oyler

Portrait of Einstein in 1935. Photo via Wikipedia

According to Walter Isaacson, whose biography of Albert Einstein, Einstein: His Life and Universe, was published in 2007, studying the life of the iconic Nobel Prize–winning physicist is worthwhile because it "helps us remain in touch with that childlike capacity for wonder." The man who in his youth would refer to himself as "the valiant Swabian" indeed completely changed the way humans understand the universe, and possessed such a passion for physics that his face and wacky hairstyle became symbolic of working hard and achieving your true potential, manifest as inspirational posters hung in high school classrooms. (A popular misconception about Einstein is that he flunked out of high school math; he didn't.) But the German-born scientist is perhaps not the best role model for young STEM students today, unless we want them all to grow up to be volatile misogynistic philanderers.

Einstein's most famous achievement in the arena of physics is the theory of relativity, which for all its elegant simplicity—energy equals mass times the speed of light, squared—took eight years to figure out. His most famous achievement in the arena of treating his wives badly, first discovered in a set of Einstein's letters that was auctioned off in 1996, is the itemized list of "conditions" he wrote for his first wife, Mileva Maric, whom he met while getting his teaching degree. (She was the only woman in their class at Zurich Polytechnic.) While Einstein's intention was to salvage their failing marriage for their children, the list, published in Einstein: His Life and Universe, reads more like a threat. It stipulates, among other demands, that Maric "make sure" Einstein's clothes were always clean; that he received three meals regularly in his room, which she would also keep neat; and that she "undertake not to belittle [him] in front of [their] children, either through words or behavior." As for what Maric could expect in return, the document has a section dedicated to how she should "renounce all personal relations with [Einstein] insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons." This included Maric forgoing his "sitting at home with [her]" and "going out or travelling with [her]" and "not expecting "any intimacy." She was also to stop talking to Einstein and abandon his presence if and when he requested it.

Einstein as a young man working in a patent office in Berne. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

He was also, simply, mean, and in a volatile way that his family and friends could not predict. (Sometimes he was caring, especially towards the beginning of his relationships, or when he made a concentrated effort.) This is a quality that admirers—like the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote a book introducing the theory of relativity in the 1920s—present as kind of noble, evidence of the one-track-minded lonerism that probably contributed to Einstein's genius: "Personal matters never occupied more than odd nooks and crannies in his life," Russell is quoted as saying in The Private Lives of Albert Einstein by Roger Highfield and Paul Carter. Indeed, when Einstein won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921, he gave the prize money to the by-then divorced Maric, in order to provide for their two sons. This may seem, indeed, "valiant," but when the younger Eduard—who was thought to have inherited some of Einstein's genius, but for the arts—was sent to a Swiss psychiatric clinic, Einstein, horrified by Eduard's schizophrenia, never visited him there. Eduard eventually died "in miserable circumstances."

Though we should give Einstein cute points for helping his sons with their geometry homework through the mail before their relationships with him disintegrated, he was also a perpetual philanderer. His long-coming 1913 separation from Maric—who eventually had a nervous breakdown—was at least partially occasioned by Einstein's affair with his cousin, Elsa Einstein Lowenthal. They eventually married. But despite the fact that he had sent Lowenthal letters that simultaneously pined for her presence and shit-talked Maric, calling the latter a woman "of uncommon ugliness" and "an employee whom I cannot fire," he came to treat his formerly beloved Elsa as another unfortunate burden and secretary. According to Highfield and Carter, he exhibited a "casual disregard for her feelings" and engaged in affairs with several younger women.

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Ultimately, Isaacson's claim was right, in a way: It is helpful to study Einstein's biography, because it helps us see how one's admirable lifelong capacity for childlike wonder can be tarnished by one's shitty personality. In his letters and papers, Einstein frequently disavowed his ego and emotions, which, Highfield and Carter argue, probably belied the fact that he was engaging in some serious repression: "It seems to me," wrote C.P. Snow, "that a man has to possess a pretty hefty ego to need to subdue it so totally." Towards the end of his life, at least, it seems he stopped trying to do that so much. In a letter to a childhood friend, the world-renowned genius described himself as a "triumphant survivor of the Nazi period, and of two wives."

To that, we say: Perhaps it helped that he might have beaten one of them.