Was Einstein a plagiarist?

December 24, 2004

Dear Cecil:

Was Einstein a plagiarist? Several articles have been written saying he was. What do you think?

Cecil replies:

This letter will raise two questions in the mind of the average reader:

1. You mean to tell me that in 1905, when Albert Einstein published his groundbreaking paper, there were, assuming that every cribber requires a cribbee, two people on the planet who understood the theory of special relativity?

2. Never mind plagiarism — whatever happened to Einstein's brain, which, when discussed in this column in 1987, was housed in a cardboard box in a doctor's office outside Kansas City, Missouri?

Patience — we'll address both matters. Plagiarism first.

Questions of priority have long swirled around the theories of relativity, both special and general. Though no one thinks Einstein confected special relativity out of thin air, his 1905 paper had no notes or references, which was odd even for the times. In fact, as Einstein's critics long ago demonstrated, virtually all the better-known elements of the theory — most famously, the equivalence of matter and energy (E = mc²) — had previously been suggested by others. Two men in particular, French mathematician Henri Poincare and Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz, are credited with anticipating many of Einstein's discoveries.

Some latter-day writers have seized on these observations as proof that Einstein was a fraud, notably Christopher Jon Bjerknes, author of Albert Einstein: The Incorrigible Plagiarist (2002). The gist of his argument: (a) Einstein got many of his ideas from his first wife, Mileva Maric; (b) Maric herself plagiarized her ideas from others; and (c) the theory is a crock anyway. Clearly, some aspects of Bjerknes's attack operate at cross-purposes — if relativity is fatally flawed, who cares if it was pirated? More importantly, though he seems to have unearthed every remark ever penned that could conceivably be construed as undercutting Einstein's contribution, he never manages to demonstrate that Einstein ventured over the line between building on other people's work and stealing it.

Still, you ask, given that Big Al was just one of a bunch of scientists sniffing around the same turf at the same time, why did the Smartest Person Ever trophy go to him and not one of his contemporaries? Poincare, for instance, gave a prescient lecture in 1904 (Einstein doesn't seem to have been aware of it) that posited many aspects of special relativity, among them the idea that the speed of light was an impassable limit. So illuminatingly did he dilate on the issues that one historian of science professes bafflement that Poincare failed to invent the theory of special relativity himself.

But he didn't. His comments make it clear he was still wedded to classical physics, with its comforting notion of space and time as unchanging verities. Einstein alone was able to make the conceptual leap and realize that space and time were about as immutable as Silly Putty, paving the way for our modern view of the cosmos as a profoundly strange place.

While one doesn't want to deprecate Einstein's intellectual boldness, the fact remains he put together a puzzle all the pieces of which were then in plain sight. He himself conceded that had he not invented the theory someone else would soon have done so. (He thought the theory of general relativity, which he completed in 1915, was a more impressive achievement — although even there, controversy still rages about who first deduced the crucial equations, Einstein or German mathematician David Hilbert.) This isn't to say Einstein was unworthy of the esteem in which he continues to be held — merely that, like every other physicist who ever lived, he stood on the shoulders of giants.

Having addressed the sublime, we now turn to the pathetic. When I last looked into the matter, Einstein's brain was in the possession of Thomas Harvey, who had performed the autopsy when Einstein died at Princeton in 1955. Harvey had kept the brain in hopes of making a rep for himself as a researcher but was unequipped to do more than an elementary examination of the brain himself and too timid to organize a research program involving the heavyweights.

Instead for more than 40 years he just hung on to the thing, which he'd sliced into hundreds of pieces, stored at times in mayonnaise jars. Periodically fending off inquiries from nosy journalists, he bounced around the country, working as a pathologist, a small-town doctor, and finally a factory worker after he failed a medical licensing exam at age 77. Having retired and moved back to New Jersey, Harvey in 1998 donated the brain to the man who held his old job as chief pathologist at the Princeton hospital.

Scientists to whom Harvey lent chunks of the brain published three papers over the years, so I suppose the whole thing wasn't a complete waste. Still, when I shuffle off to that big reading room in the sky, I'm leaving strict instructions: No souvenirs.

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