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Posts Tagged ‘collaboration’

19 December was the 141th anniversary of the birth of Mileva Marić Einstein. But who remembers this brilliant scientist? While her husband, Albert Einstein is celebrated as perhaps the best physicist of the century, one question about his career remains: How much did his first wife contribute to his groundbreaking science? While nobody has been able to credit her with any specific part of his work, their letters and numerous testimonies presented in the books dedicated to her(1-5) provide substantial evidence on how they collaborated from the time they met in 1896 up to their separation in 1914. They depict a couple united by a shared passion for physics, music and for each other. So here is their story.

Mileva Marić was born in Titel in Serbia in 1875. Her parents, Marija Ruzić and Miloš Marić, a wealthy and respected member of his community, had two other children: Zorka and Miloš Jr. Mileva attended high school the last year girls were admitted in Serbia. In 1892, her father obtained the authorization of the Minister of Education to allow her to attend physics lectures reserved to boys. She completed her high school in Zurich in 1894 and her family then moved to Novi Sad. Mileva’s classmates described her as brilliant but not talkative. She liked to get to the bottom of things, was perseverant and worked towards her goals.

Albert Einstein was born in Ulm in Germany in 1879 and had one sister Maja. His father, Hermann, was an industrial. His mother, Pauline Koch came from a rich family. Albert was inquisitive, bohemian and rebel. Being undisciplined, he hated the rigor of German schools so he too finished his high school in Switzerland and his family relocated to Milan.


Mileva Marić in 1896 when she entered the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich

Albert and Mileva were admitted to the physics-mathematics section of the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich (now ETH) in 1896 with three other students: Marcel Grossmann, Louis Kollros and Jakob Ehrat. Albert and Mileva became inseparable, spending countless hours studying together. He attended only a few lectures, preferring to study at home. Mileva was methodical and organized. She helped him channel his energy and guided his studies as we learn from Albert’s letters, exchanged between 1899-1903 during school holidays: 43 letters from Albert to Mileva have been preserved but only 10 of hers remain(5). These letters provide a first-hand account on how they interacted at the time.

In August 1899, Albert wrote to Mileva: « When I read Helmholtz for the first time, it seemed so odd that you were not at my side and today, this is not getting better. I find the work we do together very good, healing and also easier.” Then on 2 October 1899, he wrote from Milan: “… the climate here does not suit me at all, and while I miss work, I find myself filled with dark thoughts – in other words, I miss having you nearby to kindly keep me in check and prevent me from meandering”.

Mileva boarded in a pension for women where she met her life-long friends Helene Kaufler-Savić and Milana Bota. Both spoke of Albert’s continuous presence at Mileva’s place, where he would come freely to borrow books in Mileva’s absence. Milan Popović, Helene’s grandson, published the letters Mileva exchanged with her throughout her life(4).

 By the end of their classes in 1900, Mileva and Albert had similar grades (4.7 and 4.6, respectively) except in applied physics where she got the top mark of 5 but he, only 1. She excelled at experimental work while he did not. But at the oral exam, Professor Minkowski gave 11 out of 12 to the four male students but only 5 to Mileva. Only Albert got his degree.

Meanwhile, Albert’s family strongly opposed their relationship. His mother was adamant. “By the time you’re 30, she’ll already be an old hag!” as Albert reported to Mileva in a letter dated 27 July 1900, as well as « She cannot enter a respectable family ”. Mileva was neither Jewish, nor German. She had a limp and was too intellectual in his mother’s opinion, not to mention prejudices against foreign people. Moreover, Albert’s father insisted his son found work before getting married.

In September 1900, Albert wrote to Mileva: “I look forward to resume our new common work. You must now continue with your research – how proud I will be to have a doctor for my spouse when I’ll only be an ordinary man.“ They both came back to Zurich in October 1900 to start their thesis work. The other three students all received assistant positions at the Institute, but Albert did not. He suspected that professor Weber was blocking him. Without a job, he refused to marry her. They made ends meet by giving private lessons and “continue[d] to live and work as before.“ as Mileva wrote to her friend Helene Savić.

On 13 December 1900, they submitted a first article on capillarity signed only under Albert’s name. Nevertheless, both referred to this article in letters as their common article. Mileva wrote to Helene Savić on 20 December 1900. We will send a private copy to Boltzmann to see what he thinks and I hope he will answer us.” Likewise, Albert wrote to Mileva on 4 April 1901, saying that his friend Michele Besso “visited his uncle on my behalf, Prof. Jung, one of the most influential physicists in Italy and gave him a copy of our article.”

The decision to publish only under his name seems to have been taken jointly. Why? Radmila Milentijević, a former history professor at City College in New York, published in 2015 Mileva’s most comprehensive biography(1). She suggests that Mileva probably wanted to help Albert make a name for himself, such that he could find a job and marry her. Dord Krstić, a former physics professor at Ljubljana University, spent 50 years researching Mileva’s life. In his well-documented book(2), he suggests that given the prevalent bias against women at the time, a publication co-signed with a woman might have carried less weight.

We will never know. But nobody made it clearer than Albert Einstein himself that they collaborated on special relativity when he wrote to Mileva on 27 March 1901: “How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a victorious conclusion.”

 Then Mileva’s destiny changed abruptly. She became pregnant after a lovers’ escapade in Lake Como. Unemployed, Albert would still not marry her. With this uncertain future, Mileva took her second and last attempt at the oral exam in July 1901. This time, Prof. Weber, whom Albert suspected of blocking his career, failed her. Forced to abandon her studies, she went back to Serbia, but came back briefly to Zurich to try to persuade Albert to marry her. She gave birth to a girl named Liserl in January 1902. No one knows what happened to her. She was probably given to adoption. No birth or death certificates were ever found.

Earlier in December 1901, their classmate Marcel Grossman’s father intervened to get Albert a post at the Patent Office in Bern. He started work in June 1902. In October, before dying, his father granted him his permission to marry. Albert and Mileva married on 6 January 1903. Albert worked 8 hours a day, 6 days a week at the Patent Office while Mileva assumed the domestic tasks. In the evenings, they worked together, sometimes late in the night. Both mentioned this to friends, he to Hans Wohlwend, she to Helene Savić on 20 March 1903 where she expressed how sorry she was to see Albert working so hard at the office. On 14 May 1904, their son Hans-Albert was born.


Mileva and Albert’s wedding picture in 1903

Despite this, 1905 is now known as Albert’s “miracle year”: he published five articles: one on the photoelectric effect (which led to the 1921 Nobel Prize), two on Brownian motion, one on special relativity and the famous E = mc2. He also commented on 21 scientific papers for a fee and submitted his thesis on the dimensions of molecules. Much later, Albert told R. S. Shankland(6) that relativity had been his life for seven years and the photoelectric effect, for five years. Peter Michelmore, one of his biographers(7), wrote that after having spent five weeks to complete the article containing the basis of special relativity, Albert “went to bed for two weeks. Mileva checked the article again and again, and then mailed it”. Exhausted, the couple made the first of three visits to Serbia where they met numerous relatives and friends, whose testimonies provide a wealth of information on how Albert and Mileva collaborated.

Mileva’s brother, Miloš Jr, a person known for his integrity, stayed on several occasions with the Einstein family while studying medicine in Paris. Krstić(2) wrote: “[Miloš] described how during the evenings and at night, when silence fell upon the town, the young married couple would sit together at the table and at the light of a kerosene lantern, they would work together on physics problems. Miloš Jr. spoke of how they calculated, wrote, read and debated.” Krstić heard this directly from relatives of Mileva, Sidonija Gajin and Sofija Galić Golubović.

Zarko Marić, a cousin of Mileva’s father, lived in the countryside property where the Einsteins stayed during their visit. He told Krstić how Mileva calculated, wrote and worked with Albert. The couple often sat in the garden to discuss physics. Harmony and mutual respect prevailed. Gajin and Zarko Marić also reported hearing from Mileva’s father that during the Einstein’s visit to Novi Sad in 1905, Mileva confided to him: “Before our departure, we finished an important scientific work which will make my husband known around the world.” Krstić got this same information in 1961 from Mileva’s cousin, Sofija Galić Golubović, who was present when Mileva said it to her father.


Mileva, Albert and their son Hans-Albert in 1905

Desanka Trbuhović-Gjurić published Mileva’s first biography in Serbian in 1969(3). It later appeared in German and French. She described how Mileva’s brother often hosted gatherings of young intellectuals at his place. During one of these evenings, Albert would have declared: “I need my wife. She solves for me all my mathematical problems”, something Mileva is said to have confirmed.

In 1908, the couple constructed with Conrad Habicht an ultra-sensitive voltmeter. Trbuhović-Gjurić attributes this experimental work to Mileva and Conrad, and wrote: “When they were both satisfied, they left to Albert the task of describing the apparatus, since he was a patent expert.” It was registered under the Einstein-Habicht patent. When Habicht questioned Mileva’s choice not to include her name, she replied making a pun in German: “Warum? Wir beide sind nur ein Stein.“ (“Why? The two of us are but one stone”, meaning, we are one entity).

The first recognition came in 1908. Albert gave unpaid lectures in Bern, then was offered his first academic position in Zurich in 1909. Mileva was still assisting him. Eight pages of Albert’s first lecture notes are in her handwriting. So is a letter drafted in 1910 in reply to Max Planck who had sought Albert’s opinion. Both documents are kept in the Albert Einstein Archives (AEA) in Jerusalem. On 3 September 1909, Mileva confided to Helene Savić: “He is now regarded as the best of the German-speaking physicists, and they give him a lot of honours. I am very happy for his success, because he fully deserves it; I only hope and wish that fame does not have a harmful effect on his humanity.” Later, she added: “With all this fame, he has little time for his wife. […] What is there to say, with notoriety, one gets the pearl, the other the shell.”


Mileva and Albert in 1910.

Their second son, Eduard, was born on 28 July 1910. Up to 1911, Albert still sent affectionate postcards to Mileva. But in 1912, he started an affair with his cousin, Elsa Löwenthal while visiting his family who had moved to Berlin. They maintained a secret correspondence over two years. Elsa kept 21 of his letters, now in the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. During this period, Albert held various faculty positions first in Prague, back in Zurich and finally in Berlin in 1914 to be closer to Elsa.

This caused their marriage’s collapse. Mileva moved back to Zurich with her two sons on 29 July 1914. In 1919, she agreed to divorce, with a clause stating that if Albert ever received the Nobel Prize, she would get the money. When she did, she bought two small apartment buildings and lived poorly from their income. Her son, Eduard stayed frequently in a sanatorium. He later developed schizophrenia and was eventually internalised. Due to these medical expenses, Mileva struggled financially all her life and eventually lost both buildings. She survived by giving private lessons and on the alimony Albert sent, albeit irregularly.

In 1925, Albert wrote in his will that the Nobel Prize money was his sons’ inheritance. Mileva strongly objected, stating the money was hers and considered revealing her contributions to his work. Radmila Milentijević quote from a letter Albert sent her on 24 October 1925 (AEA 75-364). ”You made me laugh when you started threatening me with your recollections. Have you ever considered, even just for a second, that nobody would ever pay attention to your says if the man you talked about had not accomplished something important. When someone is completely insignificant, there is nothing else to say to this person but to remain modest and silent. This is what I advise you to do.

Mileva remained silent but her friend Milana Bota told a Serbian newspaper in 1929 that they should talk to Mileva to find out about the genesis of special relativity, since she was directly involved. On 13 June 1929, Mileva wrote to Helene Savić: ”Such publications in newspapers do not suit my nature at all, but I believe that all that was for Milana’s joy, and that she probably thought that this would also be a joy for me, as I can only suppose that she wanted to help me receive some public rights with regard to Einstein. She has written to me in that way, and I let it be accepted that way, for otherwise the whole thing would be nonsense.”


Mileva later on (unknown date)

According to Krstić(2), Mileva spoke of her contributions to her mother and sister. She also wrote to her godparents explaining how she had always collaborated with Albert and how he had ruined her life, but asked them to destroy the letter. Her son, Hans-Albert, told Krstić(2) how his parents’ “scientific collaboration continued into their marriage, and that he remembered seeing [them] work together in the evenings at the same table.” Hans-Albert’s first wife, Frieda, tried to publish the letters Mileva and Albert had sent to their sons but was blocked in court by the Einstein’s Estate Executors, Helen Dukas and Otto Nathan in an attempt to preserve the “Einstein’s myth”. They prevented other publications, including one from Krstić(2) on his early findings in 1974. Krstić mentions that Nathan even “visited” Mileva’s apartment after her death in 1948. On July 1947, Albert wrote to Dr Karl Zürcher, his divorce lawyer: “When Mileva will no longer be there, I’ll be able to die in peace.”

 Their letters and the numerous testimonies show that Mileva Marić and Albert Einstein collaborated closely from their school days up to 1914. Albert referred to it repeatedly in his letters, like when he wrote: « our work on relative motion”. Their union was based on love and mutual respect, which allowed them together to produce such uncommon work. She was the first person to recognize his talent. Without her, he would never have succeeded. She abandoned her own aspirations, happy to work with him and contribute to his success, feeling they were one unique entity. Once started, the process of signing their work under his unique name became impossible to reverse. She probably agreed to it since her own happiness depended on his success. Why did Mileva remain silent? Being reserved and self-effaced, she did not seek honors or public attention. And as is always the case in close collaborations, the individual contributions are nearly impossible to disentangle.

Pauline Gagnon

This article first appeared in Scientific American as an Opinion piece

To find out more about particle physics and dark matter, check out my book « Who Cares about Particle Physics: making sense of the Higgs boson, the Large Hadron Collider and CERN ».

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(1) Radmila Milentijević: Mileva Marić Einstein: Life with Albert Einstein, United World Press, 2015.

(2) Dord Krstić: Mileva & Albert Einstein: Their Love and Scientific Collaboration, Didakta, 2004.

(3) Desanka Trbuhović-Gjurić: Mileva Marić Einstein: In Albert Einstein’s shadow: in Serbian, 1969, German, 1982, and French, 1991.

(4) Milan Popović: In Albert’s Shadow, the Life and Letters of Mileva Marić, Einstein’s First Wife, The John Hopkins University Press, 2003.

(5) Renn and Schulmann, Albert Einstein / Mileva Marić, The Love Letters, Princeton University Press, 1992.

(6) Peter Michelmore, Einstein, Profile of the Man, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1962.

(7) R.S. Shankland, Conversation with Albert Einstein, Am. J. of Physics, 1962.


Le 19 décembre a marqué le 141ième anniversaire de naissance de Mileva Marić Einstein. Mais qui se souvient de cette brillante physicienne? Alors que son mari, Albert Einstein, est célébré comme étant peut-être le meilleur physicien du siècle, une ombre demeure sur sa carrière: quelles furent les contributions de sa première femme à son oeuvre scientifique? Même si personne n’a encore pu déterminer ses contributions exactes à son travail, leurs lettres et les nombreuses preuves présentées dans les livres consacrés à Mileva Marić(1-5) nous éclairent hors de tout doute sur la façon dont ils ont collaboré depuis leur rencontre en 1896 jusqu’à leur séparation en 1914. L’ensemble de ces documents dépeint le tableau d’un couple uni par une passion mutuelle pour la physique, la musique et l’un pour l’autre. Voici leur histoire.

Mileva Marić est née à Titel en Serbie en 1875. Ses parents, Marija Ruzić et Miloš Marić, un homme riche et respecté dans sa communauté, eurent deux autres enfants: Zorka et Miloš Jr. Mileva fréquenta l’école secondaire la dernière année où les filles y étaient encore admises. En 1892, son père obtint une autorisation du Ministre de l’Éducation pour qu’elle puisse assister aux cours de physique alors réservés qu’aux garçons. Elle compléta son secondaire à Zurich en 1894, date à laquelle sa famille déménagea à Novi Sad. Ses camarades de classe décrivirent Mileva comme étant brillante, mais peu bavarde. Elle aimait aller au fond de choses, était persévérante et marchait droit au but.

Albert Einstein est né à Ulm en Allemagne en 1879 et n’avait qu’une sœur, Maja. Hermann, son père, était un industriel et sa mère, Pauline Koch, était issue d’une famille riche. Albert était curieux, bohème et rebelle. Indiscipliné de nature, il détestait la rigueur des écoles allemandes et alla finir ses études secondaires en Suisse. Sa famille déménagea alors à Milan.

Mileva Marić en 1896 lorsqu’elle fut admise à l’Institut Polytechnique de Zurich

En 1896, Albert et Mileva furent admis dans la section de mathématiques et physique de l’Institut Polytechnique à Zurich (maintenant l’ETH) avec trois autres étudiants: Marcel Grossmann, Louis Kollros et Jakob Ehrat. Albert et Mileva devinrent vite inséparables, étudiant sans cesse ensemble. Il n’assista qu’à quelques cours, préférant étudier par lui-même. Mileva était méthodique et très organisée. Elle l’aidait à canaliser son énergie et guidait ses lectures comme nous le révèlent leurs lettres, échangées entre 1899 et 1903 durant les congés scolaires: 43 lettres d’Albert à Mileva ont été préservées mais seulement 10 lettres de Mileva subsistent(5). Ces lettres fournissent un témoignage direct sur la façon dont ils interagissaient à l’époque.

En août 1899, Albert écrit à Mileva : « Quand j’ai lu Helmholtz pour la première fois, il me semblait tout à fait inconcevable que tu ne sois pas à mes côtés et aujourd’hui, ça ne s’améliore pas. Je trouve le travail que nous faisons en commun très bon, curatif et aussi moins ardu.” Le 2 octobre 1899, il lui écrivit de Milan : “… le climat ici ne me convient pas du tout et, un certain travail me manquant, je me laisse aller à ruminer des idées noires – bref, je vois et sens que votre bienfaisante férule ne plane plus au-dessus de moi pour m’empêcher de divaguer “.

Mileva logeait dans une pension pour jeunes femmes où elle rencontra ses amies Helene Kaufler-Savić et Milana Bota. Toutes deux témoignèrent de la présence constante d’Albert chez Mileva, où il venait librement y emprunter des livres même en son absence. Milan Popović, le petit-fils d’Helene, a publié les lettres que Mileva écrivit à Helene tout au long de sa vie(4).

A la fin de leurs cours en 1900, Mileva et Albert avaient des résultats semblables (une moyenne de 4.7 et 4.6, respectivement) sauf en physique appliquée, où elle obtint la note maximale de 5, mais Albert, seulement 1. Elle excellait en travaux pratiques tandis qu’il n’y avait aucun talent. Cependant, lors de leur examen oral, le Professeur Minkowski accorda une note de 11 sur 12 aux quatre étudiants masculins, mais Mileva ne reçut que 5. Tous obtinrent leur diplôme sauf Mileva.

Entre temps, la famille d’Albert s’opposait fortement à leur relation. Sa mère était inflexible. « Quand tu auras 30 ans, elle sera déjà une vieille sorcière! », comme Albert le rapporta à Mileva dans une lettre datée du 27 juillet 1900, de même que “Elle ne peut pas entrer dans une famille convenable“. Mileva n’était ni juive, ni allemande. Elle boitait et était trop intellectuelle de l’avis de sa mère, sans compter les préjugés contre les étrangers. De son côté, le père d’Albert insistait pour que son fils trouve du travail avant de se marier.

En septembre 1900, Albert écrivit à Mileva : « Comme je me réjouis à l’avance de notre nouveau travail conjoint. Tu dois maintenant continuer avec ton investigation – comme je serai fier lorsque j’aurai un docteur comme compagne alors que je serai juste un homme ordinaire. » Les deux revinrent à Zurich en octobre 1900 commencer leur travail de thèse. Les trois autres étudiants se virent tous offrir des postes d’assistants à l’Institut, mais pas Albert. Il soupçonna le professeur Weber de malveillance. Pour joindre les deux bouts, ils donnèrent des leçons privées et « continuèrent à vivre et travailler comme avant », comme Mileva l’écrivit à son amie Helene Savić.

Le 13 décembre 1900, ils soumirent sous le seul nom d’Albert un premier article sur la capillarité. Néanmoins, tous deux référèrent à cet article dans leurs lettres comme leur article commun. Mileva écrivit à Helene Savić le 20 décembre 1900. « Nous enverrons une copie privée à Boltzmann pour voir ce qu’il pense et j’espère qu’il nous répondra. » De même, Albert écrivit à Mileva le 4 avril 1901, disant que son ami Michele Besso « a rendu visite à son oncle en mon nom, le Prof. Jung, un des physiciens les plus influents en Italie et lui a aussi donné une copie de notre article. »

La décision de publier sous le seul nom d’Albert semble avoir été prise en commun. Pourquoi ? Radmila Milentijević, ancienne professeure d’histoire au City College de New York, a publié en 2014 la biographie la plus complète à ce jour sur Mileva(1). Elle suggère que Mileva voulait probablement aider Albert à se faire un nom, pour qu’il puisse trouver un travail et l’épouser. Dord Krstić, ancien professeur de physique à l’Université de Ljubljana, passa près de 50 ans à enquêter sur la vie de Mileva. Dans son livre(2) fort bien documenté, il suggère qu’une publication co-signée avec une femme aurait pu en réduire l’impact étant donné les préjugés sexistes de l’époque.

Nous ne le saurons jamais. Mais personne ne peut être plus clair qu’Albert Einstein sur l’existence de leur collaboration sur la relativité spéciale lorsqu’il écrivit à Mileva le 27 mars 1901 : «Comme je serai heureux et fier quand nous aurons tous les deux ensemble mené notre travail sur le mouvement relatif à une conclusion victorieuse ! »

C’est à ce moment que le destin de Mileva bascula. Suite à une escapade amoureuse au Lac de Côme, elle tomba enceinte. Toujours sans emploi, Albert refuse toujours de l’épouser. C’est avec un avenir on ne peut plus incertain que Mileva tenta sa seconde et dernière chance à l’examen oral en juillet 1901. Cette fois, c’est le professeur Weber, celui qu’Albert soupçonnait de bloquer sa carrière, qui lui refuse la note de passage. Forcée d’abandonner ses études, elle retourna en Serbie, mais revint brièvement à Zurich pour essayer en vain de persuader Albert de l’épouser. Elle donna naissance à une petite fille nommée Liserl en janvier 1902. Personne ne sait ce qui lui est arrivé. Elle fut probablement donnée en adoption. Aucun acte de naissance ou de décès n’a été retrouvé.

Auparavant, en décembre 1901, le père de leur camarade de classe Marcel Grossman obtint pour Albert un poste à l’Office des Brevets à Berne, où il débuta en juin 1902. En octobre, juste avant sa mort, son père lui accorda la permission de se marier. Albert épousa Mileva le 6 janvier 1903. Albert travaillait 8 heures par jour, 6 jours semaine tandis que Mileva assumait les tâches ménagères. En soirée, ils travaillaient ensemble, parfois tard dans la nuit. Les deux le mentionnèrent à des amis, lui à Hans Wohlwend, elle à Helene Savić le 20 mars 1903, se désolant de le voir travailler si dur au bureau. Leur fils Hans-Albert naquit le 14 mai 1904.


Photo de marriage de Mileva et Albert en 1903

Malgré cette charge de travail, 1905 devint « l’année miraculeuse » d’Albert où il publia cinq articles: un sur l’effet photoélectrique (ce qui lui valut le Prix Nobel en 1921), deux sur le mouvement Brownien, un sur la relativité restreinte et un contenant la célèbre équation E = mc2. Il soumit des commentaires sur 21 articles scientifiques contre rémunération de même que sa thèse sur les dimensions des molécules

Bien plus tard, Albert confia à R. S. Shankland(6) que la relativité avait été sa vie pendant sept ans et l’effet photoélectrique, cinq ans. Peter Michelmore, un de ses biographes(7), écrivit qu’après avoir passé cinq semaines à compléter l’article sur la relativité restreinte, Albert « passa deux semaines au lit pendant que Mileva relisait inlassablement l’article avant de le poster ». Épuisé, le couple part en Serbie pour une première de trois visites où ils rencontrèrent de nombreux parents et amis. Les témoignages de ces derniers foisonnent d’information sur la façon dont Albert et Mileva collaboraient à l’époque.

Le frère de Mileva, Miloš Jr, une personne reconnue pour son intégrité, séjourna à plusieurs reprises chez les Einstein durant ses études de médecine à Paris. Krstić(2) écrivit: « [Miloš] décrivit comment en soirée et durant la nuit, quand le silence tombait sur la ville, le jeune couple s’assoyait à la table, et à la lumière d’une lampe au kérosène, travaillait à des problèmes de physique. Miloš Jr. mentionna comment ils calculaient, écrivaient, lisaient et débattaient. » Krstić recueillit ce témoignage directement de la marraine de Mileva, Sidonija Gajin et de sa cousine, Sofija Galić Golubović.

Zarko Marić, un cousin du père de Mileva, vivait dans la maison de campagne où les Einstein séjournèrent durant leurs visites. Il raconta à Krstić comment Mileva calculait, écrivait et travaillait avec Albert. Le couple s’assoyait souvent au jardin pour discuter de physique. L’harmonie et le respect mutuel prévalaient. Gajin et Zarko Marić rapportèrent aussi que le père de Mileva leur confia que lors de la visite des Einstein à Novi Sad en 1905, Mileva lui dit: « Nous venons de terminer un travail de recherche scientifique très important qui va rendre mon mari célèbre. » Krstić récolta les mêmes propos de la cousine de Mileva, Sofija Galić Golubović, qui était présente lorsque Mileva parla à son père.

Desanka Trbuhović-Gjurić a publié la première biographie de Mileva en serbe en 1969(3). Cet ouvrage paru plus tard en allemand puis en français. Elle y décrit comment le frère de Mileva accueillait souvent de jeunes intellectuels chez lui. Lors d’une de ces soirées, Albert aurait déclaré: « J’ai besoin de ma femme. Elle résout pour moi tous mes problèmes mathématiques », fait que Mileva aurait confirmé.

ae_mm_son_1905Mileva et Albert avec leur fils Hans-Albert en 1905

En 1908, le couple construisit avec Conrad Habicht un voltmètre ultrasensible. Trbuhović-Gjurić attribue ce travail expérimental à Mileva et Conrad. Elle écrit : “« Quand [Mileva et Conrad] furent tous les deux satisfaits, ils laissèrent à Albert le soin de décrire cet appareil, en expert des brevets». Ce fut enregistré sous le nom d’Einstein-Habicht. Quand Habicht interrogea Mileva sur son choix de ne pas y inclure son nom, elle répondit en faisant un jeu de mots en allemand : « Warum ? Wir beide sind nur ein Stein. » (Pourquoi ? Nous deux ne sommes qu’une seule pierre”, signifiant, nous ne faisons qu’un.)

La reconnaissance vint enfin en 1908. Albert fut invité à donner des cours non rémunérés à Berne, puis on lui offrit un premier poste académique à Zurich en 1909. Mileva l’aidait toujours. Huit pages des premières notes de cours d’Albert sont rédigées de sa main, de même qu’une lettre écrite en 1910 en réponse à Max Planck qui avait sollicité l’avis d’Albert. Ces deux documents se trouvent dans les Archives d’Albert Einstein (AEA) à Jérusalem. Le 3 septembre 1909, Mileva confia à Helene Savić : « Mon mari […] est maintenant perçu comme le meilleur physicien de langue allemande et on le couvre d’honneur. Je suis très heureuse pour son succès parce qu’il le mérite pleinement; je souhaite simplement et espère que la gloire n’aura pas d’effets adverses sur son humanité. » Plus tard, elle ajouta : « Avec toute cette gloire, il a peu de temps pour sa femme. […] Que peut-on faire, avec la notoriété, une personne reçoit la perle, l’autre la coquille. »


Mileva et Albert en 1910

Leur deuxième fils, Eduard, vint au monde le 28 juillet 1910. Jusqu’à 1911, Albert envoyait toujours des cartes postales affectueuses à Mileva. Mais en 1912, il commença une relation avec sa cousine, Elsa Löwenthal, lors d’une visite à sa famille qui avait déménagé à Berlin. Ils entretinrent une correspondance secrète pendant plus de deux ans. Elsa conserva 21 des lettres d’Albert, qu’on retrouve aujourd’hui dans Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Durant cette période, Albert occupa différents postes de professeur d’abord à Prague, de retour à Zurich et finalement à Berlin en 1914 afin de se rapprocher d’Elsa.

Cela causa l’effondrement de leur mariage. Mileva retourna à Zurich avec ses deux fils le 29 juillet 1914. En 1919, elle consentit à divorcer, exigeant d’inclure une clause dans leur contrat de divorce stipulant que si Albert recevait le Prix Nobel, elle seule obtiendrait l’argent. Lorsqu’elle le reçut, elle acheta deux petits immeubles et vécut maigrement de leurs revenus. Son fils, Eduard séjourna à plusieurs reprises dans un sanatorium. Il souffrit plus tard de schizophrénie et dut finalement être interné. En raison de ces dépenses médicales, Mileva eut de graves soucis financiers toute sa vie et éventuellement perdit les deux immeubles. Elle survécut en donnant des cours particuliers et grâce à la pension alimentaire qu’Albert lui envoyait, bien qu’irrégulièrement.

En 1925, Albert voulut inclure dans son testament que l’argent du Prix Nobel constituait l’héritage de ses fils. Mileva s’y opposa fortement, lui rappelant que cet argent était le sien propre et envisagea de révéler ses contributions au travail d’Albert. Radmila Milentijević cite une lettre qu’Albert lui adressa le 24 octobre 1925 (AEA 75-364). « Mais tu m’as fait vraiment rire quand tu as commencé à me menacer de tes mémoires. T’est-il jamais venu à l’esprit, ne serait-ce qu’une seconde, que personne ne prêterait la moindre attention à tes salades si l’homme dont tu parles n’avait pas accompli quelque chose d’important? Quand une personne est quelqu’un de complètement insignifiant, il n’y a rien d’autre à dire à cette personne que de rester modeste et de se taire. C’est ce que je te conseille de faire. »

Mileva est resté silencieuse mais son amie Milana Bota déclara à un journal serbe en 1929 que Mileva pourrait les renseigner sur l’origine de la relativité restreinte, puisqu’elle y avait directement contribué. Le 13 juin 1929, Mileva écrivit à Helene Savić : « De telles publications dans les journaux ne correspondent pas du tout à ma nature mais je crois que cela a fait plaisir à Milana et qu’elle a probablement pensé que cela me ferait plaisir aussi et que, d’une certaine façon, cela m’aiderait à obtenir certains droits vis-à-vis d’Einstein aux yeux du public. Elle m’a écrit en ce sens, et je l’accepte ainsi, autrement tout cela n’aurait pas beaucoup de sens. »


Mileva Marić quelques années plus tard (date inconnue)

Selon Krstić(2), Mileva parla de ses contributions à sa mère et sa sœur. Elle écrivit aussi à ses parrain et marraine comment elle collabora avec Albert et comment il avait ruiné sa vie, mais leur demanda de détruire sa lettre. Son fils, Hans-Albert, confia à Krstić comment “la collaboration scientifique de ses parents continua après leur mariage et qu’il se rappelait les voir travailler ensemble en soirée à la même table.” La première femme d’Hans-Albert, Frieda, essaya de publier les lettres que Mileva et Albert avaient envoyé à leurs fils, mais fut bloquée en cour par les exécuteurs testamentaires d’Einstein, Helen Dukas et Otto Nathan afin de préserver le « mythe Einstein ». Ils empêchèrent aussi d’autres publications, y compris lorsque Krstić(2) voulu publier ses premières découvertes en 1974. Krstić mentionne que Nathan « visita » même l’appartement de Mileva après sa mort en 1948. En juillet 1947, Albert écrivit au Dr Karl Zürcher, l’avocat qui avait réglé son divorce : « Lorsque Mileva ne sera plus de ce monde, je pourrai mourir en paix. »

Leurs lettres et les nombreux témoignages attestent que Mileva Marić et Albert Einstein collaborèrent étroitement depuis leur rencontre jusqu’à 1914. Albert le mentionna à plusieurs reprises dans ses lettres, comme lorsqu’il écrivit : “notre travail sur mouvement relatif“. Leur union était faite d’amour et de respect mutuel. C’est ce qui leur a permis de produire ensemble un travail hors du commun. Elle fut la première à reconnaître son talent. Sans elle, il n’aurait jamais réussi. Elle abandonna ses propres aspirations, heureuse de travailler avec lui et de contribuer à son succès, sentant qu’ils ne faisaient qu’un. Une fois enclenché, il devint impossible de faire marche arrière sur le processus de signer leur travail sous le seul nom d’Albert. Elle l’avait probablement accepté puisque son propre bonheur dépendait de son succès. Pourquoi Mileva est-elle restée silencieuse? Étant de nature discrète, elle ne recherchait pas les honneurs ou l’attention publique. Et comme dans tous les cas de collaboration étroite, les contributions individuelles de chacun sont presque toujours impossibles à départager.

Pauline Gagnon

Cet article fut d’abord publié en anglais au Magazine Scientific American dans la section Opinions

Pour en savoir plus sur la physique des particules et la matière sombre, consultez mon livre “Qu’est-ce que le boson de Higgs mange en hiver et autres détails essentiels“.

Pour être au courant des nouveaux blogs, suivez-moi sur Twitter: @GagnonPauline ou inscrivez-vous sur cette liste de distribution

Références :
(1) Radmila Milentijević
: Mileva Marić Einstein : Vivre avec Albert Einstein, Éditions L’Age d’Homme, 2014.
(2) Dord Krstić: Mileva & Albert Einstein: Their Love and Scientific Collaboration, Didakta, 2004.

(3) Desanka Trbuhović-Gjurić Mileva Marić Einstein : Dans l’ombre d’Albert Einstein : en serbe, 1969, allemand, 1982 et français, 1991.
(4) Milan Popović: In Albert’s Shadow, the Life and Letters of Mileva Marić, Einstein’s First Wife, The John Hopkins University Press, 2003.

(5) Renn and Schulmann, Albert Einstein / Mileva Marić, The Love Letters, Princeton University Press, 1992.

(6) Peter Michelmore, Einstein, Profile of the Man, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1962.

(7) R.S. Shankland, Conversation with Albert Einstein, Am. J. of Physics, 1962.


Earlier last month, Romania became the 22nd Member State of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, or CERN, home to the world’s most powerful atom-smasher. But the hundred Romanian scientists working on experiments there have already operated under a co-operation agreement with CERN for the last 25 years. So why have Romania decided to commit the money and resources needed to become a full member? Is this just bureaucratic reshuffling or the road to a more fruitful collaboration between scientists?

Image: CERN

On 18th July, Romania became a full member state of CERN. In doing so, it joined twenty one other countries, which over the years have created one of the largest scientific collaborations in the world. Last year, the two largest experimental groups at CERN, ATLAS and CMS, broke the world record for the total number of authors on a research article (detailing the mass of the Higgs Boson).

To meet its requirements for becoming a member, Romania has committed $11mil USD towards the CERN budget this year, three times as much as neighbouring member Bulgaria and more than seven times as much as Serbia, which holds Associate Membership, aiming to follow in Romania’s footsteps. In return, Romania now holds a place on CERN’s council, having a say in all the major research decisions of the ground-breaking organization where the forces of nature are probed, antimatter is created and Higgs Bosons discovered.

Romania’s accession to the CERN convention marks another milestone in the organisation’s history of international participation over the last sixty years. In that time it has built bridges between the members of nations where diplomacy and international relations were less than favourable, uniting researchers from across the globe towards the goal of understanding the universe on its most fundamental level.

CERN was founded in 1954 with the acceptance of its convention by twelve European nations in a joint effort for nuclear research, the year where “nuclear research” included the largest ever thermonuclear detonation by the US in its history and the USSR deliberately testing the effects of nuclear radiation from a bomb on 45,000 of its own soldiers. Despite the Cold War climate and the widespread use of nuclear physics as a means of creating apocalyptic weapons, CERN’s founding convention alongside UNESCO, which member states adhere to today, states:

“The Organization shall provide for collaboration among European States in nuclear research of a pure scientific and fundamental character…The Organization shall have no concern with work for military requirements,”

The provisional Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (European Council for Nuclear Research) was dissolved and its legacy was carried by the labs built and operated under the convention it had laid and the name it bore: CERN. Several years later in 1959, the British director of the Proton Synchrotron division at CERN, John Adams, received a gift of vodka from Soviet scientist Vladimir Nikitin of the Dubna accelerator, just north of Moscow, and at the time the most powerful accelerator in the world. 

The vodka was to be opened in the event the Proton Synchrotron accelerator at CERN was successfully operated at an energy greater than Dubna’s maximum capacity: 10 GeV. It more than doubled the feat, reaching 24 GeV, and with the vodka dutifully polished off, the bottle was stuffed with a photo of the proton beam readout and sent back to Moscow.

John Adams, holding the empty vodka bottle in celebration of the Proton Synchroton’s successful start (Image: CERN-HI-5901881-1 CERN Document Server)

Soviet scientists contributed more than vodka to the international effort in particle physics. Nikitin would later go on to work alongside other soviet and US scientists in a joint effort at Fermilab in 1972. Over the next few decades, ten more member states would join CERN permanently, including Israel, its first non-European member. On top of this, researchers at CERN now join from four associate member nations, four observer states (India, Japan, USA and Russia) and holds a score of cooperation agreements with other non-member states.

While certainly the largest collaboration of this kind, CERN is certainly no longer unique in being a collaborative effort in particle physics. Quantum Diaries is host to the blogs of many experiments all of whom comprise of a highly diverse and internationally sourced research cohort. The synchrotron lab for the Middle East, SESAME, expected to begin operation next year, will involve both the Palestinian and Israeli authorities with hopes it “will foster dialogue and better understanding between scientists of all ages with diverse cultural, political and religious backgrounds,”. It was co-ordinated in part, by CERN.

I have avoided speaking personally so far, but one needs to address the elephant in the room. As a British scientist, I speak from a nation where the dust is only just settling on the decision to cut ties with the European Union, against the wishes of the vast majority of researchers. Although our membership to CERN will remain secure, other projects and our relationship with european collaborators face uncertainty.

While I certainly won’t deign to give my view on the matter of a democratic vote, it is encouraging to take a look back at a fruitful history of unity between nations and celebrate Romania’s new Member State status as a sign that that particle physics community is still, largely an integrated and international one. In the short year that I have been at University College London, I have not yet attended any international conferences, yet have had the pleasure to meet and learn from visiting researchers from all over the globe. As this year’s International Conference on High Energy Physics kicks off this week, (chock-full of 5-σ BSM discovery announcements, no doubt*), there is something comforting in knowing I will be sharing my excitement, frustration and surprise with like-minded graduate students from the world over.

Kind regards to Ashwin Chopra and Daniel Quill of University College London for their corrections and contributions, all mistakes are unreservedly my own.
*this is, obviously, playful satire, except for the case of an announcement in which case it is prophetic foresight.


This article appeared in Fermilab Today on May 1, 2015.

Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer shakes hands with Jefferson Lab Director Hugh Montgomery by a superconducting coil and its development and fabrication team at Fermilab. Six coils have been made and shipped to Jefferson Lab for use in the CLAS12 experiment. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer shakes hands with Jefferson Lab Director Hugh Montgomery by a superconducting coil and its development and fabrication team at Fermilab. Six coils have been made and shipped to Jefferson Lab for use in the CLAS12 experiment. Photo: Reidar Hahn

A group of Fermilab physicists and engineers was faced with a unique challenge when Jefferson Lab asked them to make the superconducting coils for an upgrade to their CEBAF Large Acceptance Spectrometer experiments. These are some of the largest coils Fermilab has ever built.

Despite obstacles, the sixth coil was completed, packed on a truck and sent to Jefferson Lab to become the last piece of the torus magnet in the lab’s CLAS detector. It arrived on Thursday.

The CLAS detector’s upgrade (CLAS12) will allow it to accept electron beams of up to 11 GeV, matching the beam energy of the Virginia laboratory’s CEBAF electron accelerator after five passes. These improvements will allow Jefferson Lab to more accurately study the properties of atomic nuclei.

A major component of the enhanced detector is the torus magnet, which will be made from the six superconducting coils created at Fermilab. Aside from cleaning, insulating and winding the coils, one of the most important parts of the process is vacuum epoxy impregnation. During this step, air and water vapor are removed from the coils and replaced with an epoxy.

This process is particularly difficult when you’re working on magnets as big as the CLAS12 coils, which are 14 feet long and seven feet wide. Fermilab’s Magnet Systems Department fabrication team, the group responsible for making these massive coils, encountered a major obstacle at the end of March 2014 after finishing the first practice coil.

What they found were dry areas within the coil where the epoxy couldn’t penetrate. These were places where the coils weren’t fixed into place, meaning they could move and generate heat and resistance. This can lead to magnet quench, the transition from superconducting to a normal state — a highly undesirable consequence.

The Fermilab group and Jefferson Lab staff collaborated to come up with a solution. By trying new materials, new temperature profiles and adjusting the time that the epoxy was left to sit and be adsorbed, the team was able to prevent the dry areas from forming.

Fred Nobrega, the lead engineer at Fermilab for the CLAS12 coil project, joined the effort last August.

“It was rewarding for me to join the project near its low point, be able to help get through the hurdle and see this completed,” he said.

Production has been steady since December, with Fermilab sending roughly one coil a month to Jefferson Lab. Although the sixth coil will become the last piece of the torus magnet, the project isn’t complete just yet — the ultimate goal is to make eight identical coils, the six for the magnet and two spares.

“We’re succeeding because we have great people and a productive collaboration with Jefferson Lab, who helped us at difficult moments,” said George Velev, head of the Magnet Systems Department. “We worked together on a tough problem and now we see the results.”

Diana Kwon


The Ties That Bind

Sunday, January 18th, 2015
Cleaning the ATLAS Experiment

Beneath the ATLAS detector – note the well-placed cable ties. IMAGE: Claudia Marcelloni, ATLAS Experiment © 2014 CERN.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in one of the most beautiful places on earth: wedged between a metallic cable tray and a row of dusty cooling pipes at the bottom of Sector 13 of the ATLAS Detector at CERN. My wrists were scratched from hard plastic cable ties, I had an industrial vacuum strapped to my back, and my only light came from a battery powered LED fastened to the front of my helmet. It was beautiful.

The ATLAS Detector is one of the largest, most complex scientific instruments ever constructed. It is 46 meters long, 26 meters high, and sits 80 metres underground, completely surrounding one of four points on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), where proton beams are brought together to collide at high energies.  It is designed to capture remnants of the collisions, which appear in the form of particle tracks and energy deposits in its active components. Information from these remnants allows us to reconstruct properties of the collisions and, in doing so, to improve our understanding of the basic building blocks and forces of nature.

On that particular day, a few dozen of my colleagues and I were weaving our way through the detector, removing dirt and stray objects that had accumulated during the previous two years. The LHC had been shut down during that time, in order to upgrade the accelerator and prepare its detectors for proton collisions at higher energy. ATLAS is constructed around a set of very large, powerful magnets, designed to curve charged particles coming from the collisions, allowing us to precisely measure their momenta. Any metallic objects left in the detector risk turning into fast-moving projectiles when the magnets are powered up, so it was important for us to do a good job.

ATLAS Big Wheel

ATLAS is divided into 16 phi sectors with #13 at the bottom. IMAGE: Steven Goldfarb, ATLAS Experiment © 2014 CERN

The significance of the task, however, did not prevent my eyes from taking in the wonder of the beauty around me. ATLAS is shaped somewhat like a large barrel. For reference in construction, software, and physics analysis, we divide the angle around the beam axis, phi, into 16 sectors. Sector 13 is the lucky sector at the very bottom of the detector, which is where I found myself that morning. And I was right at ground zero, directly under the point of collision.

To get to that spot, I had to pass through a myriad of detector hardware, electronics, cables, and cooling pipes. One of the most striking aspects of the scenery is the ironic juxtaposition of construction-grade machinery, including built-in ladders and scaffolding, with delicate, highly sensitive detector components, some of which make positional measurements to micron (thousandth of a millimetre) precision. All of this is held in place by kilometres of cable trays, fixings, and what appear to be millions of plastic (sometimes sharp) cable ties.

Inside the ATLAS Detector

Scaffolding and ladder mounted inside the precision muon spectrometer. IMAGE: Steven Goldfarb, ATLAS Experiment © 2014 CERN.

The real beauty lies not in the parts themselves, but rather in the magnificent stories of international cooperation and collaboration that they tell. The cable tie that scratched my wrist secures a cable that was installed by an Iranian student from a Canadian university. Its purpose is to carry data from electronics designed in Germany, attached to a detector built in the USA and installed by a Russian technician.  On the other end, a Japanese readout system brings the data to a trigger designed in Australia, following the plans of a Moroccan scientist. The filtered data is processed by software written in Sweden following the plans of a French physicist at a Dutch laboratory, and then distributed by grid middleware designed by a Brazilian student at CERN. This allows the data to be analyzed by a Chinese physicist in Argentina working in a group chaired by an Israeli researcher and overseen by a British coordinator.  And what about the cable tie?  No idea, but that doesn’t take away from its beauty.

There are 178 institutions from 38 different countries participating in the ATLAS Experiment, which is only the beginning.  When one considers the international make-up of each of the institutions, it would be safe to claim that well over 100 countries from all corners of the globe are represented in the collaboration.  While this rich diversity is a wonderful story, the real beauty lies in the commonality.

All of the scientists, with their diverse social, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, share a common goal: a commitment to the success of the experiment. The plastic cable tie might scratch, but it is tight and well placed; its cable is held correctly and the data are delivered, as expected. This enormous, complex enterprise works because the researchers who built it are driven by the essential nature of the mission: to improve our understanding of the world we live in. We share a common dedication to the future, we know it depends on research like this, and we are thrilled to be a part of it.

ATLAS Collaboration Members

ATLAS Collaboration members in discussion. What discoveries are in store this year? IMAGE: Claudia Marcelloni, ATLAS Experiment © 2008 CERN.

This spring, the LHC will restart at an energy level higher than any accelerator has ever achieved before. This will allow the researchers from ATLAS, as well as the thousands of other physicists from partner experiments sharing the accelerator, to explore the fundamental components of our universe in more detail than ever before. These scientists share a common dream of discovery that will manifest itself in the excitement of the coming months. Whether or not that discovery comes this year or some time in the future, Sector 13 of the ATLAS detector reflects all the beauty of that dream.


Will Self’s CERN

Friday, January 16th, 2015

“It doesn’t look to me like the rose window of Notre Dame. It looks like a filthy big machine down a hole.” — Will Self

Like any documentary, biography, or other educational program on the radio, Will Self’s five-part radio program Self Orbits CERN is partially a work of fiction. It is based, to be sure, on a real walk through the French countryside along the route of the Large Hadron Collider, on the quest for a promised “sense of wonder”. And it is based on real tours at CERN and real conversations. But editorial and narrative choices have to be made in producing a radio program, and in that sense it is exactly the story that Will Self wants to tell. He is, after all, a storyteller.

It is a story of a vast scientific bureaucracy that promises “to steal fire from the gods” through an over-polished public relations team, with day-to-day work done by narrow, technically-minded savants who dodge the big philosophical questions suggested by their work. It is a story of big ugly new machines whose function is incomprehensible. It is the story of a walk through thunderstorms and countryside punctuated by awkward meetings with a cast of characters who are always asked the same questions, and apparently never give a satisfactory answer.

Self’s CERN is not the CERN I recognize, but I can recognize the elements of his visit and how he might have put them together that way. Yes, CERN has secretariats and human resources and procurement, all the boring things that any big employer that builds on a vast scale has to have. And yes, many people working at CERN are specialists in the technical problems that define their jobs. Some of us are interested in the wider philosophical questions implied by trying to understand what the universe is made of and how it works, but some of us are simply really excited about the challenges of a tiny part of the overall project.

“I think you understand more than you let on.”Professor Akram Khan

The central conflict of the program feels a bit like it was engineered by Self, or at least made inevitable by his deliberately-cultivated ignorance. Why, for example, does he wait until halfway through the walk to ask for the basic overview of particle physics that he feels he’s missing, unless it adds to the drama he wants to create? By the end of the program, he admits that asking for explanations when he hasn’t learned much background is a bit unfair. But the trouble is not whether he knows the mathematics. The trouble, rather, is that he’s listened to a typical, very short summary of why we care about particle physics, and taken it literally. He has decided in advance that CERN is a quasi-religious entity that’s somehow prepared to answer big philosophical questions, and never quite reconsiders the discussion based on what’s actually on offer.

If his point is that particle physicists who speak to the public are sometimes careless, he’s absolutely right. We might say we are looking for how or why the universe was created, when really we mean we are learning what it’s made of and the rules for how that stuff interacts, which in turn lets us trace what happened in the past almost (but not quite) back to the moment of the Big Bang. When we say we’re replicating the conditions at that moment, we mean we’re creating particles so massive that they require the energy density that was present back then. We might say that the Higgs boson explains mass, when more precisely it’s part of the model that gives a mechanism for mass to exist in models whose symmetries forbid it. Usually a visit to CERN involves several different explanations from different people, from the high-level and media-savvy down to the technical details of particular systems. Most science journalists would put this information together to present the perspective they wanted, but Self apparently takes everything at face value, and asks everyone he meets for the big picture connections. His narrative is edited to literally cut off technical explanations, because he wants to hear about beauty and philosophy.

Will Self wants the people searching for facts about the universe to also interpret them in the broadest sense, but this is much harder than he implies. As part of a meeting of the UK CMS Collaboration at the University of Bristol last week, I had the opportunity to attend a seminar by Professor James Ladyman, who discussed the philosophy of science and the relationship of working scientists to it. One of the major points he drove home was just how specialized the philosophy of science can be: that the tremendous existing body of work on, for example, interpreting Quantum Mechanics requires years of research and thought which is distinct from learning to do calculations. Very few people have had time to learn both, and their work is important, but great scientific or great philosophical work is usually done by people who have specialized in only one or the other. In fact, we usually specialize a great deal more, into specific kinds of quantum mechanical interactions (e.g. LHC collisions) and specific ways of studying them (particular detectors and interactions).

Toward the end of the final episode, Self finds himself at Voltaire’s chateau near Ferney, France. Here, at last, is what he is looking for: a place where a polymath mused in beautiful surroundings on both philosophy and the natural world. Why have we lost that holistic approach to science? It turns out there are two very good reasons. First, we know an awful lot more than Voltaire did, which requires tremendous specialization discussed above. But second, science and philosophy are no longer the monopoly of rich European men with leisure time. It’s easy to do a bit of everything when you have very few peers and no obligation to complete any specific task. Scientists now have jobs that give them specific roles, working together as a part of a much wider task, in the case of CERN a literally global project. I might dabble in philosophy as an individual, but I recognize that my expertise is limited, and I really enjoy collaborating with my colleagues to cover together all the details we need to learn about the universe.

In Self’s world, physicists should be able to explain their work to writers, artists, and philosophers, and I agree: we should be able to explain it to everyone. But he — or at least, the character he plays in his own story — goes further, implying that scientific work whose goals and methods have not been explained well, or that cannot be recast in aesthetic and moral terms, is intrinsically suspect and potentially valueless. This is a false dichotomy: it’s perfectly possible, even likely, to have important research that is often explained poorly! Ultimately, Self Orbits CERN asks the right questions, but it is too busy musing about what the answers should be to pay attention to what they really are.

For all that, I recommend listening to the five 15-minute episodes. The music is lovely, the story engaging, and the description of the French countryside invigorating. The jokes were great, according to Miranda Sawyer (and you should probably trust her sense of humour rather than the woefully miscalibrated sense of humor that I brought from America). If you agree with me that Self has gone wrong in how he asks questions about science and which answers he expects, well, perhaps you will find some answers or new ideas for yourself.


This article appeared in Fermilab Today on Nov. 26, 2014

The plastic scintillator extrusion line, shown here, produces detector material for export to experiments around the world. Photo: Reidar Hahn

The plastic scintillator extrusion line, shown here, produces detector material for export to experiments around the world. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Small, clear pellets of polystyrene can do a lot. They can help measure cosmic muons at the Pierre Auger Observatory, search for CP violation at KEK in Japan or observe neutrino oscillation at Fermilab. But in order to do any of these they have to go through Lab 5, located in the Fermilab Village, where the Scintillation Detector Development Group, in collaboration with the Northern Illinois Center for Accelerator and Detector Design (NICADD), manufactures the exclusive source of extruded plastic scintillator.

Like vinyl siding on a house, long thin blocks of plastic scintillator cover the surfaces of certain particle detectors. The plastic absorbs energy from collisions and releases it as measurable flashes of light. Fermilab’s Alan Bross and Anna Pla-Dalmau first partnered with local vendors to develop the concept and produce cost-effective scintillator material for the MINOS neutrino oscillation experiment. Later, with NIU’s Gerald Blazey, they built the in-house facility that has now exported high-quality extruded scintillator to experiments worldwide.

“It was clear that extruded scintillator would have a big impact on large neutrino detectors,” Bross said, “but its widespread application was not foreseen.”

Industrially manufactured polystyrene scintillators can be costly — requiring a labor-intensive process of casting purified materials individually in molds that have to be cleaned constantly. Producing the number of pieces needed for large-scale projects such as MINOS through casting would have been prohibitively expensive.

Extrusion, in contrast, presses melted plastic pellets through a die to create a continuous noodle of scintillator (typically about four centimeters wide by two centimeters tall) at a much lower cost. The first step in the production line mixes into the melted plastic two additives that enhance polystyrene’s natural scintillating property. As the material reaches the die, it receives a white, highly reflective coating that holds in scintillation light. Two cold water tanks respectively bathe and shower the scintillator strip before it is cool enough to handle. A puller controls its speed, and a robotic saw finally cuts it to length. The final product contains either a groove or a hole meant for a wavelength-shifting fiber that captures the scintillation light and sends the signal to electronics in the most useful form possible.

Bross had been working on various aspects of the scintillator cost problem since 1989, and he and Pla-Dalmau successfully extruded experiment-quality plastic scintillator with their vendors just in time to make MINOS a reality. In 2003, NICADD purchased and located at Lab 5 many of the machines needed to form an in-house production line.

“The investment made by Blazey and NICADD opened extruded scintillators to numerous experiments,” Pla-Dalmau said. “Without this contribution from NIU, who knows if this equipment would have ever been available to Fermilab and the rest of the physics community?”

Blazey agreed that collaboration was an important part of the plastic scintillator development.

“Together the two institutions had the capacity to build the resources necessary to develop state-of-the-art scintillator detector elements for numerous experiments inside and outside high-energy physics,” Blazey said. “The two institutions remain strong collaborators.”

Between their other responsibilities at Fermilab, the SDD group continues to study ways to make their scintillator more efficient. One task ahead, according to Bross, is to work modern, glass wavelength-shifting fibers into their final product.

“Incorporation of the fibers into the extrusions has always been a tedious part of the process,” he said. “We would like to change that.”

Troy Rummler


This Fermilab press release came out on Oct. 6, 2014.

With construction completed, the NOvA experiment has begun its probe into the mysteries of ghostly particles that may hold the key to understanding the universe. Image: Fermilab/Sandbox Studio

With construction completed, the NOvA experiment has begun its probe into the mysteries of ghostly particles that may hold the key to understanding the universe. Image: Fermilab/Sandbox Studio

It’s the most powerful accelerator-based neutrino experiment ever built in the United States, and the longest-distance one in the world. It’s called NOvA, and after nearly five years of construction, scientists are now using the two massive detectors – placed 500 miles apart – to study one of nature’s most elusive subatomic particles.

Scientists believe that a better understanding of neutrinos, one of the most abundant and difficult-to-study particles, may lead to a clearer picture of the origins of matter and the inner workings of the universe. Using the world’s most powerful beam of neutrinos, generated at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago, the NOvA experiment can precisely record the telltale traces of those rare instances when one of these ghostly particles interacts with matter.

Construction on NOvA’s two massive neutrino detectors began in 2009. In September, the Department of Energy officially proclaimed construction of the experiment completed, on schedule and under budget.

“Congratulations to the NOvA collaboration for successfully completing the construction phase of this important and exciting experiment,” said James Siegrist, DOE associate director of science for high energy physics. “With every neutrino interaction recorded, we learn more about these particles and their role in shaping our universe.”

NOvA’s particle detectors were both constructed in the path of the neutrino beam sent from Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, to northern Minnesota. The 300-ton near detector, installed underground at the laboratory, observes the neutrinos as they embark on their near-light-speed journey through the Earth, with no tunnel needed. The 14,000-ton far detector — constructed in Ash River, Minnesota, near the Canadian border – spots those neutrinos after their 500-mile trip and allows scientists to analyze how they change over that long distance.

For the next six years, Fermilab will send tens of thousands of billions of neutrinos every second in a beam aimed at both detectors, and scientists expect to catch only a few each day in the far detector, so rarely do neutrinos interact with matter.

From this data, scientists hope to learn more about how and why neutrinos change between one type and another. The three types, called flavors, are the muon, electron and tau neutrino. Over longer distances, neutrinos can flip between these flavors. NOvA is specifically designed to study muon neutrinos changing into electron neutrinos. Unraveling this mystery may help scientists understand why the universe is composed of matter and why that matter was not annihilated by antimatter after the big bang.

Scientists will also probe the still-unknown masses of the three types of neutrinos in an attempt to determine which is the heaviest.

“Neutrino research is one of the cornerstones of Fermilab’s future and an important part of the worldwide particle physics program,” said Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer. “We’re proud of the NOvA team for completing the construction of this world-class experiment, and we’re looking forward to seeing the first results in 2015.”

The far detector in Minnesota is believed to be the largest free-standing plastic structure in the world, at 200 feet long, 50 feet high and 50 feet wide. Both detectors are constructed from PVC and filled with a scintillating liquid that gives off light when a neutrino interacts with it. Fiber optic cables transmit that light to a data acquisition system, which creates 3-D pictures of those interactions for scientists to analyze.

The NOvA far detector in Ash River saw its first long-distance neutrinos in November 2013. The far detector is operated by the University of Minnesota under an agreement with Fermilab, and students at the university were employed to manufacture the component parts of both detectors.

“Building the NOvA detectors was a wide-ranging effort that involved hundreds of people in several countries,” said Gary Feldman, co-spokesperson of the NOvA experiment. “To see the construction completed and the operations phase beginning is a victory for all of us and a testament to the hard work of the entire collaboration.”

The NOvA collaboration comprises 208 scientists from 38 institutions in the United States, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Greece, India, Russia and the United Kingdom. The experiment receives funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and other funding agencies.

For more information, visit the experiment’s website: http://www-nova.fnal.gov.

Note: NOvA stands for NuMI Off-Axis Electron Neutrino Appearance. NuMI is itself an acronym, standing for Neutrinos from the Main Injector, Fermilab’s flagship accelerator.

Fermilab is America’s premier national laboratory for particle physics and accelerator research. A U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science laboratory, Fermilab is located near Chicago, Illinois, and operated under contract by the Fermi Research Alliance, LLC. Visit Fermilab’s website at www.fnal.gov and follow us on Twitter at @FermilabToday.

The DOE Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.


This article originally appeared in symmetry on March 31, 2014.

Three decades ago in March, scientists from Latin America came to do research at Fermilab, forming the ties of a lasting collaboration.

Three decades ago in March, scientists from Latin America came to do research at Fermilab, forming the ties of a lasting collaboration.

In 1983, Fermilab Director Leon Lederman put his money on the table at the second Pan American Symposium on Elementary Particles and Technology in Rio de Janeiro. His daring proposition: If the Brazilian Research Council would not at the time fund that nation’s physicists to do research at Fermilab, he would pay the salaries himself.

His parlay worked. A year later, 30 years ago this month, four physicists from Brazil took paid leave to work on the E691 fixed-target experiment at Fermilab. They were Fermilab’s first Latin American scientists and the beginning of its relationship with the region.

“Lederman made the bold offer in that meeting,” says Carlos Escobar, one of the four trailblazing Brazilians who crossed over the Equator to Fermilab. “That was the deciding factor.”

Mexico soon followed, spearheaded by then Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México professor Clicerio Avilez. The university sent two scientists and a graduate student, the first Latin American student to get his PhD for work done at Fermilab.

Since then, the collaboration between Fermilab and Latin American institutions has grown to also include Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Twenty-one Latin American institutions participate in the collaboration, which consists of theorists and members of eight experiments: CMS, DAMIC, DZero, LBNE, MINERvA and MINOS, as well as on the Dark Energy Survey and the Pierre Auger Observatory—both of which reside in South America. That’s in addition to the nine fixed-target experiments that completed their runs in the 1990s.

Lederman began planting the seeds of collaboration in 1979, noting that Latin American nations boasted strong scientific groups and an impressive history of innovation.

“Latin America represented a huge potential treasure of human resources which would, I was sure, eventually be devoted to scientific research to the benefit of the nations of South and Central America and, indeed, the world,” he wrote in a 2006 paper.

Since those days, the collaboration with Fermilab, as well as steadily gaining economic strength and higher publicity for science, have placed particle physics research south of the Rio Grande on firmer ground. Fermilab not only provided scientists with particle physics experiments to work on, it also hosted workshops that were attended by Latin American engineers, physicists, technicians and students.

“When I first started, there were only two groups in Mexico cultivating theoretical high-energy physics, and none tilling the field of experimental high-energy physics,” says Julian Felix Valdez, a University of Guanajuato professor whose connection with Fermilab began in 1990, when he was a graduate student. Then, he says, things changed as Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Instituto Politécnico Nacional began sending students to Fermilab.

“Thirty years later, there are groups in experimental high-energy physics at eight Mexican universities, as well as other groups emerging at other Mexican universities,” Felix Valdez says. He estimates about 100 Mexican scientists work on particle physics at home and an additional 30 abroad.

The flow of students hasn’t abated, and most now come to Fermilab to work on neutrino research. For future generations, it could mean working on Fermilab’s Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment.

“There’s a good stream of people. Once the connection’s established, it doesn’t sever. It keeps flowing,” says Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú master’s student Maria Jose Bustamante, who is on the MINERvA neutrino experiment. “Of course you need an institution to do that.”

Enlisting more institutions to invigorate the flow is perhaps still the biggest challenge facing the collaboration today. To that end, Fermilab’s fifth director, Pier Oddone, and his deputy, Young-Kee Kim, picked up where Lederman left off, says MINERvA scientist Jorge Morfin, one of the founding members of the Latin American collaboration. Oddone and Kim helped formalize the Latin American Initiative in 2010, suggesting more written agreements between Fermilab and Latin American institutions and funding agencies.

“No one on MINERvA would doubt that the contribution of these Latin American students has been significant. This has been a real working benefit for the experiment here at Fermilab,” Morfin says. The number of students that work or have worked on MINERvA totals 24 master’s students, nine doctoral students and two postdocs. “Now they can work on experiments throughout the world. It’s been a nice return, a give and take,” he says.

Collaboration also provides opportunities for visiting scientists to bring technologies from their home countries to Fermilab. Escobar notes that Brazilian companies provided several pieces of instrumentation for Fermilab experiments, including drift chambers and detectors for DZero. It goes the other way, too: Scientists take new technologies developed at Fermilab back to industries at home.

“People see the local industries benefit from this kind of collaboration with a place that does fundamental research,” Morfin says. “It translates into actual progress for local industries and local technology.”

To see another 30 years of flourishing high-energy physics in the western hemisphere requires an investment in physics from both sides of the Equator, Felix Valdez says.

“Physics—especially high-energy physics—is an international task,” he says.

Leah Hesla


This article originally appeared in Fermilab Today on Sept. 26, 2013.

Many new international partners officially joined LBNE during the collaboration meeting earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Norm Buchanan

Many new international partners officially joined LBNE during the collaboration meeting earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Norm Buchanan

LBNE is making headway toward becoming a truly global experiment.

Last week 16 institutions from Brazil, Italy and the UK joined the LBNE collaboration, based at Fermilab, significantly contributing to an overall membership increase of over 30 percent compared to a year ago.

The swelling numbers strengthen the case to pursue an LBNE design that will maximize its scientific impact, helping us understand how neutrinos fit into our understanding of matter, energy, space and time.

In mid-2012 an external review panel recommended phasing LBNE to meet DOE budget constraints. In December the project received CD-1 approval on its phase 1 design, which excluded both the near detector and an underground location for the far detector.

“Although LBNE was reconfigured for CD-1, our goal is still to deliver a full-scope, fully capable LBNE to enable world-leading physics,” Project Director Jim Strait told the LBNE collaboration earlier this month at its meeting in Fort Collins, Colo. “We have a well-developed design of such a facility, and we are working with new partners to move toward this goal.”

Fortunately, the CD-1 approval explicitly allows for an increase in design scope if new partners are able to bring additional resources. Under this scenario, goals for a new, expanded LBNE phase 1 bring back these excluded design elements, which are crucial for executing a robust and far-reaching neutrino, nucleon decay and astroparticle physics program.

Over the last few months, neutrino physicists from institutions in several countries have expressed interest in joining LBNE. Discussions are under way to identify areas of mutual interest and understanding the potential scale of collaboration.

“These groups bring a wealth of physics and technology expertise to the collaboration,” said Bob Wilson of Colorado State University, who, with fellow spokesperson Milind Diwan of Brookhaven National Laboratory and others, has been actively building these partnerships.

Physicist Ricardo Gomes of the Federal University of Goiás in Brazil, whose group is already a member of the MINOS+ and NOvA experiments, said that LBNE is a natural next step.

“LBNE is a great opportunity to work on an exciting experiment from the start, one that will help to answer important neutrino questions,” Gomes said. “We hope to work on simulation of background events from cosmic-ray muons and would like to contribute to the photon detector instrumentation.”

Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer is pleased with LBNE’s recent growth.

“It’s incredibly encouraging that so many around the globe are signing on as official LBNE collaborators,” Lockyer said. “To get as much science as we can out of it, LBNE must be a global project.”

Anne Heavey