Infinite in All Directions: War’s TB, Einstein’s First Wife, Evolution of Elves

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Credit: wiertz/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: wiertz/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Here’s to a merry (belated) Christmas and what one hopes will be a much better 2017 (though that may not be very hard: “Please don’t kill anyone – including Carrie Fisher. And enough demagogues.”).

Non-American longreads

Most important thing I’d like to get out of the way: A few days ago, Longreads (the long-form articles curator) put out a list of the best long-form pieces from 2016 as nominated by a bunch of writers and editors that Longreads approached. If you look at the list, you’ll see how it’s so fully American and mostly white. Surely, in these modern/postmodern times, calling such a list “the best of 2016” is simply wrong. So to add to it, here’s my list of what I think were the best (sciencey) long-form pieces of 2016.

  1. How Indian drug exports to the Middle East fuel addiction there by Alia Allana
  2. Why India’s most sophisticated science experiment is stuck between a rock and a hard place by Nithyanand Rao & Virat Markandeya
  3. India is training quacks to do real medicine. This is why. by Priyanka Pulla
  4. India has a ferocious rabies problem, but don’t blame the dogs for it by Mary-Rose Abraham
  5. Nextlé’s half-billion-dollar noodle debacle in India by Erika Fry

Please nominate yours by January 1 and I will include them in next week’s newsletter for everyone’s reading pleasure.


TB and war

A paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looks at how “armed conflict and population displacement” have driven the spread of tuberculosis. Excerpt:

We also show that the evolution and dispersal of the [central Asian clade, CAC] in Eurasia have been shaped by recent historical events. Specifically, we find that being an ex-Soviet state is a major risk factor for high prevalence of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), and that this pattern also holds true within the CAC. We were able to trace the introduction of this clade to Afghanistan during the 1979–1989 Soviet–Afghan war and document its subsequent spread across Europe after migration events in the wake of recent armed conflicts. Our results highlight the detrimental effects of political instability and population displacement on global TB control and demonstrate the power of phylodynamic methods for understanding bacterial evolution in time and space.

The reasoning of course is generic – invading forces from X bring a disease P into a population Y – but the paper to me is a good document of history.


Einstein’s first wife

How much did Mileva Marić, Albert Einstein’s first wife, contribute to his work? The physicist Pauline Gagnon dug in on the occasion of Marić’s 141st birth anniversary to find an extraordinary legacy that popular accounts of the years leading up to the famous Annus Mirabilis (1904) often leave out – at least, this has been the popular reception to the piece. Now, though I may be guilty of not having discussed Marić myself in pieces on The Wire, I do hope the following words will clarify the wider confusion, as well as nuance, that has prevailed on this topic in the post-war period. First, and to be sure, Gagnon’s account is an extended rehashing of a controversy that earlier erupted around 1990 and slowly faded. Despite its being inconclusive, what makes the controversy worth revisiting are Gagnon’s sources: a set of letters that Einstein and Marić exchanged until the mid-1920s. And to get a quick sense of the conflict at its heart, sample these lines from the second-half of Gagnon’s account:

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.”

This streak of Einstein’s came through in one other popular occasion: In July 1915, he wrote a letter to Arnold Sommerfeld about how his friend Marcel Grossmann would never be able to lay even partial claim to conceiving the general theory of relativity:

Grossmann will never lay claim to being co-discoverer. He only helped in guiding me through the mathematical literature but contributed nothing of substance to the results.

Nonetheless, said streak couldn’t have got harsher than it did with Einstein’s treatment of Marić, it would seem. Gagnon’s piece concludes:

According to Krstić, 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 (emphasis added), but asked them to destroy the letter. Her son, Hans-Albert, told Krstić 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”.

The bit about ruining her life is evocative of an accusation that German research linguist Senta Troemel-Ploetz heaped upon Einstein in a controversial article, The woman who did Einstein’s mathematics, published in 1990:

The fact that Mileva Einstein-Marić did not want to talk about her own work and her assistance to Albert Einstein does not relieve Einstein of the responsibility for his silence in this matter. He could have talked about it, but he did not. What kept him from giving her full name when he published a patent which appeared under the name Einstein-Habicht [referring to Conrad Habicht]?

The letters with which Gagnon’s narrative is built however indicate that Marić was party to the decision to leave her name out of papers because Marić wanted Einstein’s reputation to improve and for him to so secure a job and then marry her. Troemel-Ploetz’s article was additionally controversial because it claimed Marić was gifted enough to put Einstein out of his mathematical misery – but Einstein is actually noted for his mathematical genius. The intricacies of these aspects of his life were discussed in a wonderfully detailed essay by the mathematician Allen Esterson in 2006. Gagnon’s piece finishes:

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.

However, Walter Isaacson’s biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe, tones the sentimentality of events down somewhat – but to the extent, in fact, that both his and Gagnon’s accounts come across as having overtly victimised their respective protagonists (you could also read relevant accounts by John Stachel and Galina Weinstein). Who will you side with? Here are the relevant lines from Isaacson’s biography:

For both the sake of colourful history and the emotional resonance it would have, it would be fun if we could go even further than this. But instead, we must follow the less exciting course of being confined to the evidence. None of their many letters, to each other or to friends, mentions a singe instance of an idea or creative concept relating to relativity that came from Marić.

Nor did she ever – even to her family and close friends while in the throes of their bitter divorce – claim to have made any substantive contributions to Einstein’s theories. Her son Hans Albert, who remained devoted to her and lived with her during the divorce, gave his own version that was reflected in a book by Peter Michelmore, and it seems to reflect what Marić told her son: “Mileva helped him solve certain mathematical problems, but no one could assist with the creative work, the flow of ideas.”

I’m actually going with Gagnon, Isaacson and Troemel-Ploetz at once. First (but not exactly foremost), I trust Gagnon’s firsthand sources more than Isaacson’s secondhand sources. Second, even though Marić may not have been a singularly gifted mathematician, she did still get admitted to the polytechnic school at a time when women seldom studied science – as Troemel-Ploetz has noted. Third, and as Isaacson has also acknowledged, Marić helped solve some of Einstein’s mathematical problems even as she performed household chores and took care of their children. No small feats these. Fourth – and most important: Gagnon may be forgiven for attempting to ‘evaluate’ Marić in relation to Einstein given the nature of her source-material, but for me, given the last three reasons, Mileva Marić was a great woman in her own right, and that’s how she deserves to be remembered.


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Phylogeny of elves

In 2015, molecular ecologist Dominic Evangelista published a seminal thesis (with an abstract in Tengwar) on the evolutionary history of elves and elf-like creatures, with the conclusion that Santa’s elves were closely related not to other elves but to dwarves. Their method:

We chose 15 mythical creatures for our study. This included 9 elves and 6 outgroup species. Due to patent restrictions, no tree-dwelling cookie producing elves were included in our sample.

Initial attempts to obtain genomic data from elven tissue was unsuccessful. Due to funding restrictions we could not obtain a lysis buffer that would digest an energy field of pure starlight. This was greatly disheartening considering how difficult it was for us to get permits to destructively sample living elf populations.

In the software Mesquite, we assembled a matrix of 26 categorical characters from various literature sources. This character matrix was used to construct a strict consensus of the 100 most parsimonious trees (SPR rearrangement algorithm). The tree was rooted such that gnomes, fairies, dwarves, trolls, and orcs were all contained in the outgroup.

This year, Jeremy Yoder argues the ways in which Evangelista could be wrong – and what future research can do to supply corrected data. If you’re into Tolkien and phylogenetics both, this is it. Trivia: I tried to do something similar for one of my assignments at the Asian College of Journalism (in the urban studies elective) by projecting the tenets of urban sociology onto Gotham city in an effort to understand how it engendered its unique inequalities. For reasons that I know you will understand, I’m not going to share the whole thing – but here’s a line:

There are many decisions at work in the city that collude to create injustice in many forms, and the most significant ones are geographic exclusivity, a retributive mindset in the ranks of the executive, restriction on the exercising of social liberties based on past mistakes, and the presence of Batman himself.


Relook: Nuking Hitler’s nuke

Gagnon’s looking back on Mileva Marić’s contributions to Einstein’s work reminded me of another instance from history when another wife provided a valuable insight into her husband’s efforts at something big/significant. From Thomas Powers’s story told on NYRB:

… surviving German war records provided no explanation why the program to build a bomb had been radically scaled back—essentially shut down—in 1942. Germany had begun with many advantages—first-rate scientists, the technical expertise and big economy needed for a huge industrial project, access to uranium ore in Czechoslovakia, and above all the enthusiasm of the Heereswaffenamt, the German army’s division for weapons development, which had a bomb project underway on the first day of the war, three years before the Americans got moving. The best explanation—indeed the only explanation—for the about-face in 1942 came from Hitler’s economics czar, Albert Speer, who told the German magazine Der Spiegel in 1967 that Heisenberg had convinced him that building a bomb was too big a project for Germany in wartime.


What happened was observed by Elisabeth Schumacher, who was twenty-two when she met Heisenberg at a musical evening in Leipzig in January 1937 and married him three months later. Over the following nine years, whenever they were separated by Heisenberg’s scientific travels or the war itself, Elisabeth and her husband exchanged more than three hundred letters that survived the fighting. Both Heisenberg and his wife later wrote accounts of the war years, but their letters, filled with the worries and hopes of ordinary family life, offer a quieter, more intimate picture of the years when Heisenberg ran the program that was going nowhere. Husband and wife both knew that the German secret police were free to open and read their letters at will, and tried to avoid dangerous ground.

Granted, the story downplays Elisabeth Heisenberg’s role in influencing Wenrer’s moral position on constructing a nuclear weapon, but as such it serves as a good teaser to buy the book on which it is derived from: My Dear Li: Correspondence, 1937–1946 by Werner and Elisabeth Heisenberg, edited by Anna Maria Hirsch-Heisenberg and translated by Irene Heisenberg.


The value of curiosity

Earlier this morning, I came upon multiple posts on Twitter remembering Isaac Newton on his birthday (December 25, 1642) – as well as others that noted he was actually born on January 4, 1643 on the Gregorian calendar in use today. Anyway, someone had shared a link to a Maria Popova piece, from her newsletter Brain Pickings, recalling Newton’s famous rivalry with Robert Hooke. Clicking through on some other links in that piece, and then clicking through further, I came upon a fabulous nine-page essay by the educator Abraham Flexner (1866-1959) – on the value of apparently useless knowledge, the shavings and shards accumulated on the sawmill of technological progress. I am excerpting a favoured section below, but I highly recommend you read the whole thing.

I am not for a moment suggesting that everything that goes on in laboratories will ultimately turn to some unexpected practical use or that an ultimate practical use is its actual justification. Much more am I pleading for the abolition of the word ‘use,’ and for the freeing of the human spirit. To be sure, we shall thus free some harmless cranks. To be sure, we shall thus waste some precious dollars. But what is infinitely more important is that we shall be striking the shackles off the human mind and setting it free for the adventures which in our own day have, on the one hand, taken Hale and Rutherford and Einstein and their peers millions upon millions of miles into the uttermost realms of space and, on the other, loosed the boundless energy imprisoned in the atom. What Rutherford and others like Bohr and Millikan have done out of sheer curiosity in the effort to understand the construction of the atom has released forces which may transform human life; but this ultimate and unforeseen and unpredictable practical result is not offered as a justification for Rutherford or Einstein or Millikan or Bohr or any of their peers.

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