Sometimes we imagine that scientists are boring, shy, distant beings, who are only interested in their studies. In reality they are passionate people, who overflow emotions for their work, but also for their loves. This was the case of two of the greatest scientists of all time: Marie Curie and Albert Einstein, who were friends and had much in common. First of all, they both won the Nobel Prize. In fact, Marie won two: Chemistry in 1903 and Physics in 1911. Second, they made groundbreaking breakthroughs and became science rockstars. Ultimately, Marie and Albert had passionate affairs, although at the time society judged them differently for it.1
Let’s start with the Polish Maria Salomea Skłodowska-Curie (1867-1934), who began her training at the Polish Floating University, a clandestine institution that offered inclusive education. At the end of her preparation there, she decided to continue her studies in chemistry and physics, but for that she had to move to Paris and enroll at the Sorbonne. Since her family had no money to finance this trip, she Marie made a deal with her sister Bronya: she would work as a governess to help Bronya study and, when she finished her studies, she would support the her sister in a similar way.
Thus, Marie moved to the country to be a teacher for the children of the Zorawski family and there she met her first love. It was Casimir, the eldest son, who was studying mathematics in Warsaw. He and Marie fell madly in love, but when the young man told her parents that he wanted to marry her, they refused to give her permission: they would not allow her son to marry a governess. Years later, history would show the Zorawskis’ mistake: Marie would become one of the most important scientists in history.
When Bronya finished her studies, she kept her promise and supported Marie so she could study at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she went on to earn her bachelor’s degree. Shortly after finishing her degree, she met Pierre Curie for the first time, who would become her closest collaborator and life partner. Barely two months after they met, Pierre told Marie that he wanted to spend the rest of his life by her side.
She agreed to marry him in 1895, the year in which she also became France’s first Doctor of Science. Some years later, Ella Marie wrote to Bronya: “I have the best husband I could ever dream of; I never would have imagined that I would find someone like him.” As a result of that relationship, Marie and Pierre had two daughters —Irene and Éve—; In addition, in 1903 they obtained a Nobel Prize in Physics for their studies on radioactive elements. The love story between these two great scientists ended in 1906, when Pierre was killed by a horse-drawn carriage.
FOUR YEARS LATER After becoming a widow, Marie began a passionate relationship with Paul Langevin, a brilliant physicist who had been a student of Pierre. Marie was fascinated with him, but society at the time condemned the romance for two reasons: first, because she was a widow and mother of two daughters; the second, because Paul was married. The scientist was subjected to public contempt, accused of adultery. False rumors arose that she had initiated her relationship with Paul before Pierre died and this had led to her husband’s suicide. In the midst of the scandal, she received the news that she would be awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry and some academics at the Sorbonne tried to prevent her from receiving the award, but her friend Einstein, who considered Marie to be the most intelligent woman he had ever met. , sent him a letter of support:
I feel the need to tell you how much I admire your spirit, your energy and your honesty. I consider myself lucky to have met her in Brussels. I will always be grateful that we have among us people like you and Langevin, genuine human beings whose company one can congratulate. If the mob is still bothering you, just stop reading that nonsense. Let them stay for the vipers they were made for.2
The humiliations continued when the Nobel Academy requested Marie in a letter not to receive the prize. She replied the following:
The action that you recommend to me seems to me to be a big mistake on my part. Actually, the prize has been awarded for the discovery of Radium and Polonium. I believe that there is no relationship between my scientific work and the facts of my private life. I cannot accept, in principle, that the idea that the appreciation of the value of scientific work can be influenced by the libel and calumny of my private life.3
Marie came very proud to receive her award, although the relationship with Paul did not overcome criticism. Years later, in 1934, Marie herself died from anemia caused by long contact with radiation. She was buried in the Pantheon of Illustrious Men, where her two loves rest: Pierre and Paul.
Albert Einstein’s last partner was Johanna Fantova;
She was a map restorer. He was older than twenty years
THE RELATIVITY OF LOVE
Let’s continue with Albert Einstein (1879-1955), one of the most important and famous scientists in history. He was born in Germany, into a family of Jewish origin. He began his scientific studies at the Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich, which was one of the leading educational centers in Europe; he wanted to study Mathematics and Physics. There he met a prominent woman who would become his partner, Mileva Maric, a Serbian woman who came from a wealthy family. In 1896 she decided to study Physics and Mathematics at the Zurich Polytechnic Institute, where she was the only female student. When they finished her final exams, Mileva and Albert had decided to get married, because in addition to being in love, they had an intense academic collaboration in her favorite subject: Physics. However, Einstein’s mother did not approve of the relationship and told him: “Just like you, she is a book, but you need a wife. By the time you’re thirty, she’s going to be an old hag.” The last objection was that Mileva was four years older than Albert.
Before getting married, the young woman became pregnant, for which she had to abandon her studies at the Polytechnic, despite the fact that she only needed one exam to obtain her doctorate. For his part, Albert got his Ph.D. in 1900, but he didn’t want to get married without steady employment. In 1902, Mileva gave birth to a girl. It is not known for sure what happened to her, it is believed that she could have been given up for adoption or died as a baby. In 1903, Einstein got a job at the patent office in Bern, which allowed him to earn a salary and marry Mileva. Already married they had a second son: Hans Albert. Shortly after, in 1905, he initiated the so-called miracle year in which Einstein published four papers that would revolutionize modern physics. Although the works are signed only by him, some historians believe that they were the fruit of an intense collaboration with Mileva. As a result of these works, Einstein’s fame grew, but the life of the scientist took a nosedive.
IN 1910 EDWARD WAS BORN, the couple’s last child, who was sick since childhood and required special care. Her mother took care of him and this annoyed Einstein, who felt relegated to the background in Mileva’s attention, so he began to ignore her: the love and passion he felt for her had faded. . Then Einstein dictated to his wife rules that he must follow, among them:
1. You must make sure to keep my clothes and home in good condition, as well as serve me three meals in my room.
2. You will renounce any type of personal relationship with me that is not strictly necessary for social reasons. Specifically, you will give up sitting at home with me, walking or traveling together.
3. You will keep in mind that we will not have intimate relationships, nor will you reproach me for anything; Besides, you will stop talking to me if I ask.4
The couple divorced in 1919. For years Mileva lived in misery, until in 1921, when Einstein received the Nobel Prize in Physics, he gave her the award money. There are several theories as to why she did it. The first is that she was a party to the divorce settlements. The second is that Einstein wanted to compensate her for the lack of credit in the articles they worked on together. Mileva spent the last years of her life teaching high school and never did research again. She died in 1948.
After divorcing Mileva, Einstein married her cousin, Elsa Loewenthal. She loved luxury and closeness with personalities of the time, which made her an ideal match for the most famous physicist in the world. Unlike Mileva, Elsa did not share her husband’s passion for science. About her, he wrote: “I am glad that my second wife does not understand anything about science, unlike the first.” Due to the anti-Semitic persecution initiated by the Nazi party in Germany, Albert and Elsa moved to the United States, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Shortly after arriving in America, Elsa developed heart problems and died in December 1936.
ALTHOUGH IN THE EYES OF THE PUBLIC Elsa and Albert seemed like a happy couple, he did not deprive himself of love affairs with other women. Among them, perhaps the most surprising was the one he had with Margarita Koniónkova. Born in Russia, she was said to be “so beautiful that she looked like the work of a great artist”, and she captivated some of her country’s most famous men, such as composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and artist Sergei Konionkov, with who got married In 1923, Margarita and Sergei moved to the United States, where the artist was commissioned to create a statue of Albert Einstein. When the scientist met Margarita he was fascinated by her and began to send her love letters. After Elsa’s death, the relationship between Margarita and Albert became more intense and they began to live together several months a year in New Jersey, while Sergei worked in Chicago. Apparently, the artist was aware of his wife’s affair and did not object, since he called the couple “Almar” (Albert and Margarita). The story took a more interesting turn when it became known that Margarita worked for the Russian intelligence service. She apparently was in charge of spying on physicists related to the Manhattan Project, within the framework of which the first atomic bomb was built.
After ending his relationship with Margarita, Albert Einstein’s last partner was Johanna Fantova; she was a restorer of maps. He was more than twenty years older than her. In her diary, Margarita described the 75-year-old scientist, ailingbut with a sense of humor. The couple spent their days walking outdoors, visiting museums or attending classical music concerts. The relationship continued until Albert Einstein’s death on April 18, 1955.
BOTH CURIE AND EINSTEIN they were exceptional scientists, who deeply loved the partners they had during their lives. However, the society of her time judged them differently: while Einstein was hailed as the most important scientist of his time and no one questioned his private life, Marie was condemned by the society of her time for falling in love with a married man, being widow and mother of two daughters.
1 This article is inspired by a conversation I had with Rosa Montero and José Edelstein, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wc4VBUVuWoA
2 Rosa Montero, The ridiculous idea of never seeing you again, Planeta, Madrid, 2013, p. 142.
4 Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2007, p. 198.
José Edelstein and Andrés Gomberoff, Einstein for the perplexed, University of Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela, 2015.
Albert Einstein, My vision of the world, Tusquets Editores, Mexico, 2015.
Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2007.
Rosa Montero, The ridiculous idea of never seeing you again, Planeta, Madrid, 2013.
Jeffrey Orens, The Soul of Genius: Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and the Meeting That Changed the Course of Science, Pegasus Books, New York, 2021.
Gerald James Whitrow, Einstein, the man and his work, Siglo XXI, Mexico, 1990.
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Scientific passions and the theme of gender