How a Defense of Christianity Revolutionized Brain Science

Jordana Cepelewicz in Nautilus:

ScreenHunter_2467 Dec. 22 17.44Presbyterian reverend Thomas Bayes had no reason to suspect he’d make any lasting contribution to humankind. Born in England at the beginning of the 18th century, Bayes was a quiet and questioning man. He published only two works in his lifetime. In 1731, he wrote a defense of God’s—and the British monarchy’s—“divine benevolence,” and in 1736, an anonymous defense of the logic of Isaac Newton’s calculus. Yet an argument he wrote before his death in 1761 would shape the course of history. It would help Alan Turing decode the German Enigma cipher, the United States Navy locate Soviet subs, and statisticians determine the authorship of the Federalist Papers. Today it has helped unlock the secrets of the brain.

It all began in 1748, when the philosopher David Hume published An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, calling into question, among other things, the existence of miracles. According to Hume, the probability of people inaccurately claiming that they’d seen Jesus’ resurrection far outweighed the probability that the event had occurred in the first place. This did not sit well with the reverend.

Inspired to prove Hume wrong, Bayes tried to quantify the probability of an event. He came up with a simple fictional scenario to start: Consider a ball thrown onto a flat table behind your back. You can make a guess as to where it landed, but there’s no way to know for certain how accurate you were, at least not without looking. Then, he says, have a colleague throw another ball onto the table and tell you whether it landed to the right or left of the first ball. If it landed to the right, for example, the first ball is more likely to be on the left side of the table (such an assumption leaves more space to the ball’s right for the second ball to land). With each new ball your colleague throws, you can update your guess to better model the location of the original ball. In a similar fashion, Bayes thought, the various testimonials to Christ’s resurrection suggested the event couldn’t be discounted the way Hume asserted.

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A Republican and a Democrat agree on one thing: To Slow Global Warming, We Need Nuclear Power

Lamar Alexander and Sheldon Whitehouse in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_2466 Dec. 22 17.38In roughly two decades, the United States could lose about half its reactors. That’s because, by 2038, 50 reactors will be at least 60 years old, and will face having to close, representing nearly half of the nuclear generating capacity in the United States. Without them, or enough new reactors to replace them, it will be much harder to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

Unfortunately, some of our federal policies to encourage clean energy, such as the Clean Energy Incentive Program within President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, do not explicitly include or incentivize nuclear power. Likewise, some states have chosen to adopt policies, such as renewable portfolio standards, that do not include or incentivize nuclear power.

At the same time, our energy markets do not currently account for the value of carbon-free power, a failure that puts nuclear power at an unfair and economically inefficient disadvantage to fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.

We come from different political parties, but we agree on the overall goal of leveling the playing field for nuclear power, and the need to find a bipartisan solution to achieve it.

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a revealing look at detective master Ross Macdonald

All-one-caseMichael Dirda at The Washington Post:

It’s All One Case” is a book that any devotee of American detective fiction would kill for. For fans of Ross Macdonald, the finest American detective novelist of the 1950s and ’60s, it’s an absolute essential.

First off, this huge album contains the transcript of 47 hours of talk between Kenneth Millar — Macdonald’s real name — and Rolling Stone reporter Paul Nelson. The conversations, which took place in 1976, were intended for an article that never got written. Soon after the interviews were over, Millar began to exhibit symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and would never write another book. He died in 1983. Nelson’s life would gradually just fall apart. He died in 2006.

Largely because of Kevin Avery’s devotion and hard work this major work of mystery scholarship has finally appeared in print.

Yet there’s still another reason to covet this book — its pictures, hundreds of them. Virtually every page shows off Jeff Wong’s awe-inspiring collection of material relating to Millar.

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the art of waiting

Tumblr_mump2iygv91qdylzoo1_1280Becca Rothfeld at The Hedgehog Review:

In Iris, the literary critic John Bayley’s tragic account of his brilliant wife, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, and her descent into the fog of Alzheimer’s, he quotes clergyman Sydney Smith’s advice to a depressive: “Take short views of the human life—never further than dinner or tea.”5 Depression, too, is a form of waiting, for deliverance or vindication or a sudden onslaught of meaning that fails, devastatingly, to arrive. Waiting is a manipulation of time—it is “enchantment,” as Barthes writes, a spell that stills and silences its victims—and its antidote is to make time pass at the usual rate once again. (In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham’s abandonment and subsequent waiting arrest time completely: She stops the clocks at 8:40, the moment at which she received the letter breaking off her engagement.)

Smith exhorts the depressive to throw herself entirely into some proximate thing, to repopulate the vast stretches of undifferentiated blankness with something like events. One tries to foist sequences back onto a slop of time that has come to consist in the recurring, harping note of absence. So one lives, one tries to inhabit the minutiae of the activities one performs, one tries to externalize oneself and ultimately to lose one’s sense of one’s selfhood altogether, so that one can become the objects one rearranges on the dresser and forget that one is waiting, that none of one’s activities are complete without some additional element that is wretchedly, unforgettably elsewhere.

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How to Be a Stoic

Skye Cleary in 3:AM Magazine:

97818460450733AM: I understand that your book grew out of a New York Times opinion piece by the same name: How to Be a Stoic? Why did you decide to write the book? Or was it more about riding the wave of Fate?

Massimo Pigliucci: In a sense, it was about Fate. But in another sense, it was a very deliberate project. Fate entered into it because The New York Times article went viral, and I immediately started getting calls from a number of publishers, enquiring into whether I intended to write a book. Initially, I didn’t. But then I considered the possibility more carefully. After all, I had started a blog ( with the express purpose of sharing my progress in studying and practicing Stoicism with others, and I am convinced that Stoicism as a philosophy of life can be useful to people. So, a book was indeed the next logical step.

3AM: What are the key differences between ancient Stoicism and your new Stoicism? Why did it need updating?

Massimo Pigliucci: Stoicism is an ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, originating around 300 BCE in Athens. It’s only slightly younger than its Eastern counterpart, Buddhism. But while Buddhism went through two and a half millennia of evolution, Stoicism was interrupted by the rise of Christianity in the West. A lot of things have happened in both philosophy and science in the 18 centuries since there were formal Stoic schools, so some updating is in order.

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San Salvador’s upstart mayor, Nayib Bukele

D150805_slv0138Lauren Markham at VQR:

San Salvador is both the political and homicide capital of El Salvador, a country where, most recently, a plague of murders has surged after the unraveling of a two-year-old gang truce in early 2014. Gangs have been running Mercado Central for years; according to Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martinez, in a 2015 report on the swelling of violence in the city center, they tell vendors “where they will sell, how much they will pay for the space to sell… . Sometimes they even tell them who to vote for.” Gangs come to the market to recruit kids to join their ranks, or to collect renta—a euphemism for extortion money—from vendors and stores, or to menace and, when they deem it necessary, to kill. All of which has provided justification for San Salvador’s young mayor, Nayib Bukele, to attempt to solve the problem of this rag-tag market, in part, by dismantling it.

This is an ambitious project for Bukele, an upstart politician who, at thirty-three, and with just three years of experience in public service, won the most important mayoral seat in the country in 2015. Previous mayors have attempted to physically remove unregistered vendors from Mercado Central, which led to all-out riots. Bukele’s strategy is to entice them to move by building new markets just outside the city center (construction is slated to be completed by 2018). Instead of haggling from makeshift stalls in the middle of sidewalks and roads, his plan would allow vendors to operate through leases, in conditions that are safe and sanitary, with plenty of security and opportunities for a diversity of businesses to thrive.

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The Conjunction Fallacy Explains Why People Believe Fake News

John Allen Paulos in Slate:

ScreenHunter_2465 Dec. 22 13.50Imagine there are 100 toy blocks in front of a toddler. Each of the blocks costs $1, 50 of them are red, 50 blue, and to build a sturdy little house requires about 75 or so blocks. By necessity the house will contain blocks of both colors—even if the child is partial to one of the colors.

Now imagine a new manufacturing technology comes along and makes it possible to make these blocks for 1 cent each. Parents can now buy sets of 10,000 blocks, 5,000 red ones and 5,000 blue ones for the same amount of money. The toddler again makes his or her house, but if partial to one of the colors, he or she can easily find 75 blocks of the same color and make an all red house, or an all blue house, or a monstrosity of a mansion.

The new technology is the internet. The red and blue blocks are news stories, colored according to whichever world view they represent, and the houses are meta-stories we toddlers tell ourselves. Thanks to the vast amount of information (or misinformation) on the internet, we are all able to build houses of just one color. Nowadays, we can all easily be misguided by confirmation bias, our natural tendency to search for information that confirms our beliefs and to ignore that which threatens our beliefs. The consequence, if we don’t check our unexamined predilections, is a world that is made entirely of single-colored houses, some red, some blue. And too many single-colored neighborhoods can lead to skewed beliefs.

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Once a Year, Scientific Journals Try to Be Funny. Not Everyone Gets the Joke

Ben Panko in Smithsonian:

AsparHarvard researcher Sarah Coseo Markt and her colleagues were dining on steamed asparagus with Hollandaise sauce at a Swedish scientific meeting when they came across a critical research question. Asparagus, as you might know, has a reputation for imparting a sharp, sulfuric smell to people's urine shortly after they eat it. Later that evening, Markt and her supervisor, Harvard University epidemiologist Lorelei Mucci, experienced that truism firsthand. But surprisingly, several of their companions said they had experienced no unusual bathroom odor. Why not?

After returning to Boston, the pair decided to investigate the conundrum further. Luckily for them, they had access to surveys collected every two years by Harvard from thousands of men and women of European-American backgrounds. For the 2010 surveys, Markt and her colleagues added a question asking people to rate the following sentence: “After eating asparagus, you notice a strong characteristic odor in your urine.” Roughly 60 percent of the nearly 7,000 men and women surveyed said they had “asparagus pee anosmia,” or the lack of ability to smell asparagus-influenced urine. The diligent researchers then pinpointed the specific cluster of genes that controlled this ability, by comparing the genomes of the people surveyed to whether or not they were able to smell the asparagus-y urine. They found that a difference in 871 nucleotides—the letters that make up a DNA strand—on Chromosome 1 appeared to control whether or not one could “enjoy” the smell after a meal of asparagus. Markt’s research, cheerfully titled “Sniffing out significant 'Pee Values': genome-wide association study of asparagus anosmia,” ended up in this week’s issue of The British Medical Journal (BMJ), becoming part of a hallowed end-of-year tradition.

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When Science Finally Confirms Your Cherished Beliefs — Worry

David Shaywitz in Forbes:

960x0“Girls rule, boys drool,” tweeted VC (and my Tech Tonics co-host) Lisa Suennen today, succinctly summarizing a paper recently published by respected Harvard public health researcher Ashish Jha (who is also a friend).

Suennen isn’t alone–Jha’s report has created a media frenzy. “Evidence Of The Superiority Of Female Doctors,” announcedThe Atlantic. “Want to save 32,000 lives a year? Get male doctors to practice more like women,” advised Vox.

The study–explained nicely by Jha in his blog–examined a large number of Medicare hospitalizations–about 1.5 million–over a four-year period, and found a relatively small but statistically significant difference in the outcomes associated with female vs. male doctors. This little difference becomes a big number, and an important finding, when you multiply by the total size of the Medicare population, as Jha argued in his blog, noting that the discrepancy is especially striking given the “pretty strong evidence of a substantial gender pay gap and a gender promotion gap within medicine.”

While the science itself may be solid (I’d expect nothing less from Jha), I doubt this is what’s driving the paper’s popularity. Rather, it’s the intuitive appeal of the conclusions, together with a dollop of social justice. “My priors are confirmed,” tweeted Aledade CEO Farzad Mostashari, echoing the instinctive response of many–including me.

But it’s exactly when published science confirms our priors and tells us what we’ve been hoping to hear that we should begin to worry–not about the specific paper, necessarily, but rather about how to appropriately contextualize the conclusions.

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Merve Emre in Public Books:

51iyVULVmwL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Reading Frantumaglia, the new collection of letters, interviews, and occasional prose from Elena Ferrante, I was struck by how often the author opened her correspondence with an apology. “I apologize again for the trouble I cause you,” she writes to her publisher Sandra Ozzola of her unwillingness to appear in person to accept a prestigious literary prize. “I’m sincerely afraid that I don’t know how to contribute to your project … I apologize in advance,” she writes to Mario Martone, the director who wants to adapt her novella Troubling Love into a film, before providing him with 15 pages of brilliant, exacting notes on the script he has sent her. “I apologize in advance for the confusing or contradictory passages you may encounter,” she writes to critic and magazine editor Goffredo Fofi in a letter she ultimately decides not to send. The refrain clangs across all three hundred pages of the book: “I apologize.” “I am sorry,” “I am sorry,” “I am sorry.”

An apology is not a neutral act, especially not an apology that is issued publicly, as Ferrante’s apologies now are. An apology performs an act of deference, yet it need not be sincere. Often, in fact, it isn’t. “I am sorry” can serve as a strategic front, allowing the speaker to present a remorseful or self-vilifying attitude while continuing to think or do whatever she pleases. For Ferrante, apologizing is a tactic for preserving her innocence, a self-protective stance she has assumed since childhood, albeit with certain reservations. “Innocence—I began to convince myself—is never to get into the situation of arousing malicious reactions in others,” she writes. “Difficult but possible. So I taught myself to be silent, I apologized for everything, I reined in my tongue, I was polite and compliant. Yet secretly I was bad.”

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Liberal Zionism in the Age of Trump

Omri Boehm in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_2464 Dec. 22 11.31For weeks now, Jewish communities across America have been troubled by an awkward phenomenon. Donald J. Trump, a ruthless politician trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes, has been elected to become the next president, and he has appointed as his chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, a prominent figure of the “alt-right,” a movement that promotes white nationalism, anti-Semitism, racism and misogyny. Though Bannon himself has expressed “zero tolerance” for such views, his past actions suggest otherwise; as the executive chairman of Breitbart News for the past four years, he provided the country’s most powerful media platform for the movement and its ideologies.

Still, neither the United States’ most powerful Jewish organizations nor Israeli leaders have taken a clear stance against the appointment. In fact, they have embraced it.

Immediately after Trump appointed Bannon, the Zionist Organization of America prepared to welcome him at its annual gala dinner, where he was to meet Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of education, and Danny Danon, the country’s ambassador to the United Nations. (Bannon didn’t show up.) Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador in Washington, publicly announced that he was looking forward to working with the entire Trump administration, including Bannon. And Alan Dershowitz, the outspoken Harvard emeritus professor of law who regularly denounces non-Zionists as anti-Semitic, preferred in this case to turn not against Bannon, but against his critics. “It is not legitimate to call somebody an anti-Semite because you might disagree with their politics,” he pointed out.

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UrlSnigdha Poonam at Granta:

As the motto of India’s fiercest band of cowboys puts it, ‘To protect our culture and our civilization, we must do as the Vedas say. And the Vedas tell us this – if an infidel kills a cow, we are to pump his body with bullets.’ The ancient texts are unlikely to have issued an order involving the use of guns. What they repeatedly do is rate the flesh of the cow as the best meat known to mankind and mandate its offering to gods and guests alike. But one can either read a multivolume Sanskrit text or put together an army; apparently one can’t do both.

In 2013, Yogendra Arya launched Haryana’s first twenty-first-century militia of gau rakshaks (cow protectors). He also had it registered with the government as a non-profit, tax-free organization. The official logo of Arya’s Cow Protection Army is the gilded torso of a cow flanked first by a pair of swords and then AK-47s. Its slogan: ‘We will keep the numbers of the cow mother intact with our corpses. It’s going to be a fight the enemies will remember.’ The army operates at the level of an independent republic. It has an anthem and a constitution. It also has a fleet of vehicles and a stockpile of arms and ammunition. Its commanders are elected through a three-tier voting process; foot soldiers are chosen through the submission of an application form. Dozens are filed every day.

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Would Politics Be Better Off Without Anger?

51sUiA1IpmL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Amia Srinivasan at The Nation:

In her latest book, Anger and Forgiveness, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues for just this. Even “great injustice,” she says, is no “excuse for childish and undisciplined behavior.” For not only is anger bad because of its consequences—alienating political opponents, breeding revenge and violence, inhibiting progress—it is also a bad thing in itself, an immoral and incoherent way of responding to the world.

To be angry, according to Nussbaum, is to thirst for revenge, either as a means of recompense for a wrongdoing or as a means of restoring one’s damaged social status after one. But revenge, she thinks, never works as recompense: The suffering of others cannot undo harm to oneself. At best, revenge repairs wounded egos: Humiliating my wrongdoer can elevate me by downgrading him. But that, Nussbaum says, is to operate in the barbaric logic of the honor code; it is not the stuff of justice. Thus “in a sane and not excessively anxious and status-focused person, anger…is a brief dream or cloud, soon dispelled by saner thoughts of personal and social welfare.” Resisting anger, Nussbaum thinks, is a mark not only of our humanity, but of our sanity.

Nussbaum describes this view of anger as “radical.” But it is not radical in the sense of being unfamiliar. With the notable exception of black and feminist thinkers who have defended anger as a vital tool of the oppressed, almost all of Western political thought since the Stoics has largely shared Nussbaum’s dim view of anger.

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No looking at my elephant

51wqpcmv83L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Mary Wellesley at The London Review of Books:

The keeping of exotic animals has, at times, interlocked with larger political agendas. During the Interregnum, Hyde Park and other royal parks were sold off for the good of the Commonwealth; theatres and bear pits were closed down. The Royal Menagerie in St James’s Park fell into disuse, and Oliver Cromwell’s wife kept a dairy there. After the Restoration, Charles II set about renovating St James’s Park, filling it with parrots, partridges, pheasants and rabbits, as well as guinea fowl, monkeys and ‘the handsomest deer’. To keep the park full of such deer, he decreed that two of the handsomest be sent to London with every returning East India Company ship. During the reign of James I, there had been concern that the animals in St James’s Park should not be visible to the public; the king decreed that his elephant should not be seen and that the menagerie’s camels should be shielded from ‘the vulgar gaze’. Under Charles II, some visitors were permitted access; exploring the renovated menagerie in 1663, the traveller Peter Mundy remarked on the ‘cassawarwa, a strange fowle somewhat lesser than an estridge … a shee bustard’ and also some ‘outlandish geese’.

A relentless desire to anthropomorphise runs down the years in Grigson’s book. After visiting the menagerie at Exeter Change in London, Byron wrote of a ‘hippopotamus, like Lord L.L. [Liverpool, the prime minister] in the face’, and an ‘Ursine Sloth’ that had ‘the very voice and manner of my valet’. But the capacity for seeing human traits in animals came hand in hand with a capacity for seeing animal traits in humans.

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How Woody Guthrie can help us fight for science

Jacqueline M. Vadjunec in Nature:

WVWhen I moved from Massachusetts almost a decade ago to teach at Oklahoma State University, many colleagues were afraid for my career. I work on the human dimensions of global environmental change, and Oklahoma has a long and complex history with science, including climate change. Oklahoma was the first state to ratify ‘anti-Darwin’ legislation in 1923 and today is home to key sceptics in the war on climate change, including Republican Senator James Inhofe and Scott Pruitt, the state’s attorney-general, who earlier this month was nominated to run the US Environmental Protection Agency. These politicized debates trickle down, and both evolution and human-induced climate change remain contested topics, especially in schools. However, Oklahoma is also the home of protest singer Woody Guthrie, a visible example of resistance in the 1930s class and culture wars between rural and urban values.If Woody could use his voice to speak up, so can scientists. In truth, my career is fine, and my colleagues are supportive. I not only manage, but also thrive. And if I can, then so can other scientists who find themselves concerned about the tidal wave of climate scepticism that comes with last month’s election of Donald Trump and his associates. The election might have powerful effects on science, policy and funding. But I want to stress the power and promise of human agency.

In my case, adjustments are minor, but might seem substantial elsewhere. I realize that in my day-to-day actions in the classroom and in my research with family farmers and ranchers, I probably hold a minority viewpoint on human-induced climate change. In the classroom, I am sensitive to the fact that many of my students have family ties to the oil and gas industry. I regularly see them struggle with the local contradictions. I try to create a place of mutual respect to embrace this struggle on their own terms, while also trying to focus on our role as global citizens facing global challenges. It is not always an easy balancing act; these experiences have taught me that most students care about global environmental change, but often have little previous exposure to such issues — in part because of the decisions of local politicians and school boards. In our debriefing at the end of the semester, students often express frustration that they weren’t exposed to many of the issues surrounding climate change at a younger age.

I also learned that actively listening to (instead of talking at) farmers and ranchers who care about sustaining their land and livelihoods is a good way to open dialogue.

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How Christian Wiman made poetry matter

Jason Guriel in Slate:

ScreenHunter_2462 Dec. 20 18.23“I don’t really believe in Collected Poems,” the American poet and critic Christian Wiman has said. “They’re almost always bad.” Wiman has long believed that real poetry is rare. As editor of the prestigious magazine Poetry, a position he held for 10 years, he faced a slush pile so big it had slopes, a base camp. But he still struggled to source print-worthy poems. “If poetry is so rare in the world, if so much of it is dross, just think how much rarer it must surely be in your (our!) own work,” he writes in a provocative editorial called “In Praise of Rareness.” Wiman’s argument—that a person who truly respects poetry will find most of it lacking—is the sort of good sense that nevertheless triggers some poetry readers, who tend to be aspiring poets themselves. People don’t prefer to acknowledge that the art they dabble in is probably beyond them. (Full disclosure: Wiman took some of my poems for his magazine. But he rejected many, many more.)

Unsurprisingly, Wiman’s high-profile editorship came to overshadow his own poems. So, too, did an essay he wrote about his incurable form of blood cancer and his rediscovery of faith. (The piece went viral in 2007, and led to other essays about God, opening up a new readership for Wiman.) But Wiman’s poems, which have been gathered in his new book Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems, deserve our attention, too. By striving to be clear and memorable, they dare to address the needs of that mythical unicorn, the general reader. They prove, as Wiman’s editorship did, that poetry doesn’t have to be a coterie concern.

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The Forgotten Life of Einstein’s First Wife

Pauline Gagnon in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_2461 Dec. 20 18.10Today, 19 December, marks 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 20th 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.

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