Albert Einstein, the rumpled little German with the halo of white hair who came to symbolize genius, is widely thought of as the greatest mind in 20th-century science. But according to a renegade group of historians who are challenging the traditional view of the young Einstein, the genius may have gotten his best ideas, including his strange and wonderful theories about space and time, from none other than his first wife.

The Einstein establishment remains unmoved by this thesis, and most Einstein biographers have dismissed his first wife, Mileva Maric Einstein, as a bit player in the drama of Albert's life. A popular Einstein biography portrayed her as a untidy peasant loathed by Einstein's bourgeois family, "a gloomy, laconic and distrustful character," who had enough learning to listen to her brilliant husband, but not enough brains to contribute to his revolutionary theories.

In fact, Mileva was a mathematician and physicist in her own right, who studied with Einstein as a fellow student at the prestigious Swiss Federal Polytechnical Institute in Zurich. Indeed, she passed the entrance exam to Swiss Polytech, which Albert himself flunked.

According to one reading of letters recently published after a 30-year delay and legal tangling, Albert Einstein regarded his spouse as an equal and a collaborator. During a spirited seminar last month, several science historians presented excerpts of correspondence from Albert to Mileva in which Albert repeatedly refers to "our theory" and "our work." One letter from Albert, written in 1901, states: "How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on the relative motion to a victorious conclusion!"

Historians believe the phrase "relative motion" refers to the beginning of what would become Einstein's special theory on relativity, a paramount notion in physics that describes how space and time are not absolute, but vary with circumstances, such that time slows down for a moving body.

Einstein published the theory on relativity under his name alone in 1905. In that same year, he presented theories on how to prove the existence of atoms and how energy is transferred in little bundles called quanta, which along with the ideas of Max Planck became the foundation of modern quantum mechanics. If this were not enough, Albert that year also introduced his famous and elegant equation E=mc , which essentially means that energy and matter are interchangeable forms of the same thing.

The origin of Einstein's remarkable ideas has long been shrouded in mystery. The young Einstein appears to be an unlikely candidate for scientific greatness. As a young child, he showed signs of mental retardation, and did not speak until he was 3. His academic career was checkered. He flunked exams one year and did brilliant work the next. Upon graduation from college, he took a crummy job examining patents.

Some physicists have speculated that it was Einstein's ability to do "thought experiments," in which he imagined himself following beams of light through space, that gave him critical insight into hidden laws of nature. But in later life, Einstein himself often gave contradictory answers about how he came up with his ideas and what experiments influenced him. Einstein died in 1955.

Now his correspondence has come back to complicate the image of Einstein as saint and sage. The leading revisionist of the Einstein legacy is Evan Harris Walker, a research physicist at the U.S. Army Ballistic Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Walker said he became suspicious about the true role of Einstein's first wife after reading Ronald Clark's 1971 Einstein biography, which downplayed Mileva's scientific prowess, while noting that Albert did agree to give Mileva the proceeds of any Nobel prize he might eventually win. Walker thought he smelled a rat.

When the first volume of young Einstein's correspondence was translated and finally published in 1987 by the Princeton University Press, Walker read through the letters between husband and wife and concluded that at the very least Mileva was a collaborator with Albert, if not the real brains in the family.

Last month, along with other Einstein scholars, Walker presented a paper detailing his claims at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New Orleans. It was a lively session. "I wished I had been carrying a .357 magnum," said Walker. Since then, the fax machines have been spitting out new versions of papers, addenda and counterclaims by all sides.

Walker's claims for Mileva have not found wide acceptance among mainstream Einstein scholars. "This is all pure fantasy," said John Stachel, director of the Center for Einstein Studies at Boston University and the editor of the recently published volume that contains Einstein's early correspondence.

Stachel, who was also in New Orleans, points out that there are a large number of letters from Einstein in which he refers to "my work" and "my theory."

"If we are going to attach great significance to one use of 'our' in this context," said Stachel, "I insist that we attach similar significance to his many uses of singular first-person pronouns in the same context."

As for Albert's use of the words "our" and "we," Stachel believes these references were written by a man crazy in love, who hoped to bolster his wife's sagging spirits during long absences.

"For a man deeply in love, the ego boundaries dissolve," Stachel said.

To which Walker responds, "I don't buy it." Walker then accuses Stachel and others of having fallen for fantasies of their own in interpreting the relationship between Albert and Mileva.

It is agreed upon by all sides that Albert and Mileva entered the Swiss Federal Polytechnical Institute together in 1896. She passed the entrance exam. He did not, but eventually was allowed to enter the institute, which to this day is considered the MIT of Europe.

At Swiss Polytechnical, the pair were rather closely matched as students, with her grades only slightly lower than his. The two, who were by this time lovers, were the only physics students to take the final exam in 1900. Einstein passed his final examination, though just barely, while Mileva never did. Mileva took the exam twice and failed both times, though her advocates point out that she was pregnant with Albert's baby the second time. Her thesis has been lost, and she never published a scientific article.

Another Einstein scholar from Germany, Senta Troemel-Ploetz, who thinks that Mileva may have helped Albert with his mathematics, maintains that Mileva's difficulties at Swiss Polytechnic stem from the fact that she was a woman. Stachel, though, points out that women did successfully complete their studies at Swiss Polytechnical.

"In order to study mathematics and physics at this institute she must have been brilliant," said Troemel-Ploetz, who believes that Albert and Mileva started their life together as "symmetrical" partners, but that the pressures of being wife, mother and mathematician forced Mileva to step into the shadows.

Albert and Mileva had an illegitimate child in 1902, a baby girl who is lost to history. They married the next year and went on to have two sons (both now deceased). Their relationship showed strains by 1909, when Albert began to woo a cousin of his. In 1914, Mileva and Albert separated, and by 1919 their divorce was final. Albert later paid Mileva alimony and child support. He also gave her the proceeds from his 1921 Nobel prize, a fact that Walker and Troemel-Ploetz make much of. Mileva died in 1943.

"It seems that at least she had a claim," said Walker.

Stachel is firm in his position that Mileva made no creative contributions to Einstein's theories, but he does concede that Mileva probably acted as a "sounding board" for Einstein's genius. He also says that the debate allows the Einstein myth to be deflated a bit in the popular mind. But as for Mileva being the source of the theory of relativity?

"She surely had some gifts, but she was no Einstein," said Stachel.