Most people are at least vaguely familiar with the work of Albert Einstein. We might not have a solid grasp on what exactly E = mc² means or why it’s important, but anybody who successfully makes a math equation famous has to be somebody pretty darn special.
Whenever the words “scientific genius” come up in conversation, Einstein’s name is never far behind. He’s right up there with Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei and others who have helped shape our understanding of the world. Einstein’s great scientific success, however, has often been portrayed as a real surprise; somebody who showed no academic ability blossoming in a real underdog tale.
We’ve all heard the oft-repeated legend that he “failed grade school math,” only to become one of the most famous physicists in human history, but the real story’s a little more complicated than that.
There’s a lot of debate about the acclaimed scientist’s early life. In terms of speech and his emotional control—he’s said to have thrown violent tantrums—it’s been argued that his development was behind that of his peers. His parents are even said to have thought he had a learning disability.
He also frequently appears on lists of famous people with dyslexia, though no one is sure how accurate this claim is as the understanding and diagnosis of dyslexia was still very much in its infancy.
Einstein biographers Ronald W. Clark and Abraham Pais, refute all of this. There are rumors that Einstein was very slow to speak and write, but this may not have been the case at all. Pais acknowledges that Einstein’s family was apprehensive about his development, but notes that he was able to speak in full sentences by the age of two or three.
According to Clark, some of this confusion can be explained by Einstein’s son Hans Albert, who once stated that his father was “withdrawn from the world even as a boy.” Is that what we’re looking at here, then? The typical image of the misunderstood genius? Perhaps he was perfectly capable of talking, but didn’t often want to. That seems to be the case when it comes to the issue of math, too.
That idea characterizes a lot of Einstein’s schooling. At the age of seven, Einstein received his grades, and his mother wrote, “he was again number one, his report card was brilliant,” and goes on to state that, at the age of thirteen, Einstein was engrossed in the works of various philosophers, reading Darwin and philosophical works intently. “The widespread belief that he was a poor student is unfounded,” Pais concluded.
A gifted student, yes, but a well-behaved, successful, attentive one? Not so much. Later in life, Albert would find difficulty securing a job, for the very same reasons that he sometimes struggled in classes: He considered himself, in his own words, “a pariah” among academics, often being misunderstood for his independence and non-conformity. Which brings us to the real question: where did the famous story that he failed math come from?
The common rumor that he failed a math test way back in fourth grade is simply untrue. The trouble he did have came when he took the entrance exams for the illustrious Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich, Switzerland.
Naturally, being Albert Einstein, he was two years younger than the other applicants and, being Albert Einstein, he performed admirably in the math test. He excelled in math and physics, but it was the non-scientific subjects he performed poorly in. As a result, he was not accepted.
Continuing his studies at the Canton school in Aargau, Einstein would apply himself and, on returning, earn his place at the prestigious school in Zurich.
When all is said and done, then, it’s clear that Einstein wasn’t the unsuccessful student many have painted him to be. He certainly wasn’t a model student either, but his reputation for ineptitude in math is definitely undeserved. He wanted to be a mathematician for a time!
How did the whole story come about, then? In the same way many other misconceptions come about: a combination of hearsay, exaggeration, and half-truths. Here’s one final interesting fact: In 1896, Einstein’s last year at Aargau, the school’s grading system was reversed. “1” became the lowest grade, and “6” became the highest. Previously, the reverse had been true.
Could somebody have seen that Einstein scored a lot of “1” grades, under the new system, and mistaken these for failures? Was this unfortunate coincidence enough to mar Einstein’s academic name for over a century? Well, to an extent, perhaps so.
By Chris Littlechild, contributor for Ripleys.com