Albert Einstein Did Not Fail at Mathematics in School

Today I found out Albert Einstein did not fail at mathematics in school.

In fact, he actually excelled at mathematics throughout his schooling and even considered becoming a mathematician for a time.  This rumor actually started while he was still alive and even showed up in a particular issue of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Einstein was shown the article in Ripley’s, which had the title “Greatest living mathematician failed in mathematics.” Beyond the fact that this failure never happened, the other incorrect bit in that article was that Einstein was not a mathematician. Einstein reportedly found the article humorous and remarked: ““I never failed in mathematics… Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus.” (15 was the age in Germany that most qualified students would start to learn calculus.)

Indeed, by the age of 12, Einstein took it upon himself to see if he could learn geometry and algebra on his own. His parents subsequently bought him textbooks towards this end and, in one summer, he mastered both subjects, while coming up with his own proofs to prove the various mathematical theories he was studying, including his own way to prove the Pythagorean Theorem. Also at the age of 12, he began learning calculus, which, as noted, was about three years ahead of his classmates that would eventually qualify to pursue calculus.

How the myth came about that Einstein was poor at mathematics at an early age isn’t entirely known. A few theories have been thrown about. One story, who knows if it is true, is that in 1896 (the last year he attended this particular school), the school he was attending reversed their grading scale so that “6” became the highest mark, instead of the lowest, and “1” became the lowest, instead of the highest. So it would have looked like he had suddenly gone from passing to failing in his final year, when comparing with his marks from previous years.

Another potential origin story is that it was simply a case of him frequently needing to solicit the aid of mathematicians to double check is work, as well as to help him formalize his theoretical ideas into the language of mathematics. This, however, had nothing to do with being poor at mathematics; he simply wasn’t a mathematician and was often dealing with very advanced topics in mathematics that only mathematicians were generally proficient at. Even in these cases though, he typically picked up what he needed to know very quickly from the mathematicians who helped him.

Bonus Facts:

  • Yet another myth surrounding Einstein is that he was the instigator of the theory that we only use 10% of our brains, something that has since been thoroughly debunked (both by the fact that he never said that and that we actually use all of our brains.)
  • While Einstein excelled at mathematics, he was very poor at language, particularly early on in his life (this also carried on to a lesser degree later in his life as well, including being initially rejected at the Federal Polytechnic Academy due to poor marks in non-science related subjects). By his own account, he didn’t start speaking until he was four years old. This, however, may have significantly aided in him developing the habit of thinking in images, rather than words, similar to how many deaf people think. This habit of thinking in images is largely how he first thought up the idea of special and general relativity using “thought experiments”, called Gedankenexperiment. Indeed, his first idea that there was something wrong with Maxwell’s equations came when he was sixteen and performed a thought experiment imagining what would happen if you were traveling at the speed of light and observed light traveling alongside you. The light, from this perspective, would then seem stationary to you, but Maxwell’s equations didn’t allow for this. He subsequently wrote an essay on this, at sixteen, and began formulating a new theory based on this thought experiment, which eventually resulted in his paper on special relativity.
  • When Einstein graduated from college, he failed to find work in academia as well as failed to be accepted into any doctoral program. Instead, he accepted a job as a third class patent clerk in a Swiss patent office. In his spare time, with the help of his wife, Mileva Mari, to double check his work (she was a physicist and slightly more advanced than he in mathematics), he wrote four papers that changed the landscape of Physics: proving that light acts as both particles and waves, not just waves; proving the existence of atoms and molecules; illustrating his theory of special relativity; and outlining the relationship between matter and energy.
  • Einstein eventually got his wife to agree to divorce him by offering her the money he would receive when he eventually would win a Nobel Prize for one or more of his papers he wrote in 1905 (no lack of confidence there) :-). Apparently, she must have thought he had a good shot at it too someday, because, after thinking it over for a week, she accepted. She ended up having to wait until 1921, but eventually got the money.
  • Another popular myth is that Einstein received a Nobel Prize for his theory of special relativity. In fact, he actually received it for “the discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”. At the time, Einstein was immensely popular with the public and there was a big push for him to win a Nobel Prize for his work. However, there was quite a bit of controversy surrounding his work in special relativity, so the committee did not want to award him a Nobel Prize for that. Carl Wilhelm Oseen eventually suggested that they could award him a Nobel Prize for discovering a new law of Physics, thereby getting around the problem of special relativity potentially not being correct, while pleasing the masses that were pushing hard for him to win a Nobel Prize. Einstein never won another Nobel Prize, despite special and general relativity revolutionizing theoretical physics.
  • Unlike many scientists, Einstein was a believer in God. However, not necessarily the God of any particular religion. He described his belief as such: “A spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way, the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort.” … “We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.”
  • Another myth surrounding Einstein is that he had an affair with Marilyn Monroe. In fact, he never even met her. Many proponents of this myth claim that Monroe suggested they have a baby together, making the perfect child, having her looks and his brain. He supposedly retorted, “But what if it has my looks and your brain?” This, of course, never happened and this anecdote is also commonly assigned to other actresses and intellectuals, including Isadora Duncan and George Bernard Shaw.
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  • Kristopher Donnelly

    “I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”
    And the library quote in full:
    Your question [about God] is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s Pantheism. I admire even more his contributions to modern thought. Spinoza is the greatest of modern philosophers, because he is the first philosopher who deals with the soul and the body as one, not as two separate things.”

    “My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.”

    “From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist. … It is always misleading to use anthropomorphical concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere—childish analogies. We have to admire in humility and beautiful harmony of the structure of this world—as far as we can grasp it. And that is all.”

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