Did Einstein Really Fail Math Class?

Einstein in 1921. Source: public domain.
Einstein in 1921. Source: public domain.

A discussion of theoretical physicist Albert Einstein often contains the phrase "scientific genius," and he is often mentioned alongside the likes of Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei. Born in the German Empire in 1879, Einstein is credited with the development of the theory of relativity, which is one of the two pillars of modern physics. He well known to the general public for his formula E=MC2, which is considered "the world's most famous equation." Einstein's work has also had significant influence on the philosophy of science. In 1921, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect. However, there is a longstanding rumor that Einstein failed grade school math. Is it possible that one of history's brightest scientific minds failed math class as a child?

Einstein’s Early Education

While most people might assume Einstein was a genius throughout all stages of his life, some accounts claim he struggled during the early part of his education. Einstein learned to talk later than most of his peers, often threw violent tantrums, and his parents even thought he suffered from a learning disability. Additionally, Einstein is often cited as experiencing dyslexia, although this claim cannot be fully supported. There are also rumors that he was slow to write, although his biographers, Abraham Pais and Ronald W. Clark, refute such claims, but acknowledge that his parents were concerned about his development. According to Einstein’s son, Hans Albert, his father was always withdrawn, even as a young boy, and was engrossed in books and the works of others.

Although Einstein was a gifted student, attentive, and well-behaved, he found it difficult to secure a job, partly because one of his professors wrote him a negative recommendation letter. He also described himself as "a pariah" among academics, and was always misunderstood for his non-conformity and independence.

Origin of the Story That Einstein Failed Math

The rumor that Einstein failed math in the fourth grade is not true. However, he did fail certain parts of the entrance exam when applying to the Federal Polytech School in Zurich. Einstein enrolled for the test when he was two years younger than other applicants, and performed strongly in math and physics, but poorly in the non-scientific subjects. As a result, his application was rejected and he continued his studies at the Canton School. Einstein applied himself and later passed the entrance exam, earning a place at the prestigious school in Zurich. Therefore, while Einstein did struggle with certain non-science subjects, he excelled at math throughout his life.


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