Did Einstein Really Fail Math?

It is a commonly held belief that Albert Einstein was a subpar student in his youth, and he even flunked math once, before becoming one of the most influential physicists of all time. However, it would seem that while he was indeed not a remarkably good student of languages, his math skills far surpassed those of his peers.

It is often said the Einstein was dyslexic. This is seems unlikely, given that he read a lot and gained most of his knowledge through reading. While he wasn’t an outstanding student overall, his maths skills were always notable.

In an open letter sent to a Munich newspaper in 1929, a H. Wieleitner (then principal of the Luitpold Gymnasium, Einstein’s old middle school) reported that “with 1 as the highest grade and 6 the lowest, Einstein’s marks in Greek, Latin and mathematics oscillated between 1 and 2 until, toward the end, he invariably scored 1 in math”.

According to Einstein’s sister (as recorded by Walter Isaacson in his book, Einstein: The Life of a Genius), the young Albert “already had a predilection for solving complicated problems in applied arithmetic” and he decided to see if he could jump ahead by learning geometry and algebra on his own. His parents bought him additional textbooks so that he could master new skills over summer vacation. Not only did he learn proofs from the books, he tackled newer theories by trying to prove them on his own. At one point, his engineer uncle even challenged him to prove the Pythagorean theorem, which he eventually did.

Later, with the support of his parents, Einstein decided to focus on studying engineering. He tried to gain admission to the Zurich Polytechnic, a local technical college, two years before the typical age of admission. Because he didn’t receive a middle school diploma, he had to take an entry exam, which he failed. While he had the sufficient knowledge of mathematics and physics, he wasn’t prepared enough from botanics.

In 1935, Einstein was allegedly shown an article with the headline “Greatest living mathematician failed in mathematics.” He laughed. “I never failed in mathematics,” he replied. “Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus.”

In the end, Einstein went back to finish middle school, which would allow him to enter the Zurich Polytechnic without taking the entry exams. When looking at his grades from his final year in middle school, the 1895-96 academic year, it becomes clear that he was never close to failing. With 6 the highest grade and 1 the lowest, all of his maths and physics all his grades were 6’s (he was the only one to achieve such a feat in a class of 10). Even in French, his weakest subject, he managed to get a 3.

While at the Zurich Polytechnic, Einstein took part in a maths and physics course, so mathematics played a central role in his later education, too. During his 4 years at the Polytechnic, he usually got 5’s and 6’s in Physics and 4’s in Mathematics; which is pretty far from flunking. His final GPA was 4.9, the second weakest in his class of 5. As Walter Isaacson remarked, “although history refutes the delicious myth that he flunked math in high school, at least it does offer as a consolation the amusement that he graduated college near the bottom of his class”.

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