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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

How did Albert Einstein flunk math and still end up so smart?

Category: Society      Published: November 18, 2012

einstein
Albert Einstein did not flunk math. He did very well in school and received his PhD from the University of Zurich. Public Domain Image, source: NASA.

There is no record of Einstein flunking or ever getting low marks in math. Albert Einstein was an all-around good student with exceptional grades in math and science, according to the biography written by Albrecht Folsing. The statement that Einstein was a poor student is pure myth. Another version of this myth states that Einstein revolutionized physics without ever getting a degree, as if to say that advanced education is a waste. The truth is that Einstein received his teaching diploma from Zurich Polytechnic in 1900 and his PhD from the University of Zurich in 1905 (his PhD dissertation was on molecular dimensions).

Still another version of the myth states that Einstein developed his revolutionary theories while working as a lowly patent clerk, a position equivalent to a mailman. While it is true that Einstein worked as a patent clerk, it was not because he was unqualified to teach physics. He simply had not yet found a teaching position at this point in his life (1900-1908). Additionally, a patent clerk is not a mundane job concerned with shuffling papers. Rather, patent clerks evaluate patents for the latest inventions in their field, and therefore must understand the cutting-edge science. Einstein was assigned to evaluate patents for electromagnetic inventions. These devices grappled with scientific questions about signals, light, and time; the same questions Einstein was dealing with in developing relativity. In this way, his patent clerk job was a highly technical and valuable position that helped lead Einstein to his discoveries. Einstein's success seems to be a rare combination of innate genius, curiosity, passion for physics, and, yes, education. Too often the education part is misrepresented. This myth has perhaps survived so long because it is tempting to every school child to justify his bad grades by saying he's the next Einstein.

Topics: Einstein, education, math, school