I've heard this repeatedly over the years, that Einstein was bad at math, that he was bad at history, that he was dyslexic. I also read somewhere in my youth that some of the " bad at math" stuff was based on a poor exam score he once received - but that the test had been in French, which Einstein couldn't read.

Can someone cut through the junk and get to the heart of this. Was one of history's greatest "teachers" a bad student, or have a learning disability? I find it hard to believe.

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    +1 this is one of those myths that seem to catch on because it comforts poor students to think that it was true. glad we're shooting them down :) – David Hedlund Mar 17 '11 at 20:52
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    This reminds me of the claim that Bill Gates was a high school dropout, that was common in the late 1990's. Dropping out of Harvard is not even close to being the same thing as dropping out of school. Conversely people seem to want to prove that average people are geniuses (see Wikipedia talk page on singer Kesha). It probably satisfies some deeply contrarian streak. I have read that Einstein was a late talker. – user716 Mar 18 '11 at 10:39
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    @Multilind:The math wasn't done by a 'friend'. The math behind the special theory of relativity was already well known by the time Einstein discovered it's applicability. Had Lorentz realized the physical interpretation of his math, he would have been much more famous. – Confusion Mar 18 '11 at 11:08
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    @Multilind: If most of the theory was done by his friend, then why did Einstein get most of his math done by a friend? Was it because he wanted to maximize the amount of time for intuition, or perhaps because of something else? (okay, the math for special relativity was already done. But what about general relativity?) – InquilineKea Mar 18 '11 at 11:10
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    Should we change the title to eliminate confusion between; Poor (not wealthy) and Poor (not very good). – Richard Stelling Mar 22 '11 at 18:46

No, he wasn't: page with german article and image of school certificate

The Swiss school system has a 6 as best grade, and 1 as poorest, while the german is the other way round. Perhaps the legend is founded there.

Einstein's diploma


Translation of the subjects and grades in the image:

The education council of the Canton Aargau
certifies Albert Einstein, born Mar. 14 1879 
final secondary-school examinations from Sep 18, 19, 21 and 30

German language and literature :    5
French    "      "      "      :    3
English   "      "      "      :    -
Italian   "      "      "      :    5
History                        :    6
Geography                      :    4
Algebra                        :    6
Geometry                       :    6
Descriptive geometry           :    6
Physics                        :    6
Chemistry                      :    5
Natural history                :    5
Artistic drawing               :    4
Technical drawing              :    4

documented at 3rd of Oct., 1896
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  • Is there a way to display in English. I'm multilingual, but that ain't one... – Dogmafrog Mar 17 '11 at 16:08
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    The central point is the image with his certificate on a wall. If you click on it, it gets enlarged. You find grades of 3 (French) once, 4, 5 and 6, with 6 being the best grade. Mathematik hasn't a single grade, but algebra, geometrics, and descriptive geometrics - all 3 with the best grade possible: 6. – user unknown Mar 17 '11 at 16:16
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    @Dogmafrog Google's translation: translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=de&u=http://… – splattne Mar 18 '11 at 10:39
  • Wow always thought this one was true! Nice catch! – Trufa Mar 21 '11 at 14:30
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    Found a CC-licensed image of the diploma, enjoy! – Sklivvz Mar 23 '11 at 0:04

It's a myth that Einstein was bad at math.

In 1935, a rabbi in Princeton showed him [Einstein] a clipping of the Ripley’s [Believe it or Not] column with the headline “Greatest living mathematician failed in mathematics.” Einstein laughed. “I never failed in mathematics,” he replied, correctly. “Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus.” (Source: Time)

Although, as someone who studied physics himself I can tell you that physicists (including Einstein) sometimes do seek help from mathematicians.

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    As they should. A good scientist or engineer recognises when he can benefit from expertise in a field he's not an expert in himself and seeks such experts when needed. – jwenting Mar 18 '11 at 9:58
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    +1 I've never heard he was bad at math, just that he "failed third-grade math" - this is usually followed by "so if you work hard enough, you can become good at anything!" It's actually kind of disappointing that this isn't true. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Mar 22 '11 at 22:47
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    It isn't true. It never is. I'll never play in NBA and Mike Tyson will never be a good programmer. If you work hard enough you can become good at "something" not "anything". – user4951 Mar 14 '12 at 3:33
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    Basing such self-defeating arguments on a refutation of this single trivial myth is an egregious logical fallacy. On the other hand, this well-referenced, heavily cited journal paper asserts quite convincingly that what we believe to be talent is almost entirely a red herring, and that deliberate, extended practice is the key to achieving results in any skill. (The association with "Freakonomics" is an unfortunate coincidence.) – bright-star Dec 29 '13 at 9:34

This myth might finally be dead (or at least bleeding out)....

In 1896 Einstein enrolled in a four year program at Zurich Polytechnic. In 1900 the Polytechnic awarded him a mathematics and physics teaching diploma. Here is his Leaving Certificate...Marks are from 1 (lowest) to 6 (highest)...

enter image description here

Other than Physical experiments for beginners with a mark of 1 (maybe physical experiment wasn't his bag).

More myth debunking evidence can be found in this New York Times article from 1984:

There is some great stuff at the Einstein Archives Online and it looks like the full collection is moving online...

...his entire archive of 80,000 documents held as a bequest by the university will be digitized and put online, thanks to a $500,000 grant...

You can't tell Newton F=ma is wrong if you can't do the math. Albert was one smart dude.

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Einstein clearly was a physical genius - the greatest physicist since Newton - and he is widely known for the following seminal contributions:

Most of his contributions did not require an extensive mathematical knowledge. The average mathematical level of a physicist of his time was more than enough to understand most of his contribution.

That is, with the very notable exception of general relativity. GR is based on differential geometry which is way more sophisticated than mere calculus or Lorentzian/Euclidean geometry which is pretty much all that was needed for the rest.

That is why it took Einstein 10 years of hard work to extend special relativity to general relativity - he knew perfectly well where he was going, but he needed to study the maths.

I believe that his "struggling with the maths" was a bit misinterpreted. He was far-exceeding his contemporaries on the subject and that is why he was struggling - not because he was not "good at maths". GR is still considered graduate-level physics because of the complicated maths needed.

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  • Great points on the relativity (heh) of skill levels. Consider the analogy of someone claiming that a famous psychiatrist wasn't really a good doctor because his skill level in neurosurgery was slightly below average for physicians of his time. Most psychiatrists don't practice, or need to practice, neurosurgery, so a lower than average skill level in it has little practical meaning. – Robert Columbia Nov 26 '16 at 13:47

Einstein online mentions Einstein had some problems passing an exam so that he can start Polytechnical Institute studies at earlier age then normally allowed, but his problems were limited to linguistic and historical subjects:

At the beginning of October 1895 Einstein wrote this exam. He obtained the best results in the mathematical- and natural science subjects, but in the linguistic- and historical subjects his achievements were unsatisfactory. His overall result was rated as insufficient.

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    This is the correct answer, and might be the source of the rumor. It still does not qualify Einstein as a poor student, as he was two years too young to take this exam but had a special permission from the director of the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich (known nowadays as ETH Zurich or Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich). – pommy Jul 2 '14 at 15:55

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