Did Albert Einstein Really Fail Math?

Quick — think of the smartest person in history. There's no right answer to this question, but a sizable percentage of you probably pictured Albert Einstein — a name that has become synonymous with intelligence. Einstein was indeed a brilliant physicist, vastly advancing humanity's collective understanding of the universe around us. In particular, as explained on Space, Einstein's theory of relativity helped us better understand light, gravity, space, and time, and how they all interact.

But a common story has emerged around Einstein — a story that helps to humanize an otherwise unrelatable titan of science. The story asserts that Albert Einstein, brilliant as he was, actually failed math as a child. And if someone as intelligent as Einstein could fail at math, then there's no reason that you should let your own minor failures stop you from pursuing your goals, right? Well, the truth is that Einstein didn't fail at math. Unsurprisingly, Einstein was a math and science prodigy from a young age. So where did this common myth emerge from?

The exact origins of the "Einstein failed math" myth are unknown, but there's one particularly compelling theory. A 1984 article from The New York Times reveals that, in arithmetic and algebra, Einstein was consistently given a grade of 1 out of 6 at his school in Switzerland. But, at the age of 16, Einstein's math grades took a dramatic turn: he was now getting all 6s.

A change in the grading system at Einstein's school may be the source of the myth

Without context, Einstein's records certainly make it seem like he had failed math as a student. But, as it turns out, the shift in young Einstein's grades was due to his school's sudden decision that "6" would designate the highest score, and "1" the lowest. While we can never know for sure, this grading switch may have been the cause of the legend that Einstein failed math, as Ripley's discusses.

History reports that Einstein was once confronted with this myth during his lifetime, but he easily dismissed it, saying, "Before I was 15 I had mastered differential and integral calculus." In fact, History continues, Einstein's natural abilities made school a boring place for him, and he resented the "mechanical discipline" his teachers demanded.

Nevertheless, you shouldn't feel intimidated by the realization that Albert Einstein was always a math prodigy, as even Einstein couldn't be perfect in all things. At the age of 16, says the Australian Broadcasting Company, Einstein was denied entry to the Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich; his math and science scores were great, but he did poorly in all the other subjects of the entry exam. It seems that Einstein was human after all.