Going on the Record

The Honorable Greek Geek from Manchester (that’s me) would like to offer his most congenial and abject apologies to the Respected Java Geek from Nashua (that’s Doug). On Sunday, I made a comment that Albert Einstein had failed mathematics as a child. When Doug hung a “BUSTED” sign on the sound booth during the sermon (a practice not to be encouraged in most churches but one that is right at home at Heritage), I questioned his facts.

Upon further research, Doug is most correct, although I must offer this anecdote of clarification.

Einstein’s sister inadvertently started the rumor of Einstein’s failure when she quoted him as saying that as a child he had a more difficult time with “easier” math than “hard” math. So, although it is a myth, it is a myth that was based on a misunderstanding of a true statement. It was not conjured up out of thin air.

As a point of fact, Einstein was clearly a genius even as a child, and he mastered both Euclid geometry and calculus by the age of twelve. He did, from time to time, miss assignments or simply not complete them because he felt they did not further the curricula or challenge him. He was constantly in trouble with the administration at his school, Luitpold Gymnasium, because he felt their structured and rigid curriculum did not encourage creative thinking and stunted learning. And when his family moved to Italy, he dropped out of school without telling his parents so he could join them during the term. He finished school with them.

Later in life, he failed his entrance examination to the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich but retook the exam and was accepted into the school. It is also true that he did not obtain a job teaching physics or mathematics until 1912, seven years after solving Brownian motion, revamping Newtonian gravity and completely changing the world of physics.

Since we’re on the topic of dispelling Einstein myths, he also did not receive a Nobel Prize for his work in relativity. His Nobel prize came in 1921 for another work entirely, the QED theory of light. Although general relativity totally changed the landscape of physics, it was largely incomprehensible to the vast majority of physicists. It would take decades before people began to grasp its implications. The quantizing of light, its inherent wave-particle duality – was something that practically everyone was working on, and was stumped by, at the time. Einstein solved the problem almost out of hand, a testament to his greatness.

So, now you know the truth – well, more of it than you did before.

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