Urban myths abound. One that is simply dead wrong, but consistently repeated, is that Albert Einstein failed at math as a young student. It’s an extremely useful fallacy to repeat when seeking to console young students whose math grades are poor. “Keep trying. Even Einstein failed math.” But as helpful as it is in that situation, the rumor, which began long ago, is false. He was, in fact, an exceptional math student.
In primary school, he was at the top of his class and “far above the school requirements” in math. By age 12, his sister recalled, “he 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 the textbooks in advance so that he could master them over summer vacation, which he did. In addition, he developed his own proofs of various mathematical theories, including his own way to prove the Pythagorean Theorem. Also at the age of 12, he began learning calculus.
Some historians opine that the rumor is based on faulty research. At Albert Einstein’s school, the number-based grading scale changed over time, and actually flipped, such that at one time a “1” meant “failing” and at another time it meant “exceptional.” It’s also possible the rumor derives from faulty extrapolation of the fact that he always consulted mathematicians to check his calculations (Einstein himself was a theoretical physicist, not a mathematician).
But the clear and accurate evidence is that young Albert Einstein’s marks were high in mathematics and physics. He also had a good sense of humor. According to Time Magazine, in 1935, a rabbi in Princeton showed Einstein a clipping of the Ripley’s Believe it or Not newspaper column with the headline “Greatest living mathematician failed in mathematics.”
“I never failed in mathematics,” he replied, correctly. “Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus.”