Quantum Bayesian Networks

March 9, 2015

The Truth About Einstein’s Bad Grades

Filed under: Uncategorized — rrtucci @ 5:19 pm

It is often said that Albert Einstein had bad math grades in school. There is some truth to that assertion, but unless one delves into the details of Einstein’s life, one might get the impression that Einstein was the most amazing late bloomer in the history of mankind. Not at all.

To begin with, let me emphasize that Einstein was very appreciated and considered a wunderkind by his teachers during his gymnasium, the equivalent of high school. Throughout gymnasium, he got the highest possible grades in Math and Physics. See this NYT article telling us just that. (Einstein did hate French, but who can blame him for that, when he could talk a far cooler language, Italiano, while in Milano with his lifelong buddy, Michelangelo Besso.)

So where does the the myth of Einstein’s bad grades come from? Is there any truth to it? I think so. Albert’s trouble with bad grades started when he reached university. Albert was not a happy camper in college and grad school. Here are some excerpts from the chapter “A very beautiful day” from the book “Reflections on Relativity” by Kevin Brown, available for free on the internet here. I haven’t read Brown’s book, but I highly recommend that you read this small chapter entitled “A very beautiful day”. It’s a very beautiful chapter. Excerpts:

Despite his love of physics, Einstein did not perform very impressively as an under-graduate in an academic setting, and this continued to be true in graduate school.  Hermann Minkowski referred to his one-time pupil as a “lazy dog”. As the biographer Clark wrote, “Einstein became, as far as the professorial staff of the ETH was concerned, one of the awkward scholars who might or might not graduate but who in either case was a great deal of trouble”. Professor Pernet at one point suggested to Einstein that he switch to medicine or law rather than physics, saying “You can do what you like, I only wish to warn you in your own interest”. Clearly Einstein “pushed along with his formal work just as much as he had to, and found his real education elsewhere”. Often he didn’t even attend the lectures, relying on Marcel Grossmann’s notes to cram for exams, making no secret of the fact that he wasn’t interested in what men like Weber had to teach him. His main focus during the four years while enrolled at the ETH was independently studying the works of Kirchhoff, Helmholtz, Hertz, Maxwell, Poincare, etc., flagrantly outside the course of study prescribed by the ETH faculty. Some idea of where his studies were leading him can be gathered from a letter to his fellow student and future wife Mileva Maric written in August of 1899

I returned to the Helmholtz volume and am at present studying again in depth Hertz’s propagation of electric force. The reason for it was that I didn’t understand Helmholtz’s treatise on the principle of least action in electrodynamics. I am more and more convinced that the electrodynamics of moving bodies, as presented today, is not correct, and that it should be possible to present it in a simpler way. The introduction of the term “ether” into the theories of electricity led to the notion of a medium of whose motion one can speak without being able, I believe, to associate a physical meaning with this statement. I think that the electric forces can be directly defined only for empty space…

Einstein later recalled that after graduating in 1900 the “coercion” of being forced to take the final exams “had such a detrimental effect that… I found the consideration of any scientific problem distasteful to me for an entire year”. He achieved an overall mark of 4.91 out of 6, which is rather marginal. Academic positions were found for all members of the graduating class in the physics department of the ETH with the exception of Einstein, who seems to have been written off as virtually unemployable, “a pariah, discounted and little loved”, as he later said.

Toward the end of 1901 Einstein had still found no permanent position.  As he wrote to Grossmann in December of that year, “I am sure I would have found a position [by now] were it not for Weber’s intrigues against me”. It was only because Grossmann’s father happened to be good friends with Haller, the chief of the Swiss Patent Office, that Einstein was finally given a job, despite the fact that Haller judged him to be “lacking in technical training”. Einstein wrote gratefully to the Grossmann’s that he “was deeply moved by your devotion and compassion which do not let you forget an old, unlucky friend”, and that he would spare no effort to live up to their recommendation.  He had applied for Technical Expert 2nd class, but was given the rank of 3rd class (in June 1902).

As soon as he’d been away from the coercive environment of academia long enough that he could stand once again to think about science, he resumed his self-directed studies, which he pursued during whatever free time a slightly lazy patent examiner can make for himself. His circumstances were fairly unusual for someone working on a doctorate, especially since he’d already been rejected for academic positions by both the ETH and the University of Zurich. He was undeniably regarded by the academic community (and others) as “an awkward, slightly lazy, and certainly intractable young man who thought he knew more than his elders and betters”.

The friendship with Besso may have been, in some ways, the most meaningful of Einstein’s life. Michael and his wife sometimes took care of Einstein’s children, tried to reconcile Einstein with Mileva when their marriage was foundering, and so on. Another of the few close personal ties that Einstein was able to maintain over the years was with Max von Laue, who Einstein believed was the only one of the Berlin physicists who behaved decently during the Nazi era. Following the war, a friend of Einstein’s was preparing to visit Germany and asked if Einstein would like him to convey any messages to his old friends and colleagues. After a moment of thought, Einstein said “Greet Laue for me”. The friend, trying to be helpful, then asked specifically about several other individuals among Einstein’s former associates in his homeland. Einstein thought for another moment, and said “Greet Laue for me”.

Seems like Albert got bad math grades, not in high school but at the uni., and not because he was a lazy dog, but because he felt that his university (ETH Zurich, considered then and now one of the best technical universities in the world) addressed very poorly the needs of its students. (Albert also seems to have felt that many university academics were not very moral people. I’ve experienced that myself in quantum computation many times and documented some of it in this blog).

The bad news for us is that universities change at a glacial pace. They are pretty much the same today as they were in the early 1900 when Einstein attended one.

The good news is that MOOCs are going to change drastically the current university system. For more info about my opinion of MOOCs, follow this link.

Some people might say that Einstein was unique, far above the rest of his class, and that he was a self-studier at heart. How could a university satisfy his needs, and those of every other student as well. Precisely. That’s why a modern teaching system like MOOCs can be taken at different speeds by different students, and students can choose teachers from a large pool of possible candidates from all around the world, leading them to find a teacher that thinks the same way they do. Of course, current university systems do none of this, and they are outrageously overpriced too.



  1. Actually universities in Germany had changed for the better until they started to adopted the lousy anglo-saxon BSc degree, and academic freedom for students started to vanish. When I studied physics attending lectures was not compulsory. And if the lectures were miserable, as they often were, self-study was the way to go about it. As long as you passed the exams and did well on the prescribed exercises you were fine.

    The final qualifying exams were oral, and as my interest, even in in the undergrad program, was fully focused on QM, I was not at all prepared in theoretical mechanics, which of course the professor who took the theoretical physics exam focused on. He let me pass the Vordiplom (which now would be BSc) with the worst grade possible, but recommended me to change fields. So, I guess, I have at least one thing in common with Einstein 🙂

    Anyhow, I obviously ignored the profs recommendation, I already told him back then that this would be out of the questions as physics simply interests me too much, I then switched university and got my M.Sc. at Heidelberg, where I received my best grade in theoretical physics.

    As to Einstein, he was so sidelined that it was very fortunate that Max Planck picked up his ground breaking publications, and realized how important they were. Nowadays with the the plethora of publications, somebody like Einstein would be forced to publish in third rate journals with probably no impact whatsoever.

    Comment by Quax — March 9, 2015 @ 9:59 pm

  2. I think MOOCs will change things… that and the advance of computational science generally. One has to appreciate that much of the current orthodoxy is based upon an untenable proposition: that classical and quantum mechanics are fundamentally different theories incapable of close connection. This is simply the repetition of an old error dating to Bohr’s rejection of the continuum formalism of Schroedinger. If you read closely the recent work in many-body physics, spintronics and quantum chemistry you will find that, slowly, by baby steps, the community reverts to the original ideas of matter waves in a configurational space, as pioneered by de Broglie and Schroedinger. The major rump of opposition remains particle physics since folks there believe that it is not possible to build any theory at all without second-quantization. Again, the progress in relativistic quantum chemistry, including numerical simulations of the Dirac-Fock equation prove otherwise.

    Right now, there is no University course anywhere that would teach a student how to think in this frame. The necessary course is actually pretty obvious. It would be the relativistic update to the magisterial four-volume tome of J.C. Slater “Quantum Theory of Molecules and Solids”, in which the appropriate physical thinking is developed in the true spirit of de Broglie and Schroedinger.

    Nobody has yet managed to do for particle physics what Slater did for quantum chemistry but I would warrant that this is due almost solely to neglect. While there have been studies of the classical field theories associated with Yang-Mills gauge theories such an approach is pretty much frowned upon in polite company.

    The assertion is that “nothing can be learned” by studying a classical field theory! This is in spite of the fact that classical field theories actually subsume the complex-valued field theories which are characteristic of quantum mechanics (something I showed in the mid-1990s to zero acclaim). Right now, the community of physicists have trouble seeing the wood for the trees. However, this matters little. Quantum chemists and materials scientists are making great strides. It is only a matter of time until one of them invades particle physics with the startling discovery that methods such as Dirac-Fock decorrelated approximations can be just as well applied to the Yang-Mills case and higher. That would be a deal of work, but someone will do it soon enough.

    It is just that the egos of physicists have blinded them from learning anything at all from their more practically minded cousins in quantum chemistry and materials science.

    In truth, these folk have their heads so firmly implanted up their own arses that they see each sunrise through their own front teeth 🙂

    It will change soon enough, but for now it is just comedy.

    Comment by Kingsley Jones (@savvyyabby) — March 10, 2015 @ 2:43 am

  3. it is quite clear from this detail & others that einstein was a contrarian from a young age, it was part of his personality, and he was interested in finding *gaps* in existing knowledge as much as knowledge itself. this is a rare quality. its clear he was interested in *research* at a young age, even at undergraduate level. the modern system does not afford much possibilities for this either although the concept of “research experiences for undergraduates” comes close. the truth is that the educational system, and even society itself, does not really value iconoclasts and brilliant thinkers highly, who are interested in changing the status quo, they have to swim upstream most of their lives just like fish in the water, and that may never change…. kuhns longranging historical analysis sheds some light on this….

    Comment by vznvzn — March 10, 2015 @ 4:20 am

  4. another point, its quite amusing and also a bit ghastly to hear his cohorts/ peers describe him as “lazy”. he was lazy about conventional knowledge and a feverish, more exerted thinker than the greatest scientists of his time in his thirst for pushing the *boundaries* of knowledge, of ranging into terra incognita and mapping new territory. a world class explorer on the level of eg newton, such a figure is close to a once-in-a-generation personality….

    Comment by vznvzn — March 10, 2015 @ 4:22 am

  5. re QM as “matter waves in configuration space” see also superclassical/ emergent QM, recent developments, rough outline/ overview/ leads

    Comment by vznvzn — March 10, 2015 @ 4:29 am

  6. There are a lot more that “particle” theorists have missed by the way, like the already old and mature enough nondispersive wave-packet theory by Besieris, Shaarawi and Ziolkowski based on Brittingham’s heuristic of “Focus Wave Modes”.


    Fortunately, some Russian guys have a much stronger memory then their western colleagues


    Now go ask the modern theoretician if entanglement is (and should) be an “axiom” for all empirical situations and how would we verify that this “axiom” indeed holds for a spin pair with “Bob” over here and “Alice” out in the Oort cloud or the Andromeda galaxy!

    Regarding poor Einstein, I am afraid there ain’t gonna be more like him in this great machine oriented future led by bankers. Then again, when was the last time we heard of a Mozart or a Bach, a Prokopiev, or at least someone as brave as Giacinto Scelsi? Better set up some A.I. driven “smart schools” in our bright future “smart pris…(ups, umm) cities!”


    Comment by Elangel Exterminador — March 15, 2015 @ 1:45 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: