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.