Thursday, Apr. 05, 2007

Did Einstein flunk math?

One widely held belief about Einstein is that he failed math as a student, an assertion that is made, often accompanied by the phrase "as everyone knows," by scores of books and thousands of websites designed to reassure underachieving students. A Google search of Einstein failed math turns up more than 500,000 references. The allegation even made it into the famous "Ripley's Believe it or Not!" newspaper column.

Alas, Einstein's childhood offers history many savory ironies, but this is not one of them. In 1935, a rabbi in Princeton showed him a clipping of the Ripley's column with the headline "Greatest living mathematician failed in mathematics." Einstein laughed. "I never failed in mathematics," he replied, correctly. "Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus." 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. Not only did he learn the proofs in the books, he also tackled the new theories by trying to prove them on his own. He even came up on his own with a way to prove the Pythagorean theory.