It is a popular misconception that Albert Einstein, the brain behind the theory of relativity and the father of modern physics, flunked math as a child. In fact, this myth originated with an issue of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not titled “Greatest living mathematician failed in mathematics.” There were actually two inaccuracies in that title: A) Einstein was a physicist, not a mathematician, and B) he never failed math. Ever.
Einstein reportedly found the piece to be hilarious, proving once and for all that his odd hair-do really was proof of a great sense of humor.
Where the rumor started is anyone’s guess, but why the rumor has been so widely propagated is relatively clear: If Einstein truly had flunked math as a child and then gone on to become one of the world’s most famous and admired scientific minds, then his life’s tale would have been the perfect balm to the soul of anyone who ever failed anything. This false story is often used to bolster the spirits of a student flunking math – “You’ll get it eventually, just look at Einstein!”
In reality, Einstein was gifted early in childhood. He had an inquiring mind and a deep interest in science. The boy Einstein read science textbooks for fun. By the age of 12 he had taught himself geometry and by 15 he had mastered differential and integral calculus. The lesson: Einstein shouldn’t be used as an example of why it’s okay to do poorly in math.
While Einstein can’t be held up as an example of why failing math is cool, his life offers another important lesson to live by: Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” This was one of the reasons why Einstein was so interested in theoretical physics: Because the field required the imagination necessary to go beyond what anyone else had learned.