Einstein—The Early Years

Many of you will have heard it said that Albert Einstein—the man whose name is synonymous with “genius”—was a “bad student” in school. Or that he was possibly dyslexic, or borderline autistic, or even schizophrenic—all claims that have been published in recent years.

A comforting thought for those of us who spent too much of our youth daydreaming, or who were shy or withdrawn, but who remain convinced we are geniuses!

More recently, there has been a trend towards debunking the idea that Einstein was a poor student and/or mentally “handicapped” in some way, as a sort of urban myth.

What is the truth of the matter? It turns out to be somewhere in the middle—as usual.

In their witty and incisive article, “The Legend of the Dull-Witted Child Who Grew Up to Be a Genius,” Barbara Wolff, a researcher with the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Hananya Goodman, a science librarian at the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering in Ashdod, Israel—show conclusively that as a school child Einstein actually did quite well in the lower elementary grades (see here).

It is also true, however, that he disliked the Luitpold Gymnasium (high school) in Munich, where he was a student from age eight to age 15. He seems to have had a rebellious temperament—a sure sign of psychosis in a teenaged boy!—and to have had clashes with some of his teachers there. In essence, he seems to have chafed under an old-fashioned system of rote learning, and to have pursued his interest in physics avidly on his own.

His family had to relocate to Italy following the failure of his father’s electrical equipment business, and at age 15 Einstein found himself at loose ends. He appears to have been quite glad to leave the Luitpold Gymnasium behind, but it was unclear where he should study next.

The best-known part of the story has to do with his failure in the entrance exam on his first attempt to enter the Zurich Polytechnic Institute.* Since he had left Gymnasium without a diploma, he was asked to take an entrance exam instead, which he failed. However, his grades on the exam in mathematics and physics were excellent! The reason he failed was that the Swiss college, which was one of the outstanding schools in Europe, demanded a higher level of attainment in other subjects like French than had been required by his Gymnasium in Munich.

After this temporary setback, Einstein was sent to a private school in northern Switzerland to finish high school in the normal way. Two years later, with his diploma now in hand, he was admitted to the famed Zurich college at age 17 without further ado. Once again, the truth is not as glamorous as the myth.

After his somewhat checkered high school career, how did the world-famous-physicist-to-be do in college?

It was a lot like the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich all over again. It wasn’t that Einstein couldn’t do the work. It was just that he already knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life, and insisted on doing things his own way. As astrophysicist Michael M. Shara has recently put it (go here):

There was this kid, this cocky, arrogant kid who had picked up all this physics by himself, and not by listening to these demi-god professors . . . He just went off and did it by himself.

One of his teachers at the Zurich Polytechnic, the eminent mathematician and physicist Hermann Minkowski, remembered that when he first heard the news of Einstein’s paper on special relativity, he remarked at the time:**

Oh, that Einstein, always missing lectures—I really would not have believed him capable of it!

And, of course, everyone who knows anything about Einstein has heard that when he graduated from the Zurich Polytechnic, he could not find a university teaching position commensurate with his gifts for a number of years. Instead, he had to accept a humble job as a patent assessor in the Swiss federal patent office in Bern.

It was there, in 1905, aged 26, in relative intellectual isolation, that he penned the papers on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, the special theory of relativity, and the equivalence of matter and energy that turned the history of physics upside down and eventually made his name a household word.

In the case of Einstein, myth really cannot compete with the breathtaking facts!


*Better known today under the name ETH Zurich—Eidgenosse Technische Hochschule, or Federal Technical College, Zurich.

**Cited in Constance Reid, Hilbert—Courant (Springer Verlag, 1986), p. 105.

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