Friday, December 2

Einstein was good at math and was always an outstanding student: why history to the contrary is a myth


“Things were also going well for Einstein academically. In his midterms in October 1898 he had finished the first of its kindwith an average of 5.7 out of a maximum of 6. The second, with a 5.6, was his friend and math note-taker Marcel Grossmann».

This paragraph comes from the biography of Albert Einstein that the American journalist Walter Isaacson published in 2007, entitled ‘Einstein. His life and his universe ‘, and reflects very clearly what a good student he was. He was about to graduate from one of the most prestigious universities in Europe, the Federal Polytechnic School of Zurich in Switzerland, and was one of the top students in his class.

A cheeky student with a natural predisposition to reject authority

From his childhood Einstein had shown to have the ability to be passionate for everything that aroused his curiosity, but he also viewed with disdain what he considered anecdotal or of little relevance. Even if it was imposed on him by his teachers. This character earned him a reputation as a rebel, and even as an insolent student, during his studies in Munich, when he was a teenager.

The myth that defends that he was bad at mathematics, and even that he was a bad student, has been built on a misinterpretation of some of the events that took place during his academic life.

At university he gained a reputation for being a highly intelligent and intuitive student, but some of his professors, including Heinrich Weber, the head of the physics department, considered him to be a brash student with a constant predisposition to misunderstanding. systematically reject authority. This attitude caused Einstein to stumble a few times during his training, but it does not invalidate the enormous capacity he had as a student.

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The myth that defends that he was bad at mathematics, and even that he was a bad student, has been built on a misinterpretation of some of the events that took place during his academic life. Most of them occurred as a consequence of his rebellious nature and against accepting impositions that for him were unfounded, and his biographers, including Walter Isaacson and his friend Philipp Frank, They explain it very well.

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In this article we propose to explore three of the events in Einstein’s academic life that have contributed to forging his reputation as a completely undeserved bad student. There are other facts whose misinterpretation has also been able to reinforce that distorted image that some people still have about him today, but these three in particular are enough for us to dismantle a myth that to a certain extent clouds the figure of what is undoubtedly one of the most important physicists in history.

In his scale of notes a 1 was an outstanding

Einstein was always one of the best students in the class. Often he the best of them all. Isaacson and Frank point out in their biographies that with less than 15 years mastered differential and integral calculus, which leaves no doubt about how comfortable he felt with mathematics. During his studies in preparation for the entrance exams at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich he obtained a grade of 1 in many subjects.

This note was repeated later, during university entrance exams, but it is crucial that we bear in mind that in those years the grading scale used in Switzerland, unlike the one used in Germany, proposed 1 as highest grade and a 6 as the lowest grade. Einstein got a lot of 1’s and 2’stwo notes that are equivalent to an outstanding and a notable high today, and that as a student leave him in a much more favorable position than the one that corresponds to him according to the myth.

The entrance examinations for the Federal Polytechnic School of Zurich

The first time Einstein took the university entrance exams, he was sixteen years old. Two less than usual. His grades in math and physics impressed Heinrich Weberwho, as I mentioned a few lines above, was the head of the physics department at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

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Weber was so impressed by his academic performance that he invited him to audit his classes.

Young Albert failed his exams in some non-scientific subjects, but Weber was so impressed by his academic performance that he invited him to attend your classes as a listener and suggested that he stay in Zurich for another year and take the entrance exams again the following year.

Einstein accepted his offer, and did better, albeit reluctantly, in the non-scientific subjects. He had more than enough ability to get good grades in all his subjects, but at that time he already showed a bit of a keen interest in everything he did. it had nothing to do with science.

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It seemed to him that he was wasting valuable time preparing for those subjects that did not contribute anything to his scientific career. Still, on his second try passed the entrance exams with good grades, and in October 1896, aged just seventeen, he enrolled at the Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich. As we have just seen, it is true that Einstein did not pass the university entrance exams the first time, but the context in which he took them does not leave him in a bad position.

Einstein graduated from college with a grade of 4.9

During the years in which Einstein was a student at the Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich, the educational authorities changed the scale of qualifications to make it coincide with that used in other countries, such as Germany. Onwards a 6 would be the highest gradeand a 1 (or a 0 if the ignorance of the matter was absolute), the lowest.

Einstein’s transcript was packed with 6. As I mentioned in the first paragraph of this article, during his midterm exams in October 1898 he had finished first in his class, with an average of 5.7. Despite his clashes with some professors, his grades were outstanding, but in order to graduate he had to present a research paper similar to the end-of-grade papers that university students must prepare today.

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Einstein14years

At just 14 years old, which is the age he is in this photograph, Einstein mastered differential and integral calculus, leaving no doubt about how comfortable he was with mathematics.

Einstein proposed to Weber to carry out an experiment with which he intended to split a ray of light, reflect it in two different directions and check if there was a difference in energy depending on whether or not its direction was the same as that of the movement of the light. Earth through the ether. Weber rejected his proposal because other students had carried out similar experiments before Einstein, and they were unsuccessful.

Einstein was passionate about everything that aroused his curiosity, but showed disdain for everything he considered anecdotal or irrelevant

The second idea that Einstein proposed to Weber was to explore the relationship between the ability of various materials to conduct heat and electricity, but this was also rejected by his graduate thesis director. In the end, Einstein and Mileva Marić, a fellow student with whom he married a little later, did a paper dedicated to one of Weber’s specialties: heat conduction.

The grades they obtained were the lowest in the class, a 4.5 Einstein and a 4 Marić, both out of 6, which did not prevent Albert from finally graduating with a 4.9. Out of 6 again. There is no doubt that Einstein’s relatively poor grade on his graduation paper it was the reflection of his disagreement with the theme that he was forced to develop in the face of Weber’s refusal of his first two proposals.

As I mentioned a few lines above, Einstein was passionate about everything he aroused his curiositybut showed disdain for everything he considered anecdotal or irrelevant.

Cover image: Google (colorized by Michael W. Gorth)

Bibliography: ‘My vision of the world’, Albert Einstein | ‘Einstein. His life and his universe’, Walter Isaacson | ‘Einstein: His Life And Times’, Philipp Frank

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