We all know that Albert Einstein, one of the great geniuses of history, had bad grades as a teenager. It’s one of those motivational stories that every kid struggling at school has been told. Some have theorised that perhaps because he was such a genius, he was bored at school and thus didn’t put in the effort required. The problem with such theories? Einstein was actually almost a straight-A student.
There is no shortage of myths and misconceptions in the fields of both science and history. From the oft-repeated canard that medieval people thought the world was flat, through to the misconception that water drains from a sink in opposite circular motions in the northern and southern hemisphere (though to be fair, it is based loosely on scientific reasoning).
In Einstein’s case, the myth about his poor grades apparently resulted from a misreading of his Swiss report card by German authors. In an article in Viewpoint (PDF), the magazine of the British Society for the History of Science – titled “Myths, Zombies and History of Science Story Telling”, science historian Thony Christie explains how the myth began:
Einstein was actually almost a straight-A student with an excellent school report. Strangely enough, it is this school report that is the origin of the myth. In Germany, students are not graded by letters but by the numbers one to six, with one being the equivalent of an A-grade and six the equivalent of an F. However Einstein took his high school diploma in Switzerland, where the grading system was, in his times, the exact reverse of the German one, with six at the top and one at the bottom: Einstein’s high school diploma is full of sixes!
German authors, assuming the German grading system, thought that he had failed nearly all his subjects! And so a myth that refuses to die was born through a simple but understandable error.
Here’s the school report in question:
Christie mentions a number of other historical myths in his short article – including the suggestion that Copernicus didn’t publish his De revolutionibus (promoting the ‘heretical’ theory that Earth revolved around the Sun) for many years because he feared the reaction of the Church – that appear to have their basis in a historical fiction about the conflict between science and the Church that was largely created by two authors in the late 19th century:
The geocentric contra heliocentric mythology is a core argument in a much bigger history of science myth that there has been some sort of fundamental existential battle between science and religion through the ages. Actually, this myth is a product of the 18th and 19th centuries, which interestingly is when the flat earth myth first emerged.
Its two most well know-proponents were the Americans John William Draper, with his History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), and Andrew Dickson White, with his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896).
The flat earth myth was most widely propagated by another American, Washington Irving, in his largely fictional but purportedly factual biography of Christopher Columbus, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, published in 1828. Irving also presented his Columbus as butting heads with a bigoted Catholic Church: a piece of pure fiction.
The Draper-White (or conflict) thesis, as it is generally known by historians of science, has become deeply ingrained in the fabric of Western culture over the last two hundred years. One can often find even leading intellectuals expounding it as gospel truth and also accusing historians of science, who try to correct them, of being religious apologists.