Mental Floss

6 Famous Scientists and Inventors Who Struggled With Math

Mark Mancini
Spencer Arnold Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Spencer Arnold Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images / Spencer Arnold Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Does trying to calculate a tip make you break out in a cold sweat? You’re definitely not alone. Math can be intimidating, to the point where sometimes even the earth's most brilliant scientific minds have trouble crunching numbers.

1. MICHAEL FARADAY (1791-1867)

Thomas Phillips, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It’s hard to say which is more amazing: Faraday’s discoveries or his life’s story. Against all odds, this son of a poor blacksmith overcame class prejudice to become Britain’s preeminent scientist and, in many ways, the father of modernity itself. If you’ve ever pushed an “on” button, you’re in his debt. Faraday built the first electric motor—along with the first electric generator. He also invented the rubber balloon, laid the groundwork for today’s refrigeration technology, and helped illuminate the mysterious world of electromagnetism.

Yet, despite all this, Faraday’s upbringing never stopped haunting him. Like most impoverished boys, he’d received little formal education. Hence, Faraday’s math skills left a lot to be desired. In 1846, he boldly proposed that visible light is a form of electromagnetic radiation. But because he couldn’t back up the idea with mathematics, his colleagues ignored it. Enter James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). Believing the older scientist’s hypothesis, this Scottish physicist & mathematician used ingenious equations to finally prove Faraday right eighteen years later.

2. CHARLES DARWIN (1809-1882)

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Darwin came down with some serious math envy. As a collegiate student, he loathed the subject. “I attempted mathematics,” reads Darwin’s autobiography, “… but I got on very slowly.” The affluent young naturalist went so far as to invite a tutor to join him at his summer home in 1828. After a few frustrating weeks, Darwin dismissed the man.

“The work was repugnant to me,” he wrote, “chiefly from my not being able to see any meaning in the early steps in algebra. This impatience was very foolish, and in after years I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principals of mathematics, for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense.”


Harris & Ewing, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In high school, the Scottish-born inventor of the telephone had a love-hate relationship with math. According to biographer Robert V. Bruce, Bell “enjoyed the intellectual exercise” of this subject, but was “bored and hence careless in working out the final answer once he learned the method.” His grades suffered accordingly. Bell’s mathematical aptitude never improved and, for a scientist, it would remain sub-par until the day he died.

4. THOMAS EDISON (1847-1931)

Louis Bachrach, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“I can always hire a mathematician,” Edison once remarked, “[but] they can’t hire me.” Like all successful entrepreneurs, he was keenly aware of his strengths and weaknesses. As a boy, Edison trudged through Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”). In his own words, according to one Thomas Edison biography, the book left him with nothing but “a distaste for mathematics from which I never recovered.”

Higher math was a topic about which Edison knew almost nothing. So, after co-founding the General Electric Company, he brought German mathematician Charles Proteus Steinmetz into the fold. A numerical genius, Steinmetz oversaw many of G.E.’s technical underpinnings. Previously, Edison had recruited yet another mathematician—Bay Stater Francis Upton—to make calculations that could help him carry out various lab experiments. Together, they worked on such gadgets as the incandescent lamp and the watt-hour meter before parting ways in 1911. 


This summer, Horner cameoed in the third highest-grossing movie of all time. Over the past quarter century, he’s served as a scientific consultant for all four Jurassic Park films and was just rewarded with a brief on-screen appearance during one of Jurassic World’s raptor scenes. Back in the 1970’s, Horner found the western hemisphere’s first-known dinosaur eggs. A legendary paleontologist, he’s forever changed our understanding of how these incredible animals grew up and raised their young.

Horner’s success must have shocked his childhood teachers. The Montana native did poorly in school, which he found “extremely difficult because my progress in reading, writing, and mathematics was excruciatingly slow.” Teenage Horner flunked high school algebra, much to his math-savvy father’s disappointment. Horner would go on to flunk college seven times, and in fact, never graduated with a formal degree—which means any jobs in the field he was most passionate about weren't available to him. (Horner, who worked a series of odd jobs as a young man, eventually began writing “to every museum in the English-speaking world asking if they had any jobs open for anyone ranging from a technician to a director.” Clearly, it paid off.)

His educational woes remained a mystery until 1979, when Horner was diagnosed with dyslexia.  “To this day, I struggle with the side-effects,” he says. “Self-paced learning is a strategy that helps me cope. Audio books are also a very helpful technology.”

6. E.O. WILSON (1929-2021)

Apart from being the world’s top authority on ants, Wilson was a first-rate science popularizer. He wrote dozens of bestsellers about everything from evolution and biology to philosophy and conservation. One of his offerings—2013’s Letters to a Young Scientist—revealed a tumultuous personal history with math.

The product of “relatively poor Southern schools,” Wilson admitted that he “didn’t take algebra until my freshman year at the University of Alabama … I finally got around to calculus as a 32-year-old tenured professor at Harvard, where I sat uncomfortably in classes with undergraduate students only a bit more than half my age. A couple of them were students in a course on evolutionary biology I was teaching. I swallowed my pride and learned calculus.” While playing catch-up, he was “never more than a C student.”

For numerophobic science majors, he offered this tip: “The longer you wait to become at least semiliterate in math, the harder the language of mathematics will be to master … But it can be done, and at any age.”