Does trying to calculate a tip without your smartphone calculator make you break out in a cold sweat? If you answered “yes,” you’re in good company. Even the most brilliant scientists and engineers have had trouble crunching numbers—and here are just a few of them.
1. Michael Faraday
Michael Faraday, born in 1791 as the son of a blacksmith, is considered the “father of electricity.” Faraday built the first electric motor and the first electric generator. He also invented the rubber balloon, laid the groundwork for refrigeration technology, and demonstrated Earth’s magnetic field.
Despite his accomplishments, Faraday was self-conscious about having little formal education. His math skills left a lot to be desired. In 1846, he correctly proposed that visible light was a form of electromagnetic radiation, but because he couldn’t back it up with mathematical evidence, his colleagues ignored him. Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell later devised the equations to support Faraday’s theory 18 years later.
2. Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin loathed math. While a student at the University of Cambridge, “I attempted mathematics,” Darwin wrote in his autobiography, “but I got on very slowly.” Instructions from a tutor during the summer of 1828 did not improve his skills:
“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.”
3. Alexander Graham Bell
In high school, Alexander Graham Bell had a love-hate relationship with math. According to biographer Robert V. Bruce, the Scottish-born educator and inventor of the telephone “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 equaled that of his scientific peers.
4. Thomas Edison
As a student, Edison trudged through Isaac Newton’s foundational Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which left him with nothing but “a distaste for mathematics from which I never recovered.”
Edison knew almost nothing of higher math and relied on the numerical genius of Charles Proteus Steinmetz to devise the mathematical underpinnings of Edison’s General Electric Company. Steinmetz oversaw much of G.E.’s technical product development from upstate New York, leading colleagues to call him the “wizard of Schenectady.” Edison also recruited Francis Upton to make calculations that could help him carry out various lab experiments, including those on the incandescent lamp and the watt-hour meter. “I can always hire a mathematician,” Edison once said, “[but] they can’t hire me.”
5. Jack Horner
Horner’s success in paleontology must have shocked his elementary school teachers. The Montana native found classes “extremely difficult because my progress in reading, writing, and mathematics was excruciatingly slow.” Horner would go on to flunk college courses and never graduated, throwing a wrench into his employment options. Horner 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.”
The reason behind his educational struggle became clear in 1979 when Horner was diagnosed with dyslexia. “To this day, I struggle with the side effects,” he said. “Self-paced learning is a strategy that helps me cope. Audio books are also a very helpful technology.”
6. E.O. Wilson
In his 2013 book Letters to a Young Scientist, naturalist E.O. Wilson revealed a tumultuous personal history with math.
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, Wilson 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.”
A version of this story was published in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.