In his 76 years, Albert Einstein was many things. He was a romantic poet, an avid fisherman, a trained violinist, the inventor of one very fashionable blouse—and, of course, he was also the remarkable genius behind one of the pillars of modern physics, The Theory of General Relativity, which celebrates its 100 year anniversary this month. But sometimes the legend was bigger than the actual man. With the help of the recently released An Einstein Encyclopedia, we separate fact from fiction.
1. THE MYTH: HE WAS A BAD STUDENT.
Though the German-born prodigy’s parents were concerned when he didn’t start speaking until the age of 2, he would go on to use his words (and his numbers) very wisely in the classroom. In fact, he graduated high school near the top of his class. So why do many biographers claim he was such a lousy pupil? There was a confusing change in the grading system at Aargau Cantonal School. (He finished high school at the Swiss academy after leaving his Munich school at age 15 with the help of a doctor’s note citing a “nervous breakdown.”) In the first semester, a “1” was the best possible grade, but in the second semester, the scale flipped and “1” became the lowest mark. Einstein earned ones in mathematics and physics in the first semester and sixes in the second.
He also failed his university entrance exam to the Swiss Federal Polytechnical School—though historians note that Einstein took the exam two years earlier than most students, and was tested on Swiss history, something that the German secondary school he attended wouldn’t have prepped him for. Still, “his performance on the entrance examination for the engineering department was good enough that, had he stayed in Zurich rather than go to Aargau, the physics professor would have allowed him to audit his courses in spite of age,” according to An Einstein Encyclopedia.
2. THE MYTH: HE HAD ASPERGER'S SYNDROME.
The intellectual treasured his solitude and was often characterized as rude and insensitive, and there are many stories of him acting out in school as a child, which is likely what caused some to retrospectively diagnose him with the disorder. But Einstein didn't appear to have difficulty with social interactions or with communicating with others and lacked many of the other symptoms. He traveled through four continents from April 1921 to April 1925 and kept travel diaries detailing all of the people he met and connected with. He also formed close relationships with many physicians, none of whom ever suggested that their friend was on the spectrum in any of their communications.
3. THE MYTH: HE CHOSE TO BE A VEGETARIAN.
Einstein was plagued with many digestive problems before the age of 50, including stomach ulcers, jaundice, inflammation of the gall bladder, and intestinal pains. Because of his ailments, his doctor advised him not to eat meat. Over time, people began to say he had chosen to become a vegetarian. Though Einstein admitted that he felt guilty on the rare occasions when he did dine on meat and largely agreed with the moral argument for vegetarianism, his dietary restrictions weren’t of his own choosing.
4. THE MYTH: HE WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ATOM BOMB.
Though his theories from 1905 impacted the development of the nuclear weapon, which would later be used in World War II, Einstein wasn't directly responsible for the atom bomb. He did sign a famous letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt imploring that the country fast track work on developing nuclear devices in order to stay ahead of Germany (Leó Szilárd actually wrote it), but the committed pacifist didn’t have the appropriate security clearances and wasn’t privy to the inner workings of the Manhattan Project. He wrote in a letter to the editor of Japanese magazine, Kaizō, saying, “I was well aware of the dreadful danger which would threaten mankind were the experiments to prove successful. Yet I felt compelled to take the step because it seemed probable that the Germans might be working on the same problem with every prospect of success.”
5. THE MYTH: HE WAS LEFT-HANDED.
There are plenty of perks to being a leftie, but the Nobel Prize winner didn’t experience any of them. Despite the fact that he is often named as a famous left-handed figure (likely due to the mistaken association between that hand and a sign of genius), he held both his pen and his violin bow in the right hand. In fact, there are several photos where he is pointing and writing on the chalkboard with his right hand, as shown above.
6. THE MYTH: HIS FIRST WIFE SHARED THE CREDIT FOR HIS MOST FAMOUS DISCOVERIES.
Einstein with second wife, Elsa, visiting Egypt in 1921.
There is no documented evidence that Einstein’s first wife Mileva Marić directly contributed to his impressive resume beyond listening to his ideas and proofreading his papers. Though Einstein wrote Marić in 1901, “How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a triumphant end!” he did not produce the famed theory until four years later. When he left Mileva for his second wife (and cousin) Elsa in 1919, there was no contributor credit to her name.
7. THE MYTH: HE WAS ONLY A THEORIST.
Einstein found enjoyment—and some success—in more than just theoretical physics. He was also an inventor. From 1902 to 1909, the scientist worked in the Swiss Patent Office. In fact, he was often used as an expert witness in patent trials at the time. It may have inspired a lifelong interest in patents. He would go on to apply for about 50 in at least seven countries. The devices included a self-adjusting camera, an electromagnetic sound apparatus, and his most well-known idea: a silent, energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly refrigerator.
8. THE MYTH: HE AVOIDED POLITICS.
Einstein was one of the most outspoken scientists of his time. Though he never joined an official political party, he was offered the ceremonial position of presidency in Israel. (He turned down the job.) And he often took unpopular stands and spoke out on behalf of the oppressed. He championed the rights of African Americans, for example, and praised their contributions to American culture. In a speech he delivered at Pennsylvania's Lincoln University in 1946, the physicist called segregation "a disease of white people," vowing, "I do not intend be quiet about it."
9. THE MYTH: HE DIDN’T MAKE ANY SIGNIFICANT CONTRIBUTIONS TO SCIENCE AFTER 1925.
Einstein’s best-known biographer, Abraham Pais, noted that the scientist “might as well have gone fishing” rather than continue his physics research after 1925. It is true that Einstein had hit his career high by that point. However, he also significantly added to the research on general relativity, including the first paper on gravitational lensing and his paper on wormholes, up until the 1930s. And his legacy lived on—his assistants would eventually shape some of the most important research groups of the postwar era.
10. THE MYTH: HE WAS ONE OF ONLY 10 OR 12 WHO COULD UNDERSTAND THE THEORY OF RELATIVITY.
Tired of being questioned about this idea, Einstein told the Chicago Daily Tribune in May 1921, “It is absurd. Anyone who has had sufficient training in science can readily understand the theory. There is nothing amazing or mysterious about it. It is very simple to minds trained along that line, and there are many such in the United States.” Today, a number of experts have taken on the challenge of decoding the complex theory and succeeded.
All images courtesy of Getty.