Possibly the most famous scientist of all time, Albert Einstein’s theories have challenged and altered our concepts of reality and unleashed a new age of theoretical physics.
There’s no shortage of mentions of Einstein and his recognizable E = mc2 mass-energy equivalence equation in pop culture, with many associating his name with brightness and intelligence. Ask random people on the street who they think is the smartest man to have ever lived, and Einstein’s name is sure to pop up often.
If that’s the case what’s Einstein’s IQ? The problem is nobody can tell for sure since the physicist was never formally tested.
That doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of various estimates. On the contrary, Google searches for “Einstein’s IQ” will return many results, but at the end of the day, they’re all based on speculation based on his achievements and abilities. One estimate put Einstein’s IQ at around 160, which would make him a “genius” or “near-genius” according to most IQ classification systems.
How important is an IQ score?
French psychologist Alfred Binet is credited for devising the first qualitative tests designed to measure the diversity of human intelligence. Together with colleague Théodore Simon, in 1905, the pair of psychologists devised the Binet-Simon test, which focused on verbal abilities and was designed to gauge ‘mental retardation’ among school children.
In time, the researchers also added questions that gauged attention, memory, and problem-solving skills.
In 1916, Stanford University translated and standardized the test using a sample of American students. Known as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, this test would go on to be used for decades to quantify the mental abilities of millions of people around the world.
The Stanford-Binet intelligence test used a single number, known as the intelligence quotient (or IQ), to represent an individual’s score on the test. This score was computed by dividing a person’s mental age, as revealed by the test, by their chronological age and then multiplying the result by 100. For instance, a child whose chronological age is 12 but whose mental age is 15 would have an IQ of 125 (15/12 x 100).
The most commonly used IQ test today is a variation of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS). The latest revision of the test, known as WAIS-IV, is made of 10 subtests and 5 supplemental tests, which score an individual in four major areas of intelligence: a Verbal Comprehension Scale, a Perceptual Reasoning Scale, a Working Memory Scale, and a Processing Speed Scale. These four index scores are combined into the Full-Scale IQ score, or what people generally recognize as the ‘IQ score’.
So what was Einstein’s IQ? Just gimme an estimate
Although Einstein was alive when the Stanford-Binet test was rolled out in American schools and universities, he never took such a test. As such, Einstein’s IQ score cannot be determined with accuracy.
But as evidence amassed that IQ scores forecast success in all areas of life, such as romantic relationships, career, socioeconomic status, health, and life expectancy, psychologists have found it useful to devise methods and tools that allow them to gauge a person’s IQ without a formal test. This can only work on public figures who have left an extensive record of their behavior, speeches, or scholarly works.
In fact, there are IQ estimates for hundreds of historical figures, such as Charles Dickens, Galileo Galilei, or Ludwig van Beethoven, all based upon records of their youthful traits, other people’s assessments of their lives, routines, and manner of thought, and achievements.
Jonathan Wai, assistant professor of education policy and psychology at the University of Arkansas, points to Einstein’s famous thought experiment, in which he visually imagines chasing after a light beam (eventually leading to his formulation of special relativity), as confirmation of a high IQ score. According to Einstein’s own Autobiographical Notes, his thought experiment, which he devised at age 16, was like this:
“…a paradox upon which I had already hit at the age of sixteen: If I pursue a beam of light with the velocity c (velocity of light in a vacuum), I should observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest though spatially oscillating. There seems to be no such thing, however, neither on the basis of experience nor according to Maxwell’s equations. From the very beginning it appeared to me intuitively clear that, judged from the standpoint of such an observer, everything would have to happen according to the same laws as for an observer who, relative to the earth, was at rest. For how should the first observer know or be able to determine, that he is in a state of fast uniform motion? One sees in this paradox the germ of the special relativity theory is already contained,” Einstein recounted, later concluding that:
“Today everyone knows, of course, that all attempts to clarify this paradox satisfactorily were condemned to failure as long as the axiom of the absolute character of time, or of simultaneity, was rooted unrecognized in the unconscious. To recognize clearly this axiom and its arbitrary character already implies the essentials of the solution of the problem.”
Particularly, Wai says, Einstein would have scored very high on spatial reasoning tests. Dissections of Einstein’s brain showed he had a significantly larger brain area responsible for three-dimensional visualization, supporting this assessment.
What’s more, people who go on to earn a Ph.D. in a field such as physics or mathematics “tend to have extremely high IQs…a combination of mathematical, verbal and spatial reasoning ability,” Wai says.
According to a 2017 ranking of top U.S. university majors by IQ, physics and astronomy came out on top with an average score of 133. So one might expect Einstein to score at least that high — after all, Einstein was by no stretch of the imagination average.
For reference, a score in the range of 120-140 IQ points is deemed “very superior intelligence”, 110-119 is “superior intelligence” and 90-109 is “normal or average intelligence.” An IQ over 145 means you have a ‘genius’ level intellect.
According to estimates by means of biographical data, Albert Einstein’s IQ has been estimated to sit anywhere between 160 and 180. That would firmly place the physicist in the genius territory. However, he wouldn’t exactly be among the top-scoring crowd.
The limitations of IQ
According to some, William James Sidis (1898-1944) had the highest IQ ever, estimated between 250 and 300. A true child prodigy, Sidis could read English by the time he was two and could write in French by age four. At age two, baby Albert Einstein could barely utter a few words, which had his parents worried he might grow up as an idiot.
But while Sidis crashed and burned after his meteoric rise, having spent the remainder of his adult life with menial clerk jobs, Einstein would go on to revolutionize physics with his Theory of General Relativity.
Sure, Einstein’s intelligence cannot be questioned, but if this single example tells us anything, it shows that exceptionally high IQ scores, even record-high ones, do not guarantee world-class excellence and recognition. Einstein was not only known for his high IQ, but also for his creativity, curiosity, and ability to think outside the box.
Albert Einstein’s IQ remains a subject of debate and speculation, but one thing is clear: his intelligence and contributions to science and humanity are undeniable. IQ scores are just one measure of intelligence, and Einstein’s true legacy is not just his IQ but his contributions to science and humanity.