Where Are the Geniuses of Today?

Why, as the pool of available humans has risen from one hundred million to one billion to five billion, has the production of geniuses -- Shakespeares, Newtons, Mozarts, Einsteins -- seemingly choked off to nothing, genius itself coming to seem like a property of the past? [...]

"Giants have not ceded to mere mortals," the evolutionary psychologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote in an iconoclastic 1983 essay. "Rather,the boundaries ... have been restricted and the edges smoothed." [Taking baseball as a concrete example,] where are the .400 hitters? Why have they vanished into the mythic past, when technical skills, physical conditioning, and the population on which organized baseball draws have all improved? His answer: Baseball giants have dwindled into a more uniform landscape. Standards have risen. The distance between the best and worst players, and between the best and worst pitchers, has fallen. Gould showed by statistical analysis that the extinction of the .400 hitter was only the more visible side of a general softening of extremes: the .100 hitter has faded as well. The best and worst all come close to the average. Few fans like to imagine that Ted Williams would recede toward the mean in the modern major leagues, or that the overweight, hard-drinking Babe Ruth would fail to dominate the scientifically engineered physiques of his later competitors, or than dozens of today's nameless young base-stealers could outrun Ty Cobb, but it is inevitably so. Enthusiasts of track and field cannot entertain the baseball fan's nostalgia; their statistics measure athlete against nature instead of athlete against athlete, and the lesson from decade to decade is clear: There is such a thing as progress. Nostalgia conceals it while magnifying the geniuses of the past. A nostalgic music lover will put on a scratchy 78 of Lauritz Melchior and sigh that there are no Wagnerian tenors any more. Yet in reality musical athletes have probably fared no worse than any other kind.

Is it only nostalgia that makes geniuses seem to belong to the past? Giants did walk the earth -- Shakespeare, Newton, Michelangelo, DiMaggio -- and in their shadows the poets, scientists, artists, and baseball players of today crouch like pygmies. No one will ever again create a King Lear or hit safely in fifty-six consecutive games, it seems. Yet the raw material of genius -- whatever combination of native talent and cultural opportunity that might be -- can scarcely have disappeared. On a planet of five billion people, parcels of genes with Einsteinian potential must appear from time to time, and presumably more often than ever before. Some of those parcels must be as well nurtured as Einstein's, in a world richer and better educated than ever before. Of course genius is exceptional and statistics-defying. Still, the modern would-be Mozart must contend with certain statistics: that the entire educated population of eighteenth-century Vienna would fit into a large New York apartment block; that in a given year the United States Copyright Office registers close to two hundred thousand "works of the performing arts," from advertising jingles to epic tone poems. Composers and painters now awake into a universe with a nearly infinite range of genres to choose from and rebel against. Mozart did not have to choose an audience or a style. His community was in place. Are the latter-day Mozarts not being born, or are they all around, bumping shoulders with one another, scrabbling for cultural scraps, struggling to be newer than new, their stature inevitably shrinking all the while?

The miler who triumphs in the Olympic Games, who places himself momentarily at the top of the pyramid of all milers, leads a thousands next-best competitors by mere seconds. The gap between best and second-best, or even best and tenth-best, is so slight that gust of wind or a different running shoe might have accounted for the margin of victory. Where the measuring scale becomes multidimensional and nonlinear, human abilities more readily slide off the scale.

The ability to reason, to compute, to manipulate the symbols and rules of logic -- this unnatural talent, too, must lie at the very margin, where small differences in raw talent have enormous consequences, where a merely good physicist must stand in awe of Dyson and where Dyson, in turn, stands in awe of Feynman. Merely to divide 158 by 192 presses most human minds to the limit of exertion. To master -- as modern particle physicists must -- the machinery of group theory and current algebra, of perturbative expansions and non-Abelian gauge theories, of spin statistics and Yang-Mills, is to sustain in one's mind a fantastic house of cards, at once steely and delicate. To manipulate that framework, and to innovate within it, requires a mental power that nature did not demand of scientists of past centuries. More physicists than ever rise to meet this cerebral challenge. Still, some of them, worrying that the Einsteins and Feynmans are nowhere to be seen, suspect that the geniuses have fled to microbiology or computer science -- forgetting momentarily that the individual microbiologists and computer scientists they meet seem no brainier, on the whole, than physicists and mathematicians.

Geniuses change history. That is part of their mythology, and it is the final test, presumably more reliable than the trail of anecdote and peer admiration that brilliant scientists leave behind. Yet the history of science is a history not of individual discovery but of multiple, overlapping, coincidental discoveries. All researchers know this in their hearts. It is why they rush to publish any new finding, aware that competitors cannot be far behind. As the sociologist Robert K. Merton has found, the literature of science is stewn with might-have-been geniuses derailed or forestalled -- "those countless footnotes ... that announce with chagrin: 'Since completing this experiment, I find that Woodworth (or Bell or Minot, as the case may be) had arrived at this same conclusion last year, and that Jones did so fully sixty years ago.' " The power of genius may lie, as Merton suggests, in the ability of one person to accomplish what otherwise might have taken dozens. Or perhaps it lies -- especially in this exploding, multifarious, information-rich age -- in one person's ability to see his science whole, to assemble, as Newton did, a vast unifying tapestry of knowledge. Feynman himself, as he entered his forties, prepared to undertake this very enterprise: a mustering and reformulating of all that was known about physics.

Scientists still ask the what if questions. What if Edison had not invented the electric light -- how much longer would it have taken? What if Heisenberg had not invented the S matrix? What if Fleming had not discovered penicillin? Or (the king of such questions) what if Einstein had not invented general relativity? "I always find questions like that ... odd," Feynman wrote to a correspondent who posed one. Science tended to be created as it is needed.

"We are not that much smarter than each other," he said.

Excerpt from James Gleick's book
Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman,
1992. New York: Vintage Books, pp. 313, 327--329.

Stephen Jay Gould's 1983 essay cited in the text is titled "Losing the Edge," published in The Flamingo's Smile. New York: Norton, p. 224.

Robert K. Merton's 1961 article cited in the text is titled "The Role of Genius in Scientific Advance," published in New Scientist, 259:306. Reprinted in Liam Hudson (Ed.) 1970. The Ecology of Human Intelligence. London: Penguin.

Also recommended: Robert W. Weisberg (1986), Creativity: Genius and Other Myths. New York: Freeman.

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Created 2006-09-26, last updated 2006-09-26.