Real Geniuses: What are they Like?

Discussion in 'Writing' started by Laer Carroll, Sep 30, 2012.

  1. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

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    IQ tests

    There are icons for LOL. Is there one for "snicker, followed by wry acknowledgement"?

    IQ tests have been a field of research for more than a century. They've caused a good deal of angry and excited argument by those whose pet oxen have been curried and/or gored.

    Here are the basic facts. They are easily given and scored attempts to measure intelligence. They are useful if the users understand their limitations, and use them as only one of many ways to measure people.

    The standard IQ tests are pretty narrow. A good deal of research has gone into measuring other kinds intelligence, such as creativity, critical thinking, social intelligence, practical intelligence, and other kinds of smarts. The resulting tests (like IQ tests) are all pretty crude, but are useful as long as the users understand their limits.

    The best "tool" to measure intelligence in someone is still to give a very wise and experienced person a good chunk of time with that someone. Unfortunately, this tool is very hard to procure. It's even harder to use when you get your bloody ruthless organizational paws on them. They tend to leave that organization in bleeding and burning ruins!
     
  2. Mostlyharmless

    Mostlyharmless Registered User

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    Not being a genius, I have only a rather limited idea of how genii differ from the rest of us. One characteristic may be that they don't often get sidetracked. Clearly, the obsessions associated with Asperger's Syndrome will give focus but that is not the only way to be focused. I suspect that most apply to themselves and sometimes to their co-workers Moltke's “mercilessly high standards” to keep everyone focused on an objective.

    In most cases, this works unobtrusively and most genii seem to be nice guys. I know of one example of disaster where two genii were together for most of a year with Margaret (to be?) Thatcher in Dorothy Hodgkin's laboratory. This was apparently a nightmare with very little science done and endless political arguments.

    I can see that Feynman's willingness to get involved with very many things seems to be a counter example but when he started to look at something, he was willing to spend enough time to reach a conclusion. For example, many of us look at spinning plates but he tried to understand what he was seeing http://www.stuleja.org/vscience/osp/contents/physicsClub/feynmanPlate.html.

    One other observation is that sometimes, but rarely, a genius can go wrong. For example, Fermi did not discover uranium fission although he did discover that uranium absorbed neutrons. He believed that transuranic elements were being formed and even rejected the suggestion of Ida Tacke that fission might occur.
     
  3. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

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    The basic point of my posts is that there is no us and them division. Very bright people aren't uniformly exceptional mentally in all ways.

    They are bright in some ways and dumb in others. Someone can score high on an IQ test (which measures mostly math and verbal facility) but score low in creativity. And vice versa. They can be high in social intelligence, low, or in between. Their practical IQ may be high, low, or in between.

    The same goes for the other aspects of bright human beings. They are all over the maps of physique, emotional maturity and resilience, and so on.

    What this means for us as writers is that we have an enormous variety of characters we can use in our stories. We are not stuck with stereotypical humans, but real humans, who experience all the rich rainbow of human experience.
     
  4. Vinegar Tom

    Vinegar Tom Registered User

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    May I second what Laer Caroll has just said? I am, according to certain definitions, a genius. I am better at certain types of mental activity than more than 99.9% percent of the people reading this. Does this make me better than you? No, of course not. I'm smart enough to understand that concepts like "basic human decency" have very little to do with intelligence. Indeed, the knowledge that I am intrinsically more "intelligent" than almost all of you might suggest to a stupid person that I am in a position to dictate your morals because I am better than you, which is basic proof of stupidity.

    If I were to believe such a thing for a moment, I would be very stupid indeed. I think the appropriate phrase is probably "half-smart". And I happen to be sufficiently smart to understand that I am not perfect. I am a flawed human being who happens to be good at certain types of problem-solving tasks. In the grand scheme of things, I am approximately as "superior" as a soldier ant who has bigger jaws than a worker.

    That being said, I am completely incapable of accepting that people below a certain level of intelligence belong to the same species that I do. I constantly find that I have to limit my vocabulary so that people actually get it. Draw your own conclusions.
     
  5. Mostlyharmless

    Mostlyharmless Registered User

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    I suspect that we are being confused by two different but overlapping ideas of genius. There are people who score highly on various tests and there are people who do things like winning Nobel Prizes. The second group is distinct from some of us in that they choose an important problem and are willing to make the effort needed to solve it. Thus there is likely to be a seriousness of purpose at the core of most such characters.

    On the intelligence of actresses, the case of Hedy Lamarr might be of interest http://www.inventions.org/culture/female/lamarr.html.
     
  6. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

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    "Genius" is a general term meaning great intelligence. Some dictionaries include a definition which adds a phrase such as "especially of creative or original work."

    Most of us in this forum are very familiar with creativity, its nurturing and problems. It is the stock in trade of writers. Though we also know that Edison's "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration" describes what is needed to make that inspiration a reality.

    Oftentimes it takes two or more creative thinkers to accomplish that. In our case authors and their agents, who must also have a mind creative enough to recognize creativity. (The "it takes one to know one" principal.)

    In my specialty for 40+ years, engineering, I've found that most engineers are creative to some degree; indeed, it's a basic ingredient. Engineers go back millennia to when some people were especially needed to create and build engines of war, such as makeshift bridges over water or an abyss. Today an engineer might create a new kind of kitchen appliance, or an especially creative version of an already existing one. Or a piece of software - such as Angry Birds!

    In the general public and in SF it's a common idea that a brilliant new idea will automatically and instantly achieve success. Alas! Writers know well that is not so. The new always encounters resistance, some of it hostile but most of it simple laziness. Or the practical understanding that no new idea is perfect, and it always costs time, effort, money, and more to make it real.

    A perfect example of what it takes to bring a genius idea to reality is PostIt notes. Today it's a billion-dollar industry and different versions of PI notes are so common it seems it would be obvious to even dummies that PI notes are a great idea. But this is not so. Sometimes you might want to read how they came into existence.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postit_note

    The basic story is simple. A chemist trying to make a better glue instead made an inferior one. His stroke of genius was that this inferiority could have merit: he'd created a glue which could make undoing its bonding effect easy.

    He struggled to sell this product idea for five years. Luckily a colleague of his finally agreed with him and took over the effort of selling it. He persuaded a group in their company to launch a cheap trial effort by selling it in a few stores and giving free samples to some residents in a large city. PostIt notes proved popular. But it took a few more years for the product to catch on and go big.

    Which might be a lesson to us struggling authors. So you've created a brilliant and entertaining book or series of books. Don't expect instant success. Most of those "instant" success stories we read about took time for the snowball to become a juggernaut.
     
  7. Ensorcelled

    Ensorcelled Registered User

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    If y'all are seriously interested in this, I recommend the work of Daniel Tammet, a modern-day 'savant'. He's published a number of books on various topics, but Embracing the Wide Sky is a good place to start out if you're trying to get a perspective on geniuses (or 'genii' if you're really pedantic) and autistic savants.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Interesting thread though!
     
  8. G.L. Lathian

    G.L. Lathian G.L. Lathian

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    I've seen this guy in a few videos. Very amazing and worth checking out.
     
  9. Vinegar Tom

    Vinegar Tom Registered User

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    Might I suggest Dancing Naked In The Mind Field by Kary Mullis? Since it's the autobiography of somebody who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, it's safe to assume that the author is fairly bright. But... Well, it's possible that the whole thing is a wind-up. But if it isn't, either he has incredible occult superpowers and has been abducted by space-aliens, or he's insane. Whatever the truth may be, this has to be the biggest load of nonsense ever written with a straight face by a really intelligent guy who wasn't Aleister Crowley. Anyway, it's a great example of a very intelligent man writing incredibly strange things, either because he's pulling everyone's plonker, or because he's lost it completely. I really couldn't say which. Though if he actually means it, he's living proof that it's possible to win a Nobel Prize while simultaneously believing that Whitley Streiber writes non-fiction! If you want to know how a truly eccentric genius talks in his own words, look no further than this book.
     
  10. hippokrene

    hippokrene Peckish

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    Right.

    Your description of genius is based on a group you admit 'weeds out' people based on social factors.

    Would it be more correct to suggest that you're describing college-educated white men in a social, competitive field?
     
  11. JunkMonkey

    JunkMonkey Registered User

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    And the implication that all scientists and engineers are sane, rational, and never subject to any form of mental illness whatsoever.

    Mind you, I'm still struggling with the double implication here:

    ...that Margaret Thatcher was a. a genius and b. 'a nice guy'.
     
    Last edited: Oct 30, 2012
  12. Mostlyharmless

    Mostlyharmless Registered User

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    I said that most genii seemed nice guys. I did not say all.

    Most experimental scientists work in groups. Successful group leaders often increase the motivation of their co-workers. They may convince them that it is fun to work on science for around twelve hours a day, they may convince them that the work that they are doing is a moral duty or, if they are not so nice, they might find some effective threats. There may also be financial rewards available but it seems rare for junior workers in academia actually to get rich.

    The fun plus moral duty approach seemed to be most common in bio-medical research some years ago when I actually met a few Nobel Prize winners. I happened to hear quite a lot about Dorothy Hodgkins because my thesis supervisor had worked for her. If you look at her work, she tended to choose problems with medical implications. I also heard her talking about visiting North Vietnam and could easily imagine that she might not have been fully in agreement with Margaret, who certainly was bright, on all political issues.
     
  13. Mostlyharmless

    Mostlyharmless Registered User

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  14. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

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    No. Cases of extreme dysfunction weed out most people in ANY field, including farm hand, college professor, nanny, hired thug, fiction writer, house wife (or house husband!), etc. It certainly doesn't weed them out perfectly, but it does do so quite often. And the higher the achievement level of any profession (including unconventional ones such as assassin!) the harder it is to be successful at that profession. The more barriers to success there are the less likely one is to succeed.

    One of the requirements to success in almost any field is sociability. A hired thug must get along on a minimal level with his co-workers and bosses, or another of the people with whom s/he must work with or for may kill hi/r. In professions that attract very bright people the requirement for sociability is even higher.

    We who write SF like to write about lone wolves for a number of reasons (including plot simplicity), but scientists, engineers, artists, architects, doctors, professors, etc. can't be lone wolves. They succeed because they are in a complex webwork of social and intellectual interactions where they all stimulate and help each other as well as (sometimes fiercely) compete. Very bright people are bright enough to know this and work to overcome any shyness or lack of empathy which makes them unable to take advantage of the mutual stimulation and aid of others.

    Most great efforts take teams. Some of them are ad hoc, whose members come together somewhat randomly. More are put together by someone, partly of team members who are available even if not a perfect fit for a job. When possible bosses try to put together the right mix of engineers and other workers, balancing the weaknesses of some against complementary strengths of other workers. Or complementary skills. For a certain task or project I might choose a mathematician, a physicist, an electrical engineer, a civil engineer, and a secretary/clerk with tremendous organizational and detail skills (and would consider hi/r as essential as the other members).

    As to the "white men" aspect of high intellectual achievers, it's certainly true that they enter their fields with a number of advantages. But in my 40+ years I saw ever more varied ethnicities and genders. The white men advantage is narrower every day. Most of us don't see this, because the changes happen so slowly and with such effort. But it happens.
     
  15. Mostlyharmless

    Mostlyharmless Registered User

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    I am not sure how it relates to genius but I mentioned that some scientists think that science is fun. One odd symptom of this is the Ig-Nobel Prize http://www.improbable.com/ig/. Bill Lipscomb was involved with that gang http://www.improbable.com/airchives/paperair/volume17/v17i4/v17i4.html and the tribute issue of AIR also shows him playing the clarinet.

    A good example of the sort of research that might receive an Ig-Nobel Prize is using magnetism to levitate a frog. However, Andre Geim has also received other prizes http://www.improbable.com/2010/10/05/geim-becomes-first-nobel-ig-nobel-winner/.
     
  16. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

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  17. Mostlyharmless

    Mostlyharmless Registered User

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    Thanks! Good article!

    I can suggest one caveat. You write “What bright people do have, rather than a superior memory for information, is a superior ability to FIND information. They are virtuosos in the library and on the internet – and when questioning people about some matter. Great detectives have this ability to great degree.”

    However, scientists are often not equipped with a critical skill needed by a detective, which is a an ability to identify lies. Einstein wrote: "Nature is subtle, but she is not malicious." Thus scientists are surprisingly often the victims of charlatans such as Uri Geller because they are not used to dealing with liars.
     
  18. Susan Boulton

    Susan Boulton Edited for submission

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    It was said at the time she had more balls than her cabinet. ;) But nice??? Holbrook shudders at the memories of life under Maggie....
     
  19. PeteMC

    PeteMC @PeteMC666

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    It's all coming back around again now. We might even have another Falklands war, just for the sake of completeness...
     
  20. A. Lynn

    A. Lynn Was: "Virangelus"

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    Laer, don't forget that the four Big Bang boys are not the only inhabitants of that world. Off the top of my head, I seem to recall a young kid-genius who nearly uprooted Sheldon from his place at CalTech, though from the outset he seemed perfectly "normal."

    As I understand it, the term genius is specific to an area of talent. In fact, if I ask the mighty Google to define genius, it also advises me that it is a synonymous with the word "talent."
    So you could also say that a person who is exceptionally "talented" is also considered a "genius," and from that regard my brother is also a MAD genius, though socially awkward himself (just not in a funny, nerdy way), yet not everybody would think so after meeting him.

    So, for a genius, I would say assume nothing.