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September 30th, 2012, 11:24 AM #1
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Real Geniuses: What are they Like?SF/F writers often write about geniuses, so this draft of an article soon going onto my Web site may be useful to you.
Real Geniuses: What are they Like?
Recently I had lunch with a former colleague from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. This is a large research and engineering facility built on a hillside in Pasadena, California, less than a mile from the Rose Bowl stadium and sports park. We fell to chatting about our favorite movies and TV programs, among them Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory. Both of which we find still funny the Nth time around, unusual among sitcoms and movies.
Big Bang Theory follows four geniuses who work at CalTech, the California Institute of Technology. It manages JPL and thus we ourselves had shared the same rarefied intellectual and physical space of the four characters. We tried to recall examples of the brilliant scientists and engineers we'd known who were similar to the four. We had only small success, despite having known some fairly colorful characters.
The reason is simple. Real geniuses usually don't resemble their stereotypes. What ARE they like? Here is the answer.
Bright and brilliant people come in all shapes and sizes and looks. A statistical diagram of most measures (such as height, strength, weight) would show the bell-shaped curve familiar to most of us. Most curves of geniuses lean slightly toward the right, associated with greater height, muscularity, and healthiness.
In other words, geniuses are slightly more fit than the average population. The reason is obvious once you give it a bit of thought. The brain is one of several organs; it's part of a whole. If it works well, it's partly because it's (for example) well supplied with blood. Major advances in any art or science also require their creators to work hard and long, and that's helped by a strong, healthy body.
Don't despair, however, if you cherish the belief that "nerds" and "geeks" look weird and scrawny and maybe downright ugly. Statistics ensures that your prejudice can find SOME examples. But beware using those epithets around brilliant people. Some of them are quite large and easy to offend!
The principals of The Big Bang Theory are all emotionally stunted, childlike. Which is why so many of their antics are funny. (The same is true of A Modern Family; some of the children are more mature than the adults.)
Again, this is unlike most geniuses, who show the same distribution of most emotional traits as the rest of us. But there are several ways the stereotype approaches truth.
To achieve greatly in any field you have to be fairly optimistic, at least about the chances of success in your field. Where success might yield any of several rewards: money, fame and respect, sex, freedom.
You have to be open to change and newness. Though like most of us geniuses often resist it at first. But if you suggest a change or a new idea, AND THEN LEAVE THEM ALONE, often after a time the suggestion will sink in and the next thing you know they are enthusiastically selling the idea to you.
You have to be stubborn. Great success depends on Edison's "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration."
You have to like or even need solitude. A genius needs a dearth of distractions to get their best thinking done.
"Nerds" are stereotypically socially inept. Again, more often geniuses have a wide distribution of social skills. But here the bell-shaped curve leans more to the right, to great skill.
Because bright people better understand the need for others to their success and happiness. And they better understand how to get it, whether "it" is funds for their work, permission to get and use equipment or aides or material, or any other resource. You will never meet a more charming con artist than a scientist who wants more time on a multi-million dollar particle accelerator!
Geniuses can be social magnets. They are often powerful in their fields, witty, and able to bend their minds to understanding you. Which can be immensely attractive. But also dangerous, because they can be very manipulative. They also bore easily. Many a beautiful woman or gorgeous man have had their hearts broken by a suddenly cold lover.
Stereotypes of brilliant people assume they have perfect memory. Wrong. A perfect memory is a handicap. Someone with a perfect memory literally may not recognize their son in the evening because in that short time the son grew noticeable stubble. This made him look like a stranger.
Geniuses instead have an excellent “forgetter.” This improves their ability to see the shape of important matters because it suppresses unimportant details. This process is called abstraction, because it abstracts out the important matters. All good thinkers know this process. This is why smart people may put aside a problem overnight or longer, because the fading of memory often gives us a better perspective on the problem.
A study of chess masters showed that they do not have superior raw memory. Instead they almost literally see patterns of pieces such as “forks”: where a piece threatens two opponent pieces, forcing the opponent to sacrifice one of them. Chess masters also sense larger patterns, as when a match has gone from the begin-game to mid-game to end-game. Different tactics are required in those different phases of the game. This ability to find general patterns is crucial for anyone doing intellectual tasks.
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.
The genius stereotype also credits them as super calculators. But true geniuses don’t need to burden their minds with this ability when a $4 disposable calculator will do the job. Math geniuses also have the ability mentioned earlier to find patterns. They may thus be able to just glance at a page of numbers and say “Something doesn’t look right” - though they can’t say what until they can study the page better. Or more likely give that study to some lesser or less-experienced mind while they go on to more important matters.
Madness and genius
Madness and genius are sometimes said to be alike. Studies have shown there is some truth to this idea. But what the studies rarely show is that the two are also very un-alike. And how they are different.
Both schizophrenics and creative people may have visual and auditory “hallucinations” and a feeling of disconnection from the present reality. The differences are two. One, the creative artist or scientist or engineer knows that their experience comes from within, rather than from God or other supernatural source which is giving them commands or esoteric knowledge.
More important, the highly creative are in control. They learn to squelch or amplify their fantasies and direct them to suit their ends. An artist or writer “seeing” a scene that does not exist can paint or verbalize the scene. They can also use several scenes to make a larger whole, such as a tapestry or a story.
They can increase the flow of imagery and sound using several techniques which artists and knowledge workers have invented over the years. Or suppress it if needed. Or re-direct it as needed.
This means what?
Stereotypes both capture and badly distort essential truths. Thus they make us believes that geniuses are somehow not human. The reverse is true. They are as much part of the human race as the rest of us. In fact, in the above descriptions chances are that any number of times you have recognized some of the traits of genius in you yourself.
September 30th, 2012, 02:04 PM #2
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Laer, you must be a genius. You just made me think I'm a genius.
Okay, it was only for a second, but for that second - it was real.
September 30th, 2012, 02:41 PM #3
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Wikipedia is good place to start studying genius, though never a good place to stop (given the uneven quality of much of it). See the following links.
This, incidentally, was my field of study when I was working for a degree in psychology. Then I got seduced by computers (and machine intelligence) and became a software engineer, eventually working for NASA's JPL. And then Boeing's Phantom Works research arm. There I was part of a group which used my psych studies. We tested and created computer tools to help engineers do their jobs better. And so in both places I met plenty of people I had no doubts were geniuses.
September 30th, 2012, 03:10 PM #4
To quote Bill Murray's Phil character from Groundhog Day:
Me, me, me.
September 30th, 2012, 10:54 PM #5
First of all, great post Laer. Many of us (including me) often wish we'd been born with a dollop more gray matter... ah well.
The detail about memory intrigues me. My own experience with extremely bright people is that they can boot up extremely large and complex programs in their brains. It's not at all a matter of remembering what one ate at one's 10th birthday party. Instead, it's the ability (as you mentioned) to recognize patterns -- but it's also the ability to hold those patterns in mind in a limber, workable fashion. For example, C.S. Lewis is reported to have had the ability to dictate his novels, the way businessmen of his generation could dictate a short memo. Wow.
October 1st, 2012, 08:58 AM #6
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Anything involving the grey matter can be improved with practice. They used to think that our brains stopped growing at age 5 and any intelligence you had then was all you were going to get. But recent studies have changed that. You can improve your thinking regardless of your age. And it takes just three easy steps:
October 2nd, 2012, 04:58 PM #7
Genius is as much a social status as it is a level of intellect. Ultimately, you don't get to call yourself a genius; you have to get other people to do it for you. You have to gain that recognition, and that means finding the right kind of people to display your talents to.
Definitely something to keep in mind, either when promoting yourself as a writer, or when writing a genius character. What good is talent if no one acknowledges it?
October 3rd, 2012, 06:14 PM #8
Well actually, only one of the five main characters in the show is a genius -- Sheldon has the necessary I.Q. stat. The other three guys are very intelligent and professors or lecturers at the university, but not technically geniuses. The two female characters with equivalent educational degrees are also highly intelligent, and it is possible that Amy also has a Mensa I.Q., but that information has not been provided in the show. Sheldon quite clearly has a mild form of Aspergers and there are some geniuses with Aspergers. That being said, I don't think the show is meaning to be the definitive textbook on genius personalities. It's using very broad types (some would say too broad,) to celebrate science, scifi and friendship and satirize the way we look at people, genius or no.
October 3rd, 2012, 10:37 PM #9
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Some researchers use it to mean someone who is both very creative and very able to make their creative works reshape the world's intellectual sphere. This includes not only scientists and inventors but artists and politicians and philosophers of all sorts. Picasso is one such example; Jackson Pollock is arguably another.
There's no evidence after 5 seasons that Sheldon is a genius in the sense of being creative. His rigidity of thought acts against him. His eidetic memory acts against him. Someone like Leslie or Leonard may have what it takes despite not having what many people consider raw intelligence.
October 4th, 2012, 02:47 AM #10
To bring up the classic example of Richard Feynman, who is my standard-bearer for scientific genius. From an early age - like, before he was five - he displayed an unusual intellectual ability relating to physical problems and their underlying causes, coupled with an unrelenting dedication to real-world problem-solving. As a child he just played around with the electronic sets of the day (crystal radios and vacuum valves), working out the equations for resistance, voltage and so on by himself (he spoke of the day when he finally got to see some books on the subject in the school library, and was disappointed to find the same equations had already been discovered and written down). He could out-calculate an abacus expert with extremely complex sums.
A colleague recounted the time when he was struggling with a particularly tricky fluid dynamics problem, which he took to Feynman to discuss (I'm quoting from memory here and will paraphrase a little). He said, "Richard took me through the problem step by step, and at the time I saw it was so easy to solve, and each step was intuitive as he explained it. Then I got home and tried to do it again, but I couldn't replicate the same logic. His way of looking at things was different to everyone else's."
And yet, Feynman didn't consider himself a genius. In the Manhattan project he told of his experience with, I think, Fermi, who he considered a real genius. He told the story of how they were examining the photos of the atomic blast (or some such explosion) and were pondering the significance of some aspect - Fermi took one look at it and immediately said (again I paraphrase, sorry! It's from a video of Feynman talking and is not text-searchable as far as I know) "Ah, it's the coefficient of the so-and-so." And Feynman didn't believe it and spent an evening performing what to you and I would be incomprehensibly complex calculations, only to find out Fermi was of course correct.
So you have astounding people like Feynman, whose intelligence is just awesome to behold and difficult to relate to, and then on top of that there are even more rarified levels, people to whom the universe is almost literally an open book.
And that's just scientific/academic geniuses...I consider Lin Dan a genius as well, though I doubt he could do tensor calculus if his life depended on it...
October 4th, 2012, 01:22 PM #11
Sheldon, the character with Aspergers, has trouble with intuition over literalism, with reading people's emotional clues and with being able to identify his own emotions. He asks people about these things -- which makes up a lot of his funny lines on the show, often asking Penny, who sometimes acts like a big sister to him and sometimes like a mom/caretaker. Sheldon studies how to do and recognize sarcasm, how to perform certain acts as a friend, etc. Howard starts off as an inept but nonetheless definite sexual harasser, who does not have the emotional intelligence to relate to Penny at first in any other way but pick-up lines and harassment. Over time, Penny helps Howard with his emotional intelligence, which moves him away from being a harasser into someone able to have a relationship with Bernadette and friendships with women. She has similar relationships with Raj and Leonard, related to their characters. So Penny is a different kind of genius on the show, certainly more of a creative intelligence. She's basically the therapist of all the characters in the show, even for Bernadette, who has a higher level of emotional intelligence than the others.
Do those with high I.Q. measurements and high analytical/scientific ability always have a lack of emotional intelligence? Obviously not. (And being a professor does require a set of social skills. Intuition is often involved in analytical skills, etc.) But they have found some interesting correlations. There is a high correlation, for instance, of engineers and Aspergers. And we also have social assumptions -- we assume those with high analytical/scientific intelligence will be lacking in emotional intelligence and social skills (not always the same thing.) The archtypical nerd is the early twenties male loner who lives in his parents' basement, computer hacks, can't get a date, and loves Star Trek (even though the majority of devoted Star Trek fans are women and it was women who chiefly started the Star Trek convention phenom.) We also have a stereotype that pretty blonde struggling actresses are probably idiots. Big Bang Theory plays with those views of humanity and others by investing in the trappings of those identities and then altering them and growing them to show that people are actually more complex (in a broad, satirical, nerdgasm way.) Not a perfect show, but it is possibly the first show to ever regularly use physics as a plot point for comedy.
The quality of genius is extreme proficiency at something beyond the abilities of the average person, even those who have trained for whatever the something is. The quality of genius from an analytical/science standpoint is the ability to do complex calculations mentally, to discover the material and patterns necessary to form those calculations and to analyze where both patterns and calculations lead. It is partly objectively measurable, and it often involves creative intelligence, although creative intelligence itself is a different process and involves numerous different fields that may not require any calculations, only emotional response. Therefore, the personality of someone who is extremely proficient at something can be, as noted, pretty much anything. But the area of science and analysis does require use of a set of skills and parts of the brain that do not necessarily have anything to do with social skills or emotional intelligence, although they can.
October 4th, 2012, 05:29 PM #12
My daughter is bright, slightly short of Genius level IQ but scores smarter than I ever hoped to be and smarter than 90% of the people I will ever meet. She has Asperger's. To answer the original question: 'what are they like?', from a very small sample basis I suspect the answer is 'they can be hard work'.
Last edited by JunkMonkey; October 4th, 2012 at 05:31 PM.
October 4th, 2012, 06:07 PM #13
If genius were only a matter of practice, I'd be there. Ditto with all the amateur writers, oil-painters, golfers, singers... you name it.
Amateur means you love it, thus you pull it into yourself. Genius means it was already within you.
That said: I agree with you to the extent that practice almost always brings improvement. Also, there is a kind of genius for living, and the ongoing habit of becoming involved in pursuits we love is the only hope we have for achieving a worthwhile life.
October 5th, 2012, 01:04 PM #14
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Studies linking Asperger's or any other mental illness to intelligence are suspect. Bright people are not immune to such maladies, but mental and physical illness strikes everyone alike. It shows no preference for bright people.
In 40+ years of working and socializing with scientists and engineers, some 1000+ of them, I never saw a case of Asperger's or obsessive-compulsive or any other kind of mental disorder. The reason is simple - those maladies weed their victims out of academia and business.
I did see the more common ills of soul and body. One of that last which to me was especially tragic was the case of Richard Feynman, mentioned earlier in this thread. He was an attractive, charming, and witty man who always had a word, touch, or nod for most people, even in the last few years of his third and fatal bout with cancer.
Feynman was as good with practical as with theoretical problems. He was put on a committee to investigate the Challenger disaster, more as a celebrity scientist than as a serious investigator. But with some elegant detective work he discovered the problem had been defective O-ring sealers.
He was also a practical joker, some of them recorded in his autobiographical books Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? On the Manhattan Project, for instance, the management decreed that all secure material would be kept in an uncrackable safes. He secretly figured out the combinations of several, unlocked them, and left notes in them. In another example, late at night he removed the door to the executive bathroom and hid it.
October 6th, 2012, 01:55 AM #15
1) Correlation is not causation. 2) Preliminary data is preliminary data. It has to go through a long process of testing, repetition and analysis by many people to understand what it means. 3) Correlations are not linking the mental condition of Asperger's to high analytical intelligence levels or saying one causes the other. It simply raises questions that then can be investigated. What we do know is that some people with forms of Asperger's can be highly intelligent I.Q. style and end up in the science professions. (They can also end up in the arts, etc.) So Sheldon is not an implausible character, any more than Junk Monkey's daughter is. People like him exist. The prevalence of scientists like Sheldon, however, doesn't hold up in actual data. It is, however, a stereotypical view of many scientists, and so the show uses that stereotype and others from everything from comic book readers to therapists to explore how we view people satirically. Likewise, the wild-haired, eccentric "mad" scientist stereotype, obviously built off of Einstein. Or the cold, emotionless scientist who has no time for anything else in life stereotype. Or the Sherlock Holmes one, etc. Because a "genius" could be any one of those things in some respects, or none of them, we can construct a science or other type of "genius" out of any cloth.