The Cult of Genius

By Julianne Dalcanton | February 25, 2007 3:02 am

While some physicists are known for their hearty support of atheism, even they can have some personal dieties. High in the physicist’s pantheon sits Richard Feynman, due not only to his obvious smarts and good work, but also to an outsized personality chonicled in a wealth of popular writings (and even a movie!). I’ve always had mixed feelings about Feynman as a cult figurehead, however. It’s nothing personal against Feynman in particular, but about the hero worship he represents. During high school or college, many aspiring physicists latch onto Feynman or Einstein or Hawking as representing all they hope to become. The problem is, the vast majority of us are just not that smart. Oh sure, we’re plenty clever, and are whizzes at figuring out the tip when the check comes due, but we’re not Feynman-Einstein-Hawking smart. We go through a phase where we hope that we are, and then reality sets in, and we either (1) deal, (2) spend the rest of our career trying to hide the fact that we’re not, or (3) drop out. It’s always bugged the crap out of me that physicists’ worship of genius conveys the simultaneous message that if you’re not F-E-H smart, then what good are you? In physics recommendation land, there is no more damning praise than saying someone is a “hard worker”.

Well, screw that. Yes, you have to be clever, but if you have good taste in problems, an ability to forge intellectual connections, an eye for untapped opportunities, drive, and yes, a willingness to work hard, you can have major impacts on the field. While my guess is that this is broadly understood to be true by those of us clever-but-not-F-E-H-smart folks who’ve survived the weeding of graduate school, postdoctoral positions, and assistant professorhood, we do a lousy job of communicating this fact to our students. I’ve always suspected that we lose talent from the field because people opt for Door #3 (drop out) when they face up to the fact that physics is frequently hard, even for very clever people. The idea that you have to be F-E-H smart to succeed gives little encouragement to continue when the going gets rough. (I have no idea if other fields have this same problem — my guess is that physicists are particularly prone to it, since we are trained early on to think that physicists are simply smarter than chemists or biologists. Those other fields are for the hard workers. We don’t put mathemeticians on this scale, because we secretly believe they’re smarter than us. Note to the biologist lynch mob: tounge is in cheek.)

Anyways, I’ve been thinking about this again in light of Po Bronson’s excellent article in New York Magazine about Carol Dweck’s research (which I read via Nordette in Blogher is coming out in a popular book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success). The article is focused on how to effectively handle praise for smart kids. The upshot (verified by a number of clever experiments), is that when you praise a kid for being smart in general, rather than for specific accomplishments or efforts, you risk paralyzing the kid with a fear of not looking smart, to the point where they will tend to shun challenges.

In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

Repeating her experiments, Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and girls—the very brightest girls especially (they collapsed the most following failure).

While Dweck is working primarily with preK-12 students, everything covered in the article rings true for what I’ve seen at the higher levels (both for myself, my colleagues, and students). Those of us who are fortunate enough to sail through high school often crumple when the stuff we’re allegedly good at finally becomes hard. Whether you “make it” as a physicist after that has a lot to do with how you respond at that moment. Do you take it as a sign that you’re not cut out for the game? Do you feel like a failure, and stop enjoying physics as a whole? Do you buck up and forge ahead? (Like a neutrino, you’ll probably wind up oscillating among the three mixed states for a while, before collapsing into one of them.)

I was most struck in Bronson’s article by a description of an experiment by Lisa Blackwell and Dweck on the impact on performance of how one perceives intelligence. In a science magnet school with low acheiving students, Blackwell studied 700 students, all of whom were taught a multi-session unit on study skills. One half of the group, however, also received a “special module on how intelligence is not inate”:

The teachers—who hadn’t known which students had been assigned to which workshop—could pick out the students who had been taught that intelligence can be developed. They improved their study habits and grades. In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing math grades.

The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.

These studies have lots of implications for higher ed in the sciences. Physics, with its strong cult of genius, is probably the canary in the coal mine.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
  • JC

    I remember several friends from grad school who chose the third option of “dropping out”. They found out the hard way that particle/gravity/string theory was not as easy as they thought it would be, and that they were not the smartest guys in the room anymore. A few dropped out of grad school completely, while the others stumbled along in grad school until they finished their thesis.

    Most of them eventually got over the fact that they were not Einsteins or Feynmans, while one or two still haven’t gotten over it yet. The two who still haven’t gotten over it yet, were the types who were the most intellectually arrogant and had huge overinflated egos.

  • john tillett

    There is a video on google video by James Watson (the DNA man) called “DNA and the Brain” in which he talks about this stuff. He says his biggest advantage was that he was brought up to believe that he was not smart.

  • anongs

    I am (was?) one of those intellectually arrogant graduate students. I sailed through a prestigious high school, and then through a top physics undergrad program with a “good enough” (~ A-) GPA. I am now enrolled in a top graduate program in theoretical physics.

    In high school, I sort of gravitated toward physics because it had the highest fun-to-work ratio. Math that I couldn’t do intuitively was therefore boring, and chemistry, biology, etc. had too many pesky details. While college was a bit harder, I made the same mentality work: I put effort into labs and problem sets, but didn’t study a single minute.

    Well, grad school has been a different ballgame. Every bit of the previously cavalier attitude has come back to haunt me, and understanding new ideas takes studying! Grinding through nasty field calculations has also lost its novelty. Quite a shock to my ego, and my world view: I thought I could always be smart beyond reproach, and that I could cruise through an occupation that was almost always fun, prestigious, and comfortable salary-wise.

    All I can do is hope that I will be a better person having received this reality check, and that I will land somewhere with good people and interesting work (in academia or otherwise).

  • Mark

    First off, GREAT post.

    >I have no idea if other fields have this same problem

    This is a subject of exceeding importance, across fields. Computer science is much the same way. I’ve seen people drop out when they realize they aren’t the smartest, and had to do some serious soul-searching myself when I realized that I wasn’t the smartest. The ego is a fragile thing, and that’s what this is all about.

    I think maybe schools, research institutions, and individual professors are part of the problem, in that they tend to be on the lookout for people like this, to the exclusion of bright but not F-E-H bright students. Perhaps it’s not even a conscious bias. But I’m all in favor of programs like the above mentioned, that face this issue head-on. We need the Joan Feynmans of the world, too.

  • Mark

    >We need the Joan Feynmans of the world, too.

    It occurred to me after posting that this could be interpreted as a sexist comment. What I meant is that we need the people who make the smaller contributions as well.

  • Ike

    Feynman and Hawking have done a great deal to introduce people to physical and scientific thinking through their books and lectures. They will be remembered for their discoveries and their brilliance, but they are loved for their teaching. Feynman and Hawking both had what many of their admirers and imitators seem to lack – a sense of humor, and a desire to explain their insights to others. As a great example, Feynman’s QED lectures are available online:

    Perhaps it would also be wise for physics students to look into the life of another physics genius, Ted Taylor, who went from being a leading nuclear weapon designer to advocating nuclear disarmament. Think carefully about how you use whatever skills you develop, in other words.

  • Manas Shaikh

    I don’t at all think everything was so easy for Feynman and Co. In fact, in one occasion, he admitted that a sum would be difficult to do at first. For all the students whom he helped afterwords, he solved it in minutes. And as that was his nature, he used to pretend that he was solving the problem.

    Einstein never did that, but he never said that things were just easy for him. He said instead that he had to work hard on the problems.

    The article you talked about, JuliAnne, I also stumbled upon it. I found it really educating. Perhaps I myself am a victim of the same thing?

  • Lab Lemming

    Who was the biologist who said that “Evolution is smarter than you are?”

    Geologists don’t need a quote to remind us of this- Mother nature kicks our butt more often than not.

    One possibility is that on the smartness scale,
    physicists &gt evolution and nature &gt biologists and geologists.

    But this doesn’t explain the case of Lord Kelvin, who was a clever physicist but the dumbest geochronologist ever.

    As for smartness limits, I think one of the big jumps between undergrad and graduate studies is that, at least when I was taught undergrad, we were generally asked to solve problems that had answers. Whereas once you are doing research, it is quite possible that the problem you try to tackle simply isn’t gonna be tractable, even with infinite smarts.

    And if I had infinite smarts, I’d be able to remember the point I was trying to make.

  • Quasar9

    Hi Julianne
    “whizzes at figuring out the tip when the check comes due…”
    “trained early on to think that physicists are smarter than chemists or biologists … secretly believe they (mathematicians) are smarter”

    You still work out tips in your head, do you use a calculator. Is service charge included?

    “A total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores”

    The brain is a muscle, some do body building and lift weights, others do brain building and juggle symbols and numbers

    “(Note to the biologist lynch mob: tongue in cheek)”

    Where does this expression come from, will a tongue in cheek lessen the sting from a ‘slap in the face’ – lol!

  • mclaren

    Excellent post. Of course, you must also look at it from the point of view of ordinary schmucks like…well…like…us. You might think yourself very smart compared to Feynman or Einstein, but compared to the average person (like me) you’re as much smarter than us as Einstein is than you.

    Actrually, no — arguably much more so. The difference between the mathematical ability of the average person on the street and a research physicist is far greater than the differenc twixt you and Einstein.

    Sure, I’ve got a degree in physics, but basically I’m too stupid to do anything useful. Linear homoegeon partial differential equations I can handle, conformal mapping and so forth, but that’s kiddy math. It’s trivial. That’s not real math. That undergrad stuff. The vast majority of the human race, including me, can’t do _real_ math. Case in point: I took a course on algebraic topology in college. Big mistake. My brain leaked out my ears within the first 10 minutes of the first lecture. I had _no_ idea what the professor was talking about. It was an eerie sensation, like listening to someone talking in Hittite cuneiform or Linear A. On the typical serious math paper, say, noncommutative loops over Lie algebra, or real homotopy theory of Kaehler manifolds, or compactification on Calabi-Yau manifolds, my head just starts to spin. I feel like a drooling idiot within about 2 paragraphs of a paper like that. It’s like trying to swim through tar. I get lost so fast you practically hear a sonic boom.

    So you might take some encouragement from the fact that while you might not think you’re up to the standards of Hawking or Einstein, you’re about 1 inch from the top of a very tall pyarmid. The rest of us are several miles below, mucking about with itty bitty little kiddy math like vector analysisl. Anyone doing serious phsyics research has already attained such a high level, mathematically and intellectuall speaking, that you folks have nothing to complain about.

  • Manas Shaikh

    Oh well, It seemed to me that the problems given in uGrad years did not have solutions as well :)

  • Quasar9

    Apart from that there are many gods.
    There’s god money
    Some will sell their mind and body for money
    Some will sell their children, even their mother for money
    And then go and worship in the churches (boutiques) and cathedrals (malls)

    There’s god ‘muscle’
    Some will sell their body and mind for power & authority
    Some will sell their body and mind for knowledge
    Some will sell their body and mind for muscles on the body

    But in answer to your question YES, in other fields
    soccer fields and other sports playing fields they have cult of personality

    in the arena arts, theathre, fashion, movies, they clearly have the cult of personality.

    And I may not want to be any known pop star, but many fancy the fantasy or dream of a ‘successful’ rock star, others dream of becoming a successful rock climber.

  • fh

    Timely post for me. I’m just past my first such experience. I had been expecting it though. It was obvious that there should be some point where I would not be able to just sail by on minimal effort and a good general idea of what’s going on.

    And heck was that a learning experience! A depressing one!

    I think though that most good physicists are aware that nature is harder then we think it is. Goethe’s Faust in his yearning to understand (“was die Welt, im innersten zusammenhält”, the innermost connections of the world) conjures up the spirit of the earth only to be reprimanded:

    Thou’rt like the spirit, thou dost comprehend,
    Not me! (Vanishes.)

    And Einstein certainly was no mathematical genius, as Hilbert reminds us:

    “Every boy in the streets of Göttingen understands more about four-dimensional geometry than Einstein. Yet, in spite of that, Einstein did the work and not the mathematicians.” – Hilbert, 1915

    or Einstein himself:

    “Do not worry about your problems with mathematics, I assure you mine are far greater.”

    “Since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do not understand it myself anymore.”

    Referring to the work of Minkowski I believe.

    Simply I have always held that besides all human arrogance, the fundamental attitude of any good physicist must be one of humility towards our subject, which escapes us in every which way.

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  • Chad Orzel

    Just a quick annoying technical note: The words “excellent article” above look like a hyperlink, but it goes nowhere. You can get to the article via the BlogHer link (at least, I assume you’re talking about this excellent article), but you might want to fix that…

  • anonyma

    “We don’t put mathematicians on this scale, because we secretly believe they’re smarter than us.”
    Actually, a large number of my fellow mathematicians are physics dropouts! So maybe physicists are smarter…

    I think everything you’ve written applies equally well to us, except that there’s not such a consensus on who the gods are (I would vote for Grothendieck). Mathematicians have the extra twist of the biological clock, since no Fields medal are given beyond age 40.

    mclaren: you might be like me. When the physicists do mathematics I am immediately lost; the lack of precision short circuits my brain. Precise mathematical descriptions I find much easier, and indeed I make my living by being an “expert” (i.e. knowing basic facts) on some of the most obscure corners of algebraic geometry.

  • Mark

    Hi Mclaren. It is true that physicists are more mathematically skilled than the general population. However, the amount of mathematics used by a typical physicists is actually less than you might think.

    Theoretical physicists, (and even among them, more in some particular fields than in others), sometimes use quite a lot of heavy math. However, most physicists aren’t doing this work (and I don’t think of it as the best work necessarily). If you take a look, for example, at Nobel prizes over the past century, I think you’ll find that most winners were not particularly educated in mathematics past complex variables and partial differential equations. I’m pretty sure they weren’t knowledgeable about algebraic topology.

    The “genius” of many of these people, where the word is appropriate, is often their physical insight and intuition – their ability to see connections betwen ideas, to see unusual applications of phenomena to perform new measurements and reveal new aspects of nature. This certainly requires great intelligence, and some of the skills are inate, but intuition can take a lot of hard work and experience to build up.

  • cynic

    A good post, that sums up a lot I have felt to be the case over the years. Perhaps the pumping iron approach to smarts improvement should be encouraged; much of the odious behaviour of physicists discussed here and elsewhere in the past could be eliminated if the principal competition they engaged in was with themselves and mother Nature, rather than with their colleagues and, more tellingly, with the rest of the human race.

  • JohnB

    Up to age 18, it was almost a matter of pride for me to put as little effort as possible into studying: I did just sufficient work to come top of the class. I thought I understood all that was taught in maths and physics, better than the teachers.

    At university, I suddenly stopped grasping things on first sight, and I didn’t cope with this very well. It was as if I couldn’t move on until I understood a point, and that could take weeks or months, by which time I was very behind with work. As a trivial example, I remember becoming quite upset that I could no longer explain the buoyancy of warmer air when you look at it discretely rather than in the continuum. Learning to just accept things, and use formulae and recipes, hoping that understanding would follow later would have helped, but I wasn’t used to doing that from schooldays.

    I’m not sure the teaching style I experienced at uni helped much either—men with indecipherable writing muttering at a chalk board, or rapidly changing overhead transparencies overloading the audience with information for 90min. No overview, no setting of context, no qualitative treatment, very few pictures or diagrams. It seemed that having to teach undergraduates was an annoyance to the lecturers, and a distraction from research. I often became annoyed with text books that were designed to show off how clever the author was rather that to illuminate the subject in the mind of the reader, and these were the recommended ones!

    On reflection, I reckon had I been a less-able student at school, I would have been better prepared for later life—by being happy to learn by rote, accustomed to failure, and by feeling proud of my effort rather than my attainment. It’s no use being wise after the event, though.

  • Arun

    mclaren, I don’t think Feynman could do “real” math either.

  • Stu Savory

    63 years of hindsight tell me that 99.99% of us are second rate because that is a corollary of the word ‘genius’. So we have second-rate careers (been there, done that) . So what? Accept it. They also serve…. etc.

  • Arun

    Also, if someone is in the grip of the cult of genius, to me that person is somewhat immature. Genius for the most part is an after-the-fact assessment. If you end up solving a big problem, you too will be transformed into a “genius” by all the immature minds around you.

    I also think that the cult of genius is part of a larger cult of personality and that cult is generally quite destructive, as destructive as introducing God into physics or Intelligent Design into biology. The cultist is unnecessarily introducing a by-definition-not-understandable thing (the genius or personality of the subject of cult) into the mental space.

    Young physicist, there is a sea of open questions out there. Can you find one that is both interesting and that you can make headway on? If you find yourself able to do that, then do persevere. Don’t get distracted by the Las Vegas lights of “Smart” and “Genius”.

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  • Junkhead

    It’s interesting how John Bardeen is not (as far as I know) a cult object. Yet, he was most definitely of Nobel caliber. And two-barrelled…

  • anon

    Great post! The realization happened to me too. Grad theory and math were certainly a slap in the face after (relatively speaking) smooth sailing in undergrad classes. I eventually realized that my fun/work ratio was very low for theory – I liked the answers, but didn’t enjoy the process – and now I’m an experimentalist …

    In (particle) experiment, we don’t really have a cult of genius, at least not one whose figures we could all agree on. We respect F-E-H, of course, but they obviously can’t really be role models for us. (If F is replaced by Fermi, perhaps.) We have our heroes too – Ray Davis, for example, who apparently decided that neutrino physics was an obvious thing for a physical chemist to get into – but there’s not much worship.

    At any rate conventional “brilliance” tends to have little to do with success in experiment, and this becomes clear pretty quickly after entering the field. Practical qualities are far more important: a willingness to work hard, a knack for time management, a dash of audacity, and a certain ability to feel out the boundaries of what’s currently possible.

  • Haelfix

    Nice post. Completely agreed.

    In general i’ve met the gamut in physics. I’ve met really, insanely smart people and just other run of the mill average people who happened to more or less understand what others had done well enough to be able to contribute.

    Progress unfortunately in physics these days is hard work, depending on your field. In some areas (like high energy physics) so much is already ironclad and thought about, it becomes an order of magnitude harder to actually write something novel. Whereas in other fields, there is still a lot of grunt work remaining to be done.

  • George

    Mark said,

    “The “genius” of many of these people, where the word is appropriate, is often their physical insight and intuition – their ability to see connections between ideas, to see unusual applications of phenomena to perform new measurements and reveal new aspects of nature. This certainly requires great intelligence, and some of the skills are innate, but intuition can take a lot of hard work and experience to build up.”

    This is a great observation. It is true not only in physics but in all fields of study. I also am sympathetic with Arun’s remarks on “cult of genius”, it is a cultural phenomena .

    What does ‘smart’ really mean?

  • anon

    ‘t Hooft should have a cult.

  • JimV

    Another great post and comments!

    As someone who wanted to be a physicist and settled for being an engineer, I don’t have much to add, except that I wish that there were a way to foster more of a team mentality rather than an individual achievement mentality in science education.

  • Nonnormalizable

    Oh sure, we’re plenty clever, and are whizzes at figuring out the tip when the check comes due

    What? Whenever I go out with my physicist and mathematician friends, splitting the check and tip is a complete disaster. Complex analysis and differential geometry are fine, but addition and multiplication of actual numbers? We’re horrible, horrible.

    Seriously, I’m right at the weeding out process of graduate school and starting researcher now, and this was an interesting and hearting post. Thanks.

  • Julianne

    Chad — Link is fixed now. Thanks for the catch.

    John — thanks for pointing out Watson. I knew one of them was on record as proudly having a very very average IQ.

    Mark (#4) — I suspected that computer science had this problem too.

    For those wondering if Feynman really was that smart, there’s a feature article in the Feb 2007 Physics Today (subscription only, unfortunately) that suggests he really was different from the rest of us.

    And to those of you who are struggling with this issue right now, chin up. Start working on all those other skills, and you’ll pull through. Pretty much everyone who makes it to physics grad school is “smart enough”, and the other personality traits become the primary differential. So, be mindful of the many other skills you’ll need besides brains alone.

    And for rapid tip calculation, divide by ten and then double it (or add half if you’re displeased!).

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  • Ann Nelson

    Great post. Some of the smartest people I know are also deeply insecure, because they believe they have to project an aura of understanding everything instantly and without effort. They are made more insecure by all the posturing. If we teach the kids that being smart is not innate, but requires effort, and accomplishment requires willingness to risk looking stupid by asking questions and admitting you do not understand, they will do great things.
    It is also important to emphasize that while some great accomplishments were easily identified as due to the efforts of a few individuals, others resulted from the cumulative, painstaking work of a great many, or even from results that were stumbled across. The Standard Model of particle physics comes to mind as containing many examples of the latter.

  • JC


    I think the first time I “perceived” that I wasn’t going to make it as a top notch mathematician, was during my freshman year of undergrad when I didn’t make it onto the Putnam exam team. In hindsight, this exaggerated “perception” was more of a reflection of my teenage ego than my actual ability.

    When I was in graduate school, I found out the hard way that a lot of “advanced” math (ie. grad school level real analysis, category theory, etc …) wasn’t really all that useful for doing most particle/gravity/string theory stuff. (That is, outside of some highly specialized mathematical physics areas). In the end, one still has to perform long messy calculations in order to get a final expression. It took me a long time to get over the “Bourbaki” type mindset.

    It took me even longer to eventually get over the mindset that string theory was the “be all and end all” of particle/gravity theory.

  • olli

    I’ve always liked what Edwin Hubble said about his decision to switch to astronomy: “I chucked the law for astronomy and I knew that, even if I were second rate or third rate, it was astronomy that mattered”. Of course Hubble turned out rather to be in the F-E-H league…

  • falsemodesty

    mclaren ,

    You may not be good at math, but you are damn good at squeezing as much name dropping of math topics into a post as possible.

  • Zeno

    I keenly remember sitting in my abstract algebra class one afternoon, looking about at my fellow students and realizing we formed a rather nice bell curve. While the class screw-up was missing that day, I could see the two who were smarties, while the rest of bunched up in different clumps of mediocrity. (I was pretty near the middle.) This was at Caltech in the 70s and our teacher was Michael Aschbacher, a hot-shot group theorist. In many other contexts we would all have been smarties, but there I had to learn to deal with being average. Sigh.

    By the way, as much as I admire Feynman and his astonishing genius, I don’t feel obligated to agree with everything he said. Feynman’s comments on how to learn algebra, for one, strike me as wrong-headed.

  • JC


    Over the years I knew many “intellectually arrogant” folks who found out the hard way that they were just “average”, when it came to the undergraduate abstract algebra and/or real analysis courses. Quite a number of these folks changed their majors to something else like physics, engineering, etc … afterwards. A few changed from the “pure math” major to one of the “applied math” majors, which didn’t require as many mandatory theorem/proof-type courses. (The abstract algebra and real analysis courses they already took, were the only mandatory theorem/proof-type courses required for many of the “applied math” degrees. I’ve noticed these days that some “applied math” degrees at many universities, don’t even require abstract algebra and real analysis courses anymore).

    Apparently these folks couldn’t take the blow to their fragile teenage egos, that they were no longer considered “math whiz-kids”.

  • Joseph Smidt

    “Yes, you have to be clever, but if you have good taste in problems, an ability to forge intellectual connections, an eye for untapped opportunities, drive, and yes, a willingness to work hard, you can have major impacts on the field.”

    Amen to that. I really do think people could be a lot more successful in science then they give themselves credit for. Telling people their brain like a muscle can be strengthened is a good thing.

    Secondly, why would admissions committees be look down on a person who has a reputation for being a hard worker?

    Lastly, what is the best measure for how smart someone is? Everyone claims Feynman was a genius yet his IQ was 125, far from genius. I think the true genius is one who at the end of the day produces results, regardless of his/her IQ.

  • yagwara


    It’s worth noting that Aschbacher got a C when he took undergraduate abstract algebra (in his senior year). (Ref: Gallian, Contemporary Abstract Algebra.)

    This article needs to be trumpeted from rooftops. Myself, the main thing I learned in K-12 was arrogance and laziness, from which I still haven’t recovered. I work in mathematics now, and my being reluctant to work and easily discouraged have been far bigger hurdles than my lack of natural smarts.

  • Kea

    It’s amazing to read some of these comments. I was raised to think that I wasn’t particularly smart. And I really believed it. If I was lazy, it was because I was terrified of doing better than just coming first in the class – even as an undergrad. Yeah, there weren’t many girls doing physics back then.

  • spyder

    We live in a nation, and time-period, that celebrates the genius of the math/science aspects of the human brain more than the other functions (we celebrate our amazement at various incredible athletes but don’t often honor that as genius either). For those of us from the other side of campus(s), our listings, of those for whom (and for whose intellects) we have profound respect and admiration, are, of course, quite different. Most of the population in the US (perhaps around the other industrialized countries as well) would know something about the genius of Newton, and F-E-H, but would they know names such as (thinking of the relatively loose use of the term “cult” here) William James, Joachim Wach, Claude Levi-Strauss? Are Foucault, Derrida, Davidson, Minsky, Chomsky, Rorty any lesser for not being physicists and mathematicians???? Do we overlook Spinoza and Leibnitz in our rush to celebrate Newton’s contributions?? Is how we learn to think, use language, construct contextual orientations, not also the domain of genius intellects delving into the profound?? The efforts of Husserl, Wittgenstein, Eliade, and Marty, may be obscure for the majority but are extremely important to discussions of human behaviors. And so it goes.

  • Jordan

    This has been a humbling post to read. I’ll be starting graduate school in the fall, and though I know it’s going to be hard, this makes me think it’s going to be even harder than I think….

    Where do creativity fit into this? Are those students and faculty members with prodigious levels of brainpower usually overflowing with new and interesting ideas, thoughts about philosophy, and untested, arcane theories about the universe? Or are they just good at classwork and statistics?

  • anon2

    Mclaren, I’m curious as to where you ended up finally? I suffered an identical reaction when I encountered high-brow phys-math concoctions..
    Indeed, it took me some time, but the summer of 2005 gave me the courage (and wisdom!) to break away (from theory). Once you act on that realisation, there’s no looking back! It’s very liberating. … and the world has got the need for the lion.. and the ant :)
    Since then I’ve tried experimental.. figured the eccentricities of apparatus and machinery aren’t the stuff my dreams are made of.. so am bailing out of physics completely!!
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Julianne.

  • Joshua R

    I am having trouble deciding if my recent switch out of physics has to do with this. Though I doubt it, even though physics is getting increasingly harder and more stressful (I am just a second year undergrad), I am still stoked for my introduction to quantum physics next quarter, I’m just alot happier now that its a course I am taking for my own investigative and curious reasons, rather than taking it because I have too.

    I think one realization I personally am having is my need to fix more immediate problem. We already have so much scientific knowledge that could so easily fix all kinds of problems like hunger and sustainability and disease, now we just need to get society behind it, we need cultural and political change. I am making my own major by mixing business, political science, and international studies with hopes of working for Non-profits to change the world (big idealist here). No diss to science, it is the coolest crap around — I am still minoring in physics because, well heck, even a glimpse at the ideas that govern the fundamentals of how our universe works is pretty freaking awesome. And it always must be furthered, our quest for answers must never stop, some of us just aren’t geared for that quest.

    I think another part of this is (speaking from experience) that whether or not you want to do physics or math, or even investigative science in general, when your good at math or science in high school every one puts a huge amount of expectations on you to follow through with that. When I wanted to do photography people —without even trying really- made me feel guilty, as if I where squandering my skills. When I wanted to go into philosophy, same thing. Now with my goal to work in non-profit sectors, people cant really guilt me out of helping people who need it, but they certainly are making efforts. With that in mind, it may also be apart of the physics drop out at higher levels, because people who already didn’t really want to do it, now have the excuse that “they aren’t as smart as everyone hoped” — which is sad that that has to be an excuse someone would use just to try and do what they really want to do in life, which might be a lot less mathematically challenging. Again no attack on science or physists, I whish there where a lot more of it and of you. Just some alternate thoughts

  • Julianne

    One of the most perceptive descriptions of “giftedness” I’ve read is that a gifted child is a gifted learner, while a gifted adult is a gifted doer. Being one does not automatically guarantee the other. Many grown gifted children feel that they never lived up to their potential, which I think reflects not making the transition into becoming a gifted doer. For me, one of the most important experiences I had was working in industry for a year before starting grad school. I learned that the point was not to think deep thoughts or to be smart, but to get shit done. I was much more entreprenurial after that, and it’s served me well ever since.

    Ann said:

    Some of the smartest people I know are also deeply insecure, because they believe they have to project an aura of understanding everything instantly and without effort. They are made more insecure by all the posturing.

    Yes, this. It also makes it all the worse for everyone else, because while they’re busy projecting that aura, everyone else is feeling all the more inadequate because, well, that person over there seems to get it, so I must be a dolt. The posturing has always driven me batshit crazy, ever since undergrad. I think the same attitude diminishes our teaching ability as well — many get too stuck on seeming impressive to consider lowering themselves by making things clear. My guess is that they fear that by making something appear simple, it devalues the merit of what they’ve done. Culturally, it would be great if this changed. We’d all learn a lot more if people felt comfortable asking for clarification, from undergrad on up.

  • anon2

    Joshua R said: working for Non-profits to change the world (big idealist here)

    Not the only one around.. Join the club.. I’m switching from physics to working for NGOs too! I think you’re correct in assessing the positive impact of science to “real world” issues, versus other fields.

  • Andy Lawrence

    Theorists suffer nearly as much ego-angst as Actors. In his excellent autobiography, Simon Callow said he could make any actor nervous during rehearsals by sidling up to them and whispering “have they rumbled you yet ?”

    Experimentalists know you need persistence, judgement, luck, and political skill, with a modicum of smarts. Theorists are exposed because smarts is all they put on the market. String theorists are not only exposed but naked because they don’t even have the sanity check of comparison with experiment.

  • anon2

    Joshua, just a word of caution (at the risk of drifting away too much from the main focus of the thread! My apologies..) : A lot of non-profits these days have questionable ways of service. So one needs to be sure there in no clash of principles before one joins such an agency. A recent realisation.

  • Peter Woit

    One of the things that has always made an impression on me is how different the minds of some of the greatest mathematicians and scientists are. Two of my great mathematical heros are Michael Atiyah and Raoul Bott. Atiyah has an incredibly quick mind, immediately grasping whatever you try and explain to him, and coming forth with a quick flood of ideas about it. Bott was quite the opposite: you had to explain things to him slowly and carefully. He did not understand new things quickly, but whatever he understood, he understood very deeply. Both of them, working at quite different intellectual speeds, came up with truly amazing things, some of the high points of modern mathematics.

    I was interested to see Ann Nelson’s comment about the intellectual insecurity of some very smart people. When I was a student, more than once I remember seeing a Nobel-prize winning physicist acting out their insecurities, clearly worried that some undergraduate or graduate student might think they didn’t know something or other. The one response you would never get from them if you asked them a question was “I don’t know” (even when it was the correct answer). I’ve encountered less of this among mathematicians, but never been quite sure why. Perhaps it has something to do with the way in which mathematicians are much more careful about knowing the difference between what they really understand and what they don’t.

  • JC


    Many “smart” folks seem to be very proud of their “Rube Goldberg” style creations and contraptions. It gives than an “aura” of *genius* like Wile E. Coyote!


  • Jim Harrison

    In my experience, profs in any field who readily answer questions by saying “I don’t know” have the biggest egoes of ’em all. It’s not a big group though.

  • Rob

    I’ve always liked what John Huchra said. He broke up the attributes of a successful astronomer into 7 categories and described each by a “unit vector”, an astronomer without equal in that category at the time (1974). According to him, being nearly a “unit vector” in any one of these would assure a tenured position, in two would give a National Academy membership and three would put you in contention for a Nobel Prize. The 7 categories, and his 1974 unit vectors are:

    Raw Intelligence – S. Chandrasekhar
    Knowledge – A. Sandage
    Public Relations – C. Sagan
    Creativity – J. Ostriker
    Taste – W. Sargent
    Effectiveness – J. Gunn
    Competence – M. Schmidt
    If only this was better known by students. By the way, it would be interesting to figure out the 2007 unit vectors.

  • Neil B.

    This has terrific implications for the nature/nuture debate and the still-smoldering idea that some racial groups just don’t have what it takes. We should start teaching students that intelligence, in effect (not just particular subjects) can be taught and built by excercise.

  • Belizean

    The idea that you have to be F-E-H smart to succeed gives little encouragement to continue when the going gets rough.

    Very few students actually believe that their physics professors are towering geniuses. Discouragement sets in when the going gets rough, not because the work requires effort to which bright students are unaccustomed, but because the effort required is deemed by many of them as unworthy of the meager reward it might yield.

    A person attracted to physics by the delightful intellectual play of physical ideas soon realizes that that is but a tiny fraction of the life of an academic physicist. As in many jobs, the bulk of the physicist’s time is consumed by drudgery (tedious calculation, teaching, paper writing, proposal writing, refereeing, and miscellaneous administrative duties). I would guess that many of the dropouts are those who do not find such a life intrinsically appealing at the modest salaries available. They will likely have judged that investing in other areas the effort required to climb the academic ladder will lead to greater wealth, leisure, fulfillment, and happiness.

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  • Ijon Tichy

    I dropped out in graduate school after passing my oral and written comprehensive examinations. I did not compare myself to the towering geniuses of Einstein, Dirac and Feynman: that would be silly. But I did compare myself to a typical tenured professor, and concluded that I simply wasn’t smart enough. Passing exams is one thing, doing good science is quite another. What a previous poster, Belizean, mentioned — the “drudgery” that makes up the bulk of a typical physicist’s life — also turned me away. We all have different reasons for dropping out of grad school; I don’t think you can fit many of us into the same shoe.

  • Ike

    One thing to keep in mind is that you learn faster by being wrong about something than you do by being right. I vividly remember completely flubbing a talk on density functional theory in a graduate quantum course, for example, but since I’m interested in photovoltaics and photosynthesis I keep slowly plugging away at it…slowly being the key word.

    I think one of the great problems in academics today is the limited scope of scientific inquiry due to the erosion of independent scientific institutes. For example, I know of several physics professors who would love to work on solar photovoltaics research, but since so little funding is available they make a living doing fiber optics and light-emitting diode research – and these are prominent, top-of-their-field physicists.

    Undergraduates and beginning graduate students often don’t understand just how constrained and limited the opportunities really are. The problem is acute in chemistry – a motivated grad student comes into a lab full of ideas about interesting science, only to find that she will be working as a technician on a pharmaceutical company research project for the next five years (at rather low pay, too). Then you’ve got the proprietary research, the culture of secrecy, and so on.

    Similarly, I think the single most depressing thing I ever heard in grad school is that “science is politics” – or rather, academics is politics. One of the best Feynman stories is how he resigned from the National Academy of Sciences, after discovering that most of the activity revolved around deciding who else to admit. Likewise, I can’t imagine Einstein or Hawking being concerned about departmental politics. Their concern was/is with doing quality science, period – and that is something worth admiring.

  • arxivaddicted

    great post! the earlier one learned that many of the deities of sciences of the sort mentioned here are partially artificial, the better.

    in my experience, many genuinely smart kids do get screened out/weeded out through all stages of school, while many more calculating types with less intellectual resources to start with did succeed. maybe stamina and effort is the explanation.

    i believe i am of the later category, and it’s disconcerting for me personally to see in sciences many people who are even less gifted resort to worse tools such as dishonestess and pretentiousness to stay around, including some tenured faculty members.

    in whichever profession, pursuing success to the extent of losing one’s integrity is the biggest tragedy that can ever happen.

  • Yvette

    Fascinating. Interestingly, I can never recall being told by my parents that I was “smart” as a child, and instead was always berated for not working harder and the like. The first time I remember ever being called “smart” was in 8th grade while being berated by a teacher, which I remember clearly because I’d never even thought about it and it shocked me.

    In hindsight, this was a very good thing!

    I will also mention though that I’ve also noticed how many of my fellow students drop out of the field once they discover that they won’t “be the next Einstein” or “win the Nobel Prize someday.” I always thought this was a very silly reason to be in physics in the first place, as the number of physicists who win the Prize are statistically insignificant; the fraction of people who are Einstein would be thrown out due to experimental error. 😉

    The most helpful advice I’ve ever heard about physics was from one of the supplemental Feynman lectures though: no matter how things work out, 50% of the people are going to be in the bottom half of the class because it’s got to be that way. I remind myself of this whenever the going gets tough, and think professors would do well to remind their students of this on occasion.

  • Julianne

    With regard to Belizean’s comments above, I completely concur that there are many other excellent reasons to choose not to pursue an academic career in physics. The issue I’m raising, however, is not one of those excellent reasons.

  • Joshua R

    sorry for the side tangents, but anon2, if there is anyway we can get in contact, i would love some advice and info on how you are doing what your doing[at] is my contact

    And to stay on topic
    yvette: “50% of the people are going to be in the bottom half of the class because it’s got to be that way.”

    Thats something i think people in all fields need to remind them selfs all the time. We can all be the best but we damn sure can work our butts off. I know i personally suffered from this cult problem and as i move to my next field i can still feel it rearing its ugly head. I want to be at the top, a history making kind of guy, and its a hard fact to swallow that i probably wont be, but i need to stick with it anyway.

  • Aaron

    Ooooh… very interesting studies! It’s really cool how much you can affect people’s test scores by priming them with attitudes about learning. Cool and scary.

    But this doesn’t explain the case of Lord Kelvin, who was a clever physicist but the dumbest geochronologist ever.

    What are you talking about? Kelvin’s guess at the age of the Earth was groundbreaking for his time, and the best that he could have done without knowing about radioactivity! If I recall correctly, Kelvin even wrote in a little caveat about his calculating being correct only in the absence of some mysterious, unknown heat source. Maybe he was just being sarcastic, but these days it makes him sound practically psychic. :)

  • Aaron

    I can’t imagine Einstein or Hawking being concerned about departmental politics.

    Me neither… but Newton did seem to spend a lot of time accusing Leibniz of plagiarism. 😉

  • Chris W.

    Another factor should perhaps be mentioned: I think some (many?) people are discouraged by what is essentially an economic assessment. They say, “yeah, this is interesting, and I could stick with it, but why should anybody give me the time, when these other people seem to pick it up just like that?” or “what would people make of my sense of priorities, if I were to spend a lot more time on this?”

    I think that attitude is prevalent in the U.S., and leads to “some kids just have it, and the rest don’t” in technically demanding fields (or the arts and athletics too, for that matter). The subtext is, “well, okay, maybe a lot of people could learn [X], but why encourage them, we’re just going to skim the cream anyway”. It affects the kids identified as smart even more, perhaps, because they think they know in which areas they’ll be part of the cream, and they’re afraid to stray out of that apparently safe territory.

    Perhaps the only sure antidote against this is a certain stubborn disregard for such economic judgments, which are often shortsighted anyway.

    Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

    — Helen Keller (as quoted by Donna Shirley)

  • Mark

    It also makes it all the worse for everyone else, because while they’re busy projecting that aura, everyone else is feeling all the more inadequate because, well, that person over there seems to get it, so I must be a dolt.

    I used to get seething mad in grad school at people who would raise their hands to ask the prof a obscure question, just to show off their knowledge of the subject matter.

    Probably it angered me because that was the sort of thing I did myself all through elementary and high school. If you were in my class, I formally apologize for being such a shit.

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  • agm

    I suppose part of the matter is honest assessment as well as the priming discussed in the linked-to study. I don’t see how you can separate them, and I don’t think that kids that age are capable of the necessary level of self-assessment, relative to living and working and playing in the adult world. Sometimes there is no substitute for having lived long enough. In my case, when I came to grad school, I knew it would be tough. Going from a third tier state school to an elite research institution was insane, but the real revelation came when I began pondering the people I would have to compete with for jobs and grants. Comparing against their rate of their output, their training, the quality of their work, the questions they ask, their processes for answering them — this comparison has convinced me that I could at best end up tenured at a middling-level state school, if I didn’t burn out again first AND if I had an unholy amount of good luck. Honest self-assessment has led me to conclude that I’ve reached the level where working as hard as the next guy isn’t enough if you’re both working insanely hard and he or she is doing better science than you are. It doesn’t seem to be the wisest way to spend the next decade of my life.

    So in the meantime I work on finishing enough material for 2-3 manuscripts and a dissertation+defense before year’s end. Not because I absolutely love the topic, which started out as a rewrite of someone else’s topic, making his code run without infinite loops and such. I’m doing this because funding realities virtually guarantee if I don’t it will never be done, here or anywhere else. After that, who knows? It’s all part of the adventure, right?

  • agm

    As to how that’s topical, well, obviously you should compare against the best young researchers in your field, right? I could rattle off a list of people in their late 20s to early 30s who can outcompete me, sort of the current list of candidates for the “Cult of Genius” people in my field. Nice to know I can still rattle off this whole somewhat-off-topic comment thing with the best of them :-)

  • Chad Orzel

    I can’t imagine Einstein or Hawking being concerned about departmental politics.

    You might be surprised.
    We had a talk last year from a historian of science about the Peter Debye thing, and Einstein said some remarkably catty things about Debye to the FBI at one point.

  • fh

    Ike, there are things you can do. Don’t choose your grad school and supervisor for prestige or smarts, be careful, not to get sucked into technical details and ask the big questions every now and then, particularly to your Profs. Don’t bow down to their experience, if they are worth a damn they will respect your independence (at least in England undergrad studies do not seem to educate you twoards independence nearly as much as they do in Germany for example so this is twice as important).

    The most important lesson I learned about how to approach physics was in my undergrad 1st (early 2nd?) year Analysis course. The Prof was really clever and intelligent, we were doing wave propagation, and somebody remarked that the amplitude fell of as 1/r and wouldn’t that violate conversation of Energy. Without batting an eyelid the Prof turned around and said that was due to the model being unphysical anyways. Bullshit. The Energy is amplitude squared of course and so does fall off with 1/r^2.
    Most valueable physics lesson I’ve ever had.

  • fh

    I guess my point is, creative freedom will always exist more on the fringes, in the idiosyncratic niches, off the beaten track.

    But if the intelligent and smart grad students will start chosing the Profs who value independence and creativity over those who are particularly “clever” in a technical way, we can change the field. It’s as simple as that.
    You kill your chance at a career on the mind numbing side of physics but improve your chances for a career on the exciting side, so even if your overall chances are lower, the quality of your chances will improve.

    also, I posted a comment yesterday night which apparently didn’t make it through?

  • Jennifer Ouellette

    I wish someone had made these points to my high school self; I was one of those who, having been told I was smart in general, assumed that therefore if I didn’t grasp something right off the bat, I wasn’t going to be any good at it. I’ve since learned differently, but not in time to salvage my high school physics class. :)

    Ironically, I just had an experience yesterday that illustrated your points beautifully. A teenaged girl in my dojo (junior in high school) has participated in a couple of the “physics of martial arts” demos I’ve conducted in NYC over the last year. It piqued her interest in the subject sufficiently that she was planning on signing up for physics class her senior year. Her mother told me this, then chucked conspiratorially and said, “Of course, we discouraged her. I told her REAL physics isn’t any fun at all, she won’t like it, and she’s really not good in math, so she should take something easy that won’t ruin her GPA….”

    A. is very bright, shy and awkward, but inwardly fierce, so I’m confident that if she really wants something — physics, a better college, a hot fudge sundae — she’ll be able to fight past the naysayers and get it. She’s absorbed the lesson that innate ability isn’t the be all and end all. But it depressed the hell out of me to think that she had to waste energy fighting that kind of nonsense — from her parents, no less — when she could be using it to learn physics and all kinds of other neat things about the world.

    It was all the more depressing because a good friend of A’s was also present; same age, high school junior, but her father is a physics teacher at a local high school, and has clearly gone out of his way to dispel any fear of the subject in his children. THIS girl confidently chatted with me about her science classes, about how she was good at math, and might take physics or she might take something else, depending on her career goals… the point being, her decision will be based on practicality and not on fear of failure.

  • Elliot

    To borrow an analogy from physics, I think that fear of failure in physics is local, not global. The previous comment illustrates this point. I think that the “cult” of genius actually encourages people to go into the field. After all to use another analogy. If you were a young musician in 1963, you would want to be like the Beatles. I was at Caltech (1969-1971) when Feynmann was teaching and the “cult” has grown significantly since then in part by his popular books on the subject and his participation on the congressional committee investigating the O-rings. (and not due to any significant scientifc discovery) I also got to see a lecture by Hawking in Chicago in 1999 and think the “rock star” analogy is highly appropriate.

    Back to my original point. I think it is parents, friends, teachers, (and self examination) that the student who is directly exposed to, that provide “discouragment” not the cult heroes. I think they are for better or worse an encourging factor.


  • Chad Orzel

    TrackBack hasn’t worked for me in ages, so here’s a manual ping of sorts: The Cult of Theory, a post in which I get a little annoyed at the hierarchical view of physics implicit in mclaren’s original comment. Or, if you’d prefer the teaser line version:

    “Too many people approach physics as if there’s some sort of Great Chain of Being, with the most abstract theoretical particle physics at the very top and low-energy experimentalists down at the bottom, just above biologists and rude beasts incapable of speech.”

  • Julianne

    Thanks Chad — except I’m Julianne, not Joanne. As I mentioned on another thread, no one gets my name right…

    And I completely agree with your post, by the way.

  • fh

    “Too many people approach physics as if there’s some sort of Great Chain of Being, with the most abstract theoretical particle physics at the very top and low-energy experimentalists down at the bottom, just above biologists and rude beasts incapable of speech.”

    What do you mean? You say that as if there would be anything wrong with that? I don’t understand….

  • Plato

    I think one can change the word Genius to “aha?”

    And it is those insightful moments which tend to propel those who find value in what did not make sense before, now all of sudden does. I think some of us are definitely at a disadvantage, and it may be in our wiring? Not that it is incapable for us to understand and learn those insights. Maybe not as easily for sure.

    That one may grasp on to a “different kind of real estate” may be like adapting to Poincaré’s conjecture or learning more about the Hodge conjecture? A mathematical puzzle?

    So one can look to art of the “wunderkammern in glass cases.” Those of science who would like to progress the “understanding of symmetry,” while there are those who are less then happy with it?

  • Richard E.

    I also read the original article, and I was more interested in how it might change the way I interact with my children: particularly my older boy, who is 5 and in kindergarten, although this will apply to the younger one as well in good time.

    For whatever reason, my son sails through his kindergarten syllabus, particularly in math. And for that reason he is certainly told that he is smart on a fairly regular basis. However, I have tried to banish this language from my vocabulary (as has his mother, who pointed the article out to me in the first place) and instead praise his effort.

    A corollary of this is that I want to make sure he sees problems that stretch him a little, so he does actually have to work (since praising someone for hard work when it really wasn’t that hard may be a little illogical).

    I had not thought the implications of this through for my own work until I saw Julianne’s article, but it is certainly true that I never had to work hard during my school or even undergraduate years. However, during my PhD work it became very apparent to me that this was no longer going to be enough, and I found myself spending more and more time at my desk, and actually *working* :-)

    Thinking about all three of Einstein, Hawking and Feynmann it is clear that all of them work very hard indeed. Special relativity came quickly to Einstein (and after all, it is a very simple idea, so once you *have* it, working out its consequences is relatively easy, if you’ll pardon the pun), but he worked for years on GR, and for decades on his unified field theory.

  • Ike

    Chad, that’s a good point. While it’s impossible to tell exactly what Einstein thought about departmental politics (the Debye thing did have some other historical overtones regarding the ugly stories of German scientific institutions in the 30’s), we can be sure that natural systems don’t care at all about departmental politics!

    In fact, one could argue that the divisions between biology, chemistry and physics are more or less arbitrary and have more to do with the historical development of scientific institutions than with any fundamental divisions in nature. One of the more dramatic examples is how stellar evolution (a very phyics-based topic) created the heavier elements that are critical to the evolution of living creatures (a very biological topic). Another evolutionary concept is that over-specialization can lead to extinction – something that applies back to to scientific institutions and research careers.

  • Plato

    I should expand a bit on the Wunderkammern or “Wonder-Chambers”: Forerunners of Modern-Day Museums. And by implicating such “geometric models in glass cases” it served us to remember how such abstract models could have been used to understand this relation to cosmology or physics?

    In 1849 already, the British mathematicians Salmon ([Sal49]) and Cayley ([Cay49]) published the results of their correspondence on the number of straight lines on a smooth cubic surface. In a letter, Cayley had told Salmon, that their could only exist a finite number – and Salmon answered, that the number should be exactly 27

    So what took place in years mentioned by above poster is simple a reminder of Riemann, Gauss’s, or Dirac’s work here to see in ways that we are not accustom?

    As a layman I puzzle how ingenuity might see how “symmetry” can diverge to all the other shapes within it’s context?

  • Robert O’Brien

    I admire Feynman’s contributions to physics, naturally, but not the man. I should think a man of his intellectual stature would know better than to use LSD, nail the wives of his grad students, or hold his office in a strip bar.

  • Kuas

    First of all, even Hawking is not Feynman-Einstein-Hawking smart. Feynman-Einstein-Witten smart (FEW) would be better.

    Second, it is not true that we physicists as a whole secretly think mathematicians are smarter (speak for yourself!). In fact I’ve seen empirical evidence to the contrary. Experimental physicsts, one could argue are less smart than mathematicians, but not theorists.

  • Robert O’Brien

    “Too many people approach physics as if there’s some sort of Great Chain of Being, with the most abstract theoretical particle physics at the very top and low-energy experimentalists down at the bottom, just above biologists and rude beasts incapable of speech.”

    What offal! Everyone knows mathematicians occupy the uppermost tier!

  • Robert O’Brien

    First of all, even Hawking is not Feynman-Einstein-Hawking smart. Feynman-Einstein-Witten smart (FEW) would be better.

    Better yet: Archimedes-Newton-Gauss smart.

  • Jason Dick

    This article really hit home for me. I too sailed through much of school with very little effort. I found that I would tend to measure my grasp of the material by how well I did on the exams, and if I did fairly well on the exams just from attending class, that’s about all I would do.

    This first came to bite me when I started taking physics at the community college I went to right out of high school. I had really enjoyed physics in high school (aced all of the exams, but got poor grades due to lack of homework), and had gotten the highest score on the AP Calculus BC exam. So I decided to take the third semester of calculus along with the physics course that went along with that, which was electricity and magnetism. Well, I found out really fast that there was no way for me to do well on the exams without putting in the course work. From then on, I did every piece of homework for all of my physics and math courses at the community college.

    But then, the university hit. I transfered to UC Davis a couple of years after starting at the community college, and though it’s not a bad school, I found I could slack off again, and still do very well on the exams. So I did. Two years as an undergraduate had really sapped all of my will to do homework.

    Thus, when I returned to Davis as a graduate student, I had to learn how to work all over again. And it’s still something I struggle with.

    Anyway, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it can be very damaging to go for the “easy A” courses. They tend to be exceedingly boring, and thus breed laziness and dislike of learning. I’ve always found that I’ve done much better when challenged, and thus I think that it is in every student’s best interests to take as challenging of courses as they can handle.

  • JC

    Jason Dick,

    When I was an undergrad, I ended up taking mostly classes which I thought I could get an “easy A” or at least a “moderately easy A”.

    When I first took the “honors” level real analysis and abstract algebra math courses in freshman year (each course lasted two-semesters), that’s when I came to a “perceived” shocking realization that I wasn’t going to be a top notch mathematician. (I finished all the freshman/sophomore university math courses like calculus, linear algebra, ordinary differential equations, etc … back when I was in high school). This was first time I found out there were other folks who were better at abstract math and who got higher grades than me. Also during the first semester of my freshman year, I didn’t make it onto the Putnum math exam team, which further confirmed my “perception” that I wasn’t going to be a top notch mathematician.

    In hindsight, this “perceived” realization that I wasn’t going to be a top notch mathematician was largely the result of my own teenage ego at the time. Many years later I came to the realization that many of my math major friends were not much smarter than I was. They just happened to have worked a lot harder than me in those real analysis and abstract algebra courses we took that year. In those days, I had the mentality that I could still do everything by “winging it”.

    After my freshman year, I changed my major to engineering physics but still took some further math courses which were not as “demanding” (such as differential geometry, more differential equations, etc …), and which I felt I could still get a “moderately easy A”. For the more “abstract” math stuff like topology, Galois theory, measure theory, functional analysis, etc …, I just bought some of the textbooks and studied the subjects on my own. At the time, I still haven’t gotten over the “humiliation” of finding out that I wasn’t the math “whiz-kid” anymore. In my own mind in those days, I didn’t want to feel “humiliated” even more from taking courses like general topology, measure theory, Galois theory, etc … and not doing well in them.

    In physics, the first time I came to the realization that I could no longer do things by “winging it”, was in graduate school after I passed all the “weedout” exams (ie. prelims, comps, etc …). I found out the hard way that my sheer audacity in “winging it”, was no longer a useful skill when it came to doing real research in particle/gravity/string theory. Even by the time I finished my thesis, I still hadn’t completely gotten over it yet. It was many years later after I left the field, that I finally got over it and accepted the fact that I was never going to be a genius like Ed Witten.

  • huanon

    Do I get some kind of prize for being really smart and knowing, since ~ age 16, that being smart don’t mean sh*t unless you also accomplish something?
    My experience has taught me that given the same education/preparation as someone else, I will master the concept/knowledge/technique just as well or better. This could make me arrogant, but in a way it also tempers it, because we do not all have the same preparation, and we do not all work as hard.

    I agree that physicists, particularly theoretical physicists, are caught in a death spiral of one-dimensional intellectual elitism. See Kuas’ (insert-negative-adjective) comment above.

  • Babbler

    The cult of genius, IMHO, isn’t as present in other sciences as it is as it is in physics. The cult of genius, is seems to me, partly originates from the culture of mathematics, which is even more in love with genius than physics is. Physics is also the degree of separation from experiment and theory not present in other sciences. There is also the “Great Chain of Science”, where more fundamental sciences are consider harder, “better” and more important.

  • Quasar9

    lol Julianne,
    We usually leave 10-15% Tip.
    But they love good tippers at my fave restaurant. You I’m sure will be most welcome with your 20%.
    Who knows, when they find out you’ve discovered a ‘celestial body’ they may well treat you to a free meal. Aaah! the trappings of fame.

  • JC

    In a very “sordid” way, it actually felt very liberating when one day I came to a “sudden” realization and accepted the fact that I was never going to be a *genius* like an Einstein, Feynman, or Witten, etc …

    It was as if I “woke up” one day and saw the “cult of genius” for what it really was.

    From stories I’ve read over the years about people who joined and have left destructive and/or religious “cults”, it sounds very similar emotionally to what I went through when I was younger. Over the years I’ve met folks who joined various cults in the past (ie. mostly religious ones, etc …), where we chatted about our life experiences over beer or coffee. After awhile, I got the impression their stories and emotional experiences in various cults were very similar to my emotional experiences in university. Their stories of their changes of heart and subsequently leaving a cult, were very similar to my experiences of accepting the fact that I was never going to be an Einstein-like genius.

  • Doug

    What is it with blithely assuming that we measure intelligence like we can the length of the table? Who has actually observed intelligence in the world? What evidence do we have that intelligence is actually a thing instead of an idea? And if intelligence is an idea instead of a thing doesn’t one make the fallacy of reificiation by thinking it can get measured? Why think intelligence comes on a linearly ordered scale using crisp numbers as intelligence tests so blithely assume? Why think there exists just a unique generalized intelligence instead of many different intelligences in many different fields?

    I don’t think the problem lies in a cult of genius. I think the problem lies in a cult of intelligence, which reifies the idea of intelligence into a supposed thing which people can measure.

  • Aaron Bergman

    We usually leave 10-15% Tip.

    10%? Do you live in the US? Waiters and waitresses here often get paid below minimum wage and are expected to make it up from tips. If you’re tipping below 15%, you’re taking money away from them. Frankly, waiting on tables is a difficult and thankless job, and I’d think that, unless there was something wrong with the service, most of us could afford to be a little generous.

  • Julianne

    I’ve heard uncomfirmed rumors that the APS convention was not invited back to a particular venue because of systematically bad tipping.

  • Quasar9

    Hi Aaron, service charged is included in the bill (already added) in most eateries in Europe.
    And minimum wage (even for waiting staff) is around £6.00 nine euros or $US 12.00 – we don’t believe in slave labour and slave wages, or abusing our immigrant’s rights whether legal or not

    Therefore 15% is a fair tip, and even 10% is acceptable.
    What is clearly not acceptable (and insulting) is one or two quid tip on a £50-100 bill, unless the service was bad.

    But hey, if you don’t tip generously I don’t recommend going back for more – or they may indeed refuse you entry – and ‘rightly’ so. lol!

  • PRT

    Doug: Modern society has come to think “intelligence” in terms of your numbers skills. Then the proclaimed “intelligentsia” (who matched up on that scale), having a mathematical bend of mind by definition, of course tend to limit their view to all things that can be put on a scale.. preferably a 1D scale. The simpler the theory, the better its chances of being correct. Occam’s razor, isn’t it?
    So they established this mathematical criteria for “measuring” intelligence.
    They’re also the ones who decide who’re the “intelligent” in the next generation (the professor assigns the grades.. based on smartness demonstrated in mathematical manipulation, besides other related skills). So the next generation of intelligentsia is hand-picked thus.
    Not that there aren’t other kinds of intelligence.. there is an “intelligence for music”, one for art, etc. It’s just that the word (intelligence) in itself is associated with the first kind of skill..
    So one starts assuming:
    (a) Being called “intelligent” means I can succeed (whatever that means) in higher edn, and research, that calls for such “intelligence”
    (b) All other skills are not “intelligent”

  • Elliot

    Aaron is right about the U. S. As a former waiter and busboy I can attest to the fact that restaurants in the U. S. can get away with sub-minimum wages for service employees (waitpeople/buspeople) on the premise they will earn tips. And no benefits for most. I would say in the United States, unless the service was not good, 15% is the minimum. Of course we don’t have the enlightened labor attitudes over here. (yet)

  • beowulf888

    I was always pretty humble about my smarts. In retrospect, I wish I had been more aggressive in grad school about following my own interests, rather than the projects that my advisors wanted me to work on. A little arrogance probably would have gone a long way for me.

    I wasn’t particularly brilliant, but what I had over a lot of my classmates was an insatiable curiosity about a wide range subjects. In grad school, I found that focusing on one single subject — or rather one single facet of a single subject — was just about impossible for me. Moreover, any time I tried to bring something from some other scientific discipline into studies I was told that it would make it more difficult defend my thesis. One day my thesis advisor took me aside one day and said: “You don’t want to taken for a goddamn dilettante, do you? Your topic may be drivel, but you need to get that degree!” Naturally, I dropped out of grad school without completing my thesis, and I am more than happy not to have taken an academic path. The punch-line to this story is that my thesis advisor was later denied tenure — but in the meantime he was taking courses at the University’s law school — he was denied tenure, but he walked away with a law degree for free (classes were free for faculty at the University I attended). So a fat lot of good specialization did for him.

    Anyway, I’ll always respect someone who has earned a doctorate in the sciences, but I’m not sure they’ll necessarily make interesting conversationalist… 😉

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  • wearygradgopher

    This is a damned excellent post and the comments are even more illuminating. There’s just one problem: physicists don’t believe it. As far as my experience goes, they seem happy to perpetuate the cult of genius.

    We can talk up hard work and creativity all we want over here, but until I start hearing my professors and advisors actually express thoughts along the lines of “IQ ain’t everything,” I call bullshit.

  • wearygradgopher

    Also, as much as I know that the cult of genius that surrounds physics is at least partially due to Feynman’s attitudes and behaviors, I hate to see him in the list “F-E-H.” I think he’s done (not quite, I guess) as much damage to future work in physics as he has done good for it.

    Not a big fan of Hawking either, for the record. There are better physicists and better human beings out there.

  • Eric

    Couldn’t agree more with Belizean (#55)–perfectly stated, and so true.

  • miller

    I will readily admit to being one of those “arrogant” students who has been told all his life that he is very smart, etc. I haven’t quite gotten to the point where I have to work arduously to understand every concept (mind you, I’m still an undergrad). I most certainly do not idolize F-E-H; I barely know anything about them. I happen to think that it will be fun once physics gets challenging.

    But you definitely have a point. People I talk to seem to think that the only way to be a successful physicist is to be at the very top. They also think that physics is the hardest possible major. That’s probably why physics gets all the people like me with inflated egos.

  • cynic

    This post has generated a lot of interesting discussion; presumably everyone reaches the ‘I’m not the smartest dude on the planet’ point. Perhaps as in politics, every career in physics must end in failure; F E and H each more or less bombed out by the end. Chandrasekhar (Rob’s paragon of raw intelligence) reckoned that failure early on was good for the soul, and kept you on track in later life; too early an elevation to god like status might turn you into an opinionated obstacle to others’ progress. Whatever it was, something drove Chandra on like a man possessed. Maybe less charismatic fellows than FEH – like Chandra, Bardeen and Schwinger, for example – might serve as better role models for the young.

    It has also been something of a relief, and a tribute to the gentility and good sense of CV readers, that it has not been suggetsed that Julianne only came up with this post because she is a girlie wimp and, like Emmy Noether, should be kept out of the bath house that is physics. (Unless, of course, comments of this type are erased on arrival).

    Whatever – thanks to JD for one of the best CV contributions so far

  • JC

    When I was an undergrad, the most “arrogant” students I knew of were the music majors. At a number of places, one literally had to be a near-prodigy in music in order to pass the auditions (which allowed one to enroll in the music major program).

    Besides the music majors, the aerospace engineering majors were also notorious for being really arrogant (back when I was an undergrad). Though this may not be the case these days, considering the aerospace industry has been having chronic problems ever since the end of the cold war. Many of my arrogant aerospace engineering friends from college, have been “eating crow” for the last 15 years. Quite a number of them were canned from aerospace firms (like Boeing) back in the early 1990’s, and were never able to find another job in aerospace. Many ended up changing fields and subsequently went into computer type jobs. After the dotcom bubble bursted, many were out of work again. The last time I saw some of these folks, many are quite “humble” these days.

  • Joe

    “I want to know why the universe is as it is and why it exists at all.” –Hawking, Time Magazine, Sept 29, 1978

    This is why I study physics, and I think it’s why most of us adopted physics, not to prove to ourselves or to others how smart we are, even though our field attracts some very smart people. Any time that I grow confused about what I expect from physics, or imagine that I should give up because someone might be smarter than I am, I find that an evening of star gazing returns me to my early youth when I was beginning to discover for myself that I needed mathematics to answer my questions far more than a telescope, and before anyone tried to hijack my intelligence by calling me “smart.”

    Einstein spent ten years struggling with tensors before he obtained his field equations, and, according to a Nova broadcast a few years ago, he actually wrote out the correct equations a year before recognizing them as the result he sought. Feynman boasted of having covered “thousands of pages” with bad equations before taming his integrals, and even Newton studied twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week for twenty years. Physics’ role models are smart, but I don’t see them as so infinitely distinguished from the less celebrated among us, and as an earlier remark notes, all these heroes bombed out in the end, going round in circles with rather useless ideas. If anyone inhabited an entirely different intellectual plane, maybe it was Euler – how did he write out thousands of pages of Correct equations without his sight and with a house full of cats chasing over his table? Well…maybe Newton was different – but, again, he studied harder than anyone else. Like Blackwell and Dweck, I’m convinced that the brain is a muscle.

    In a far better world I might feel handicapped by my portion of intelligence, but my experience is that my understanding and accomplishments have been limited far more by violent ignoramuses who surround and pester and threaten me than by any intellectual wall. The high school was ugly with ignorance, emotionally disturbed teachers, worthless books and homework and brutal corporal punishment – a four year hell hole! In both graduate and undergraduate school I saw the endless hours of lectures as relatively useless compared to private study, and I still think that three or four hours per week of informal discussion would have been better. Then there is the question of money and eating and what one must do to obtain a little money: the years between undergraduate and graduate school were a nightmare of weapons, canned codes, junk physics, drug tests and haircuts. And all this time, from the first weeks in the freshman dormitory to very recently, has been a recurrent struggle with obnoxious, crazy neighbors and their nightly, all-night loud music that deprives one of sleep and the quiet needed to read and think. Oh, yes – and access to better and affordable medical care would have been a tremendous help in graduate school, which I managed to complete only miraculously during years of slightly debilitating and completely unnecessary illness.

    I think that I am not crying in my beer here, all alone, because I have learned that my experiences and insights into life are hardly unique: thousands, millions of people have experienced these same frustrations, and I think it criminal that so many should be so hampered for so little. Furthermore, I have taken the trouble over the last ten years or so to accumulate a large amount of money. I’m completely independent now, and although you’ve never heard of me, I have several publications and I enjoy physics far more than before.

    It’s a lousy world for millions of people, not just myself, for learning physics or anything else. I’d like to see physicists become more political and grow bigger, louder mouths. Maybe scientists should be more demanding about how two billion dollars each day in foreign loans are spent and insist on investing more of this squandered wealth in people and less on explosions. Maybe physicists should unite globally and refuse to build weapons or accept money from DOE or governments in general. You might say that others will quickly replace those who refuse to play ball – but those second string replacement physicists will be the dumb ones(?).

  • fh

    wearygradgopher, again the places exist, just search them out. Try Europe for starters.

    Also regarding Feynman and Hawking, without doubt there are dozens of physicists of their caliber in the 20th century and at least half a dozen above them (in fundamental theoretical physics I should add).

    Einstein competes with Newton only, but he never was good with maths. In every case somebody else had figured out the maths before him. He was good at physics. And he thought manifestly physically about things like Space and Time that people didn’t think were physical before. Clocks and Rods!

  • GZ

    One thing that I’ve noticed about the lives of Newton, Einstein, Feynman, and other greats: they didn’t make a distinction between work and leisure. For them, work was physics, and play was also physics. People often say “do what you love”, but I think it’s more than that in these cases. Even people who are lucky enough to do what they love almost always need other areas of interest in order to feel fulfilled. For Newton et al., physics sufficed (especially in Newton’s case). I know Einstein and Feynman were both musicians etc. and so they did have interests aside from physics, but I think either of them could easily have spent ALL of their time doing physics without EVER getting bored. I think that’s the rare trait that makes a genius… it’s more than passion that I’m talking about: it’s the ability to squeeze everything you need for happiness out of a small subset of life options.

  • anongs

    Just to throw this out there:

    I realized recently that my way of “coping” — with pressure, disappointment, unpopularity, etc. — has been to be demonstrate yet higher levels of toughness and smarts. It’s worked before, no?

    Obviously, when you truly stretch yourself, this is not adequate. You have to have a dedication beyond satisfying your ego, and submit yourself to the craft. Then you see whether or not the achievements that follow give you a sufficiently intense warm-and-fuzzy feeling inside.

  • Qubit

    No one man can be a genius of everything. I think the human mind is seriously lacking, I should be able to think what I like, but it seem like my brain and my nervous system cannot cope with the way I choose to think. When I think in this way I feel like am “sounding”, like the whale, I go all the way to the point of what doctors would call psychosis (and I don’t mean am a total lunatic), after I have re regulate my breathing, sometimes I have I bit of trouble doing this and end up feeling sick and my muscle all the way down my spine tense up. It is a choice, call it psychosis if you like but I love my Oceans! My very own multiverse that contains more information in it than there is in the real world, and nobody knows.

    Stephen Hawking once said “If we do discover a theory of everything…it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would truly know the mind of God.” This is wrong! We would not know the mind of god, If we do discover a theory of everything, then we have only just discovered how to play with his magic willy!…. “Which way is north again?!”

  • http://n/a James

    Signed, by a true slacker.

    To quote Thomas Jefferson:
    I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.

    Smart is a 4 letter word. :)

    In my life I always believed (maybe because I was told this is the case) that I was never operating at full potential. I should be working harder (you know 10% of brain, yada yada. In fact I’m slacking right now by writing this instead of studying).

    My biggest problem is I’m not a hard worker. If I was perhaps limit effort -> infinity (ME) = F-E-H ?

    But I take up case with the E…

    Was the most notable property of Einstein that he busted his ass to get where he was? By day a mild mannered patten clerk, but by night A stressed out physicist.

    My big qualm with physics and academics is their metrics for success. Seems to me they never seem to get it right? and many a time the sort of realize it, after the fact and throw up a whole big “Oh yeah we knew that he was brilliant”, cover story.

    Common Knowledge to respond to the genius corollary: 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration? Sound familiar to any one?

    But then again, Show me a great metric, and I’ll find you a counter example.

    So how are we to prevent Physics from being like the NBA? It’s real simple… let every one play. They’ll sort them selves out eventually. But that too airy an idea to be realized.

    Or maybe not… Web publication being what it is today, Physics might take a lesson from free software culture. No better test than Trial by fire. Works great for theory. And if we take a match to every crazy idea, then well have much more material to look at when we go try to figure out what to spend this years science budget on.

    Just my $.02

    I’m going to try to be smarter now…

  • http://n/a James

    oh one more thing… seems some one already the first point. Kudos to you. (and thanks to all of you, cuz now I don’t feel so alone.)

    Why did I go into physics? That really simple, one day I said to my mentor (long before I had any idea who the physics superstars were): “I want to understand the universe. I want to look at the world around me, and have some idea of how it works”.

    He said: “Go study physics”.

    At the mid section of my ugrad career, I realized he was right. From the really large to the really small, I had some idea of how most things did what they did. (Not that I could tell you about the specifics, but there were no confounding mysteries in most things.)

  • tall cellulosic material

    Interesting article. Having known a number of physicists who worked their way up through the grad school ranks, I found them generally smart. I think it is a very tricky business to divine between what one thinks of their own smartness and what one really is.

    I do not think that Watson thought of himself other than smart and smarter than most. I do not think humble was in his vocabulary.

    I do not think that any of the great physicists made their discoveries without considerable sweat equity. Work hard and effectively will make you smarter-I like the brain as muscle analogy.

    There also has to be certain emotional-personality traits to facilitate the great work in physics or other sciences and I would call it the ability to work alone with great persistence.

    Smartness is only one trait needed to greatness in science. Physicists ala Newton, Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger, and all the greats of the early twentieth century along with physics really being the underpinning of the hard sciences which with molecular biology now includes biology, seems to elevate physics and physicists to being considered smarter than many others. Not all the smartest folks are physicists or even scientists, there are other factors at play that make the successful scientist or physicist.

  • Ijon Tichy

    GZ wrote:
    One thing that I’ve noticed about the lives of Newton, Einstein, Feynman, and other greats: they didn’t make a distinction between work and leisure.

    That’s because they could afford to. They had the genius, obsessive drive, and good fortune to be able to get paid doing what they love to do. Only a small percentage of humans achieve that type of nirvana. The rest of us necessarily make a distinction between work and leisure, but sometimes greed or need causes us to forsake the latter for more of the former, which only begets misery in the long run.

    GZ continued:
    For Newton et al., physics sufficed (especially in Newton’s case). I know Einstein and Feynman were both musicians etc. and so they did have interests aside from physics, but I think either of them could easily have spent ALL of their time doing physics without EVER getting bored.

    Newton dabbled in many arts: philosophy, alchemy, theology, and doing the King’s business (as Warden of the Royal Mint). Einstein and Feynman were much the same (in terms of the quantity and diversity of their interests). Geniuses have that luxury: of being able to enter fields as neophytes and leave them as undisputed masters, often in the space of only a few years. The rest of us must either devote our entire lives to a single interest, or play minor roles in the advancement of humankind.

  • Jimbo

    STUNNING: 114 VISCERAL REACTIONS, truly a little piece of our hearts in all of `em.
    Wish I had the time to read them…Perhaps someone with the time, could analyze them for correlations, report back ?! Now that would be interesting.

  • Stephen Uitti

    Newton was said to have worked 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, and for an absurd number of years. But there is a Newton quote (which i’m too lazy to locate) where he complains about how long it takes for even the simplest ideas to make it into his head. Newton was not lazy.

    I do not aspire to be Hawking. ALS must suck. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But, it might give him time to think. He talks about that in A Brief History of Time. But i do personally know people who think that way while doing mundane things, like taking a shower, who are not actually disabled.

    When i was in high school, i could divide a 9 digit number by another 9 digit number and generate 9 significant digits of answer, in my head, in about a minute. It didn’t make me arrogant. I thought anyone could do it, if exposed to a good technique. I still think most people could do it. It might take them longer than it took me, though. I obsessed. Three hours a day for three months. For those interested, the technique was the Japanese abacus – the Soroban. I have a version you can try out on your fingers. I’m not as good now. My photographic memory is gone, and i haven’t practiced.

    Mozart is said to have been a genius. Wrote a symphony at age 8. But his father was a gifted musician and taskmaster. I’m not a gifted musician, so, my 10 year old is much better than i am at multiple instruments. I guess it’s at least partly my fault. He has parents that are task masters. I didn’t have ADHD when i was a kid, and so had some advantages. One could say i’m lazy. Go ahead. Say it.

  • Sreekumar

    Great post!
    I have a viewpoint that the cult of ‘genius’ also kills many budding geniuses. Someone else might have commented about this here earlier. There were far too many comments to read!
    But my point is that when someone sees the burden and expectations associated with being a genius, she might think it better to ‘lie low’ and not even show any exceptional skill she might have to escape performing at a higher level. This is true especially if she had the skills but did not have very high competitiveness.

  • JMG3Y

    What seems to be underlying Stephen’s comment in #116 is that a considerable amount of both environment and path dependency underlie the development and expression of genius, that the world would very likely not have had Mozart his father not been both a gifted musician and taskmaster. And obsession tending toward autism?

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  • Belizean

    But my point is that when someone sees the burden and expectations associated with being a genius, she might think it better to ‘lie low’ and not even show any exceptional skill she might have to escape performing at a higher level. This is true especially if she had the skills but did not have very high competitiveness.

    The case of William Sidis might be apropos.

  • Tim D

    Great post – thanks so much for writing this. This was very much my experience in physics, although for me, the rude awakening happened almost as soon as I got into the advanced physics track in college :). Learning how to knuckle down and work hard on problems that seem impossible at first glance is absolutely the best life lesson I got out of college and grad school.

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  • Yogi

    This describes me and my physics department to a T. I left after getting a Master’s Degree to go to Biomedical Engineering. I got through undergrad physics by pretending I was F-E-H smart, but I couldn’t pretend anymore once I got to grad school. That’s when things got hard. I started to hate it. I almost dropped out of grad school completely, but then I took a class in medical imaging. I’m much happier now. THANKS for the great psycho-analysis of myself.

  • Julianne

    Yogi — I actually worked in medical imaging before going to grad school. I learned an awful lot about actually buckling down and getting shit done, which helped me tremendously in grad school.

    I also left with a lot of pictures of my brain.

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  • DPB

    I’m a bit puzzled as to why Hawking makes your list of physicists with a cult following instead of Ed Witten. Hawking is widely considered to be a very smart physicist, but Ed Witten is the one with the cult following among physicists (rather than the general public).

    In any case, I suspect that the days of great advances by a brilliant physicist may be in the past. It’s been two decades of intense work on superstring theory and definitive experimental or observational predictions still seem beyond reach.

    In the mean time, the great progress has come from observational astronomy with COBE, WMAP, and the discovery of dark energy. I doubt that many of the scientists involved with these discoveries would consider themselves as smart as Ed Witten, but they certainly seem to be the ones advancing the field.

  • G

    There is an irony, here, in decrying the “cult of genius” whilst simultaneously holding up Feynman, Witten, Einstein, Hawking, Newton, and others, as “towering geniuses”.

    The word “genius” has a kind of ugliness to it: as a concept, it bears a more than passing resemblance to racism or sexism, in that certain categories of people are held to be inherently superior to others. And while such ideas have become outmoded, genius survives; it’s the unaccountable “x factor” of success, the post facto pronouncement of a community to explain achievement. Scientists should be more skeptical of such shabby notions.

  • Hernan M.

    Very interesting article, and very interesting comments indeed! They do an amazing read.

    Another interesting article that you can be interested in reading is this one: (The Bipolar Lisp Programmer). I talks about the same kind of psychological problem that we are talking about here, and it’s an interesting read, even for non-programmers.

    Best regards,


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  • rubucka

    I’m an acting grad student, great article, great posts! I too was the smart child who never had to study (or study that hard). Then I started acting- a whole new ballgame! There is no “cramming” in acting – one builds a part bit by bit, like building a building or building an art piece. I completely agree that so much of genius is just putting in the physical work. I have seen actor after actor after actor with so much natural talent, but if they do nothing with it… also, I really think it’s those little choices you make on a daily basis.

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  • Noam GR

    I got a view from the other side of the equation:

    I was one of those people who would label themselves as “bad at math.” In highschool, I failed grade 11 applied math (that’s Canadian jargon for dumbed-down math), and spent most of my time doing drugs and drinking.

    Long story short: 2 years after graduating, I decided to apply for University for Literature & Creative Writing.

    For some strange reason, some six months prior to this I had picked up a copy of Feynman, I really don’t know why… and was pleasantly surprised to find out that not only was this stuff interesting, but I “kinda got it”.

    I picked up a book on precalculus to understand the math a bit better. And at first it was pretty tough, my brain having never dealt with math… I could smell the rubber burning.

    Anyway, I decided I like this stuff enough to apply for physics. The school told me I needed grade 12 academic math (duh). I told them I had graduated from highschool two years ago and didn’t take it, but that I’d been learning it on my own… they would have none of it (duh #2).

    Two months before entering university, I signed up for summer school grade 12 functions, the prerequisite for 1st year university math classes, and passed with a 98%. In university, as my two options I signed up for linear algebra and calculus, both of which I passed with B+ (I got A’s on most of my later tests, but for the first half of the classes I was pretty lost, having never taken a real math class before, so the early tests brought down my average a bit).

    Anyway, I re-applied for a double major in creative writing and physics, which I should start next year.

    So yea, it’s equally bad to label someone as “bad at math” early on, because I feel like I’ve wasted the first 19 years on my life thinking I was not good enough for something that I love. This semester I’m takning integral calc, and I picked up a copy of Hardy’s “course of pure mathematics,” and enjoying both, which is not bad for a druggie who failed grade 11 applied math.

  • matt

    i’ll let you in on a secret: this is quite true in mathematics as well. Just replace “Feynman” with “Wiles” or “Tao” and the word “physics” with “mathematics,” and you’ve got yourself a pretty good rumination on what it’s like to study mathematics.

  • passby

    everybody watched the movie “the good will hunting”? that math professor must be smart enough, since he got Fields. but that young guy is a real genius.

    so if you want to achieve something,just do it. if you want to be a genius, sorry, that’s been opted out when you were born.

  • Pingback: The Cult of Genius « Sebastian Pokutta’s Blog()

  • TimGover

    Things seemed to be easy through out my career so far, but may not be for you guys.

  • Pingback: Does One Have to Be a Genius to Do Good Science? « Academic Career Links()

  • Volodymyr

    What bothers me the most when I read this kind of stuff, is that there is no clear reason why the success of Feynman & co. should be attributed to some innate talent rather than to hard work, and yet most people firmly believe in the former explanation. A very plausible reason for the ‘genius’ of all these physicists is that when faced with challenging problems, they didn’t despair like most people, and instead tried experimenting with various approaches, or temporarily switched to different problems. In fact, in many interviews, Feynman himself claimed that ‘intelligence’ had nothing to do with his success.

  • Fred

    This is a good description of me. Figured out in grade 10 (while sailing through high school without much effort) that Physics was it. Kept doing well until I got to advanced calculus (roughly Cal IV) and PDE. Then I dropped out of Physics and wondered what the hell I was going to do.

    Thanks to a suggestion from a friend (who later became my wife), I turned to linguistics, then cognitive science, in which I’m now about a year away from a PhD (and there’ve been all kinds of crummy grades on the transcript along the way).

    And, not that I want to contribute to the cult, but why is von Neumann not mentioned anywhere in the comments? He gets my vote as smartest man of the XXth century (he certainly made significant contributions to more fields than anyone else!).

  • Neal J. King

    144, Volodymyr:

    It is not an either/or situation: Clearly hard work is necessary, and trying out different approaches is necessary. But you occasionally meet someone whose ability to attack from a variety of unexpected angles blows you away. This is not something that hard work, alone, can provide.

    Aside from Feynman, I also knew a rather more obscure individual. I recall posing a question to him, concerning the existence and nature of a function f(x), that would satisfy f(f(x)) = exp(x). He immediately seized on this question and started thinking out loud; in 15 minutes he got further with it than I had in a day. The next day, I asked for a review of his first 15-minute presentation, which he covered in 5 minutes; and then proceeded to think out loud for another 15-minutes. The third day, I asked for a review of the first two days, which he covered in 5 minutes and then proceeded to go on for another 15 minutes. I gave up trying to follow him, at this point.

    In this particular case, I knew that this individual actually had less mathematical background, at that time, than I did, and had never thought about the problem before. In fact, the steps that he took initially were not so different from what I was thinking about, but he took them much faster and kept going and going. He was clearly out-classing me on this topic.

    In my interactions with Feynman, it was like that all the time; except that the range and variety of steps that he would consider were wilder. Actually, it wasn’t discouraging, it was liberating: It was as if he were giving “permission to play”.

    I have met other great physicists, but not anyone who practically sparkled with ideas like that.

  • MrP

    “dieties”… What about starting the cult of knowing how to spell “deities”?

  • DrFunk

    Programmers might find this exploration of similar issues from some google guys interesting:

  • Pingback: Flow » Blog Archive » Daily Digest for July 6th - The zeitgeist daily()

  • ANON

    The article, in a practical sense, is very useful. thankyou.

    (I’m unique, therefore, statistically, I don’t exist)

  • Pingback: Discovering Feynman « Brute Force Physics()


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