Monday, 12 August 2013

Magicians versus ordinary geniuses



Arakawa said...

'Magician' does seem to be an apropos name for this type of genius, given how much of a double-edged sword genius-level creativity tends to be....

On the other hand, the analogy raises the whole question of 'good magicians' and in what circumstances such a thing is possible.

dearieme said...

"Feynman is a magician of the highest caliber." Well, obviously not - in theoretical physics the highest calibre was Newton, followed by Einstein followed by Maxwell. Elsewhere you can make cases for yer Shakespeare, yer Dante, Rembrandt, Mozart, Beethoven etc. Feynman was a very impressive chap, but not at the level of those fellows. Not culture-making. Bloody good for the twentieth century, mind.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - Kac is not necessarily wrong.

1. He may be talking about people of his generation; and/or

2. Feynman *could* - in principle - have been a magician of the highest calibre, despite that his *discoveries* were NOT of the highest calibre - since genius is primarily about process rather than outcome.

The magnitude of discoveries a genius actually makes (during the relatively short time slice and restricted geography of his active work) depends partly on the specific circumstances, and partly on luck.

dearieme said...

Your point 2 is a good one. But. I have from time to time commented on blogs that it is remarkable that, for reasons entirely obscure to me, the USA and its precursor colonies have never produced a copper-bottomed, top-flight genius, a culture-maker.

People, presumably mainly Americans, have protested that that is unfair since Western Culture was already made before the USA was formed. That response is no rebuttal; it is logically equivalent to my statement. (It is also wrong: Darwin, Maxwell, Planck, the Russian novelists and playwrights, the Impressionists and the floruit of Beethoven and Napoleon would be obvious counter-examples.)

I have hoped for one of three potentially fruitful replies to my point, namely (i) you have overlooked so-and-so [always possible], or (ii) it is too soon to rate twentieth century people [a fair point], or (iii) you're right but you've missed the obvious cause, which is xyz.

Maybe your point 2 is part of xyz.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - As I think I mentioned before, I think the properly formed question should be 'why' rather than 'why not' - in the sense that therefore have not been many times or places where genius was frequent. The baseline is no geniuses of the world class; next most frequent is just one or two (like Ramon y Cajal as the one and only Spanish scientific genius). So 'not' is the norm, and the proper question is why did some times and places produce some kinds of genius in quantity/ concentration.

dearieme said...

But tip-top genius was, by historical standards, frequent in the English-speaking world from Shakespeare to Maxwell so it's a legit question why North America produced none.

All very odd.

Thought on "The Double Helix": it's a tale of how two clever chancers, Crick and Watson, beat the near-genius Pauling to the prize.

dearieme said...

P.S. When I say "North America" I mean the USA and Canada, plus their precursor colonies. I don't include Mexico for this purpose.

P.P.S. It could even be argued that at the top level tiny NZ outproduced North America, by virtue of Rutherford.