Miracle People: A “Genius Box” Postscript

This past summer the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics published a revised version of my essay “The Genius Box“. In the original 2018 version I had asked “What are we doing when we call someone a genius?” and I had tried to show the ways in which having a special category of people called geniuses is harmful. At the journal’s request I added some new material to the published version, and put in a short new section called “Myth and Countermyth” that showed how one version of The Genius (the lightning-fast thinker) can give way to an antithetical version (the slow, deep thinker) without really fixing the problem with certain people being called geniuses in the first place.

While putting the finishing touches on the published version, I came across a relevant quote from a major twentieth-century physicist who was on a first-name basis with most of the people hailed as geniuses in the twentieth-century physics community. Here’s what he said about the pioneers of quantum physics and about himself:

“I was an ordinary person who studied hard. There’s no miracle people. It just happens they got interested in this thing and they learned all this stuff. They’re just people.”

The reason I opted not to use the quote is that the person who said it was Richard Feynman, and he’s one of the main examples of a “genius” Moon Duchin critiques in her essay “The Sexual Politics of Genius“, which was the main inspiration for my essay. Moreover, it’s hard to talk about Feynman without acknowledging that he was what used to be called a womanizer (is “man-izer” even a word?). I feared that the origin of the quote would overshadow the points I was trying to make, especially since I wanted to stress how the genius myth hurts women: for, despite the flexibility of the genius archetype along many axes (formality versus informality, chastity versus promiscuity, quick thought versus slow thought), it has been very inflexible along the axis of gender. Enlisting Feynman as an ally in making my case might make for good courtroom drama, like calling a witness for the defense as a witness for the prosecution, but the drama would have distracted readers from my argument.

It’s been credibly asserted that Feynman was a self-conscious performer of a certain version of himself, curating his public persona in a manner that colleagues like Murray Gell-Mann envied but could not duplicate. Was Feynman’s declaration “There’s no miracle people” just a bit of disingenuous shtick — a way to get people to say “Wow, he’s not only brilliant, but humble too!”?

I don’t think so. Feynman never pretended to be humble. The closest he came to humility was the Socratic stance of claiming to be smart enough to know how little he and all the rest of us really understand. Reading his books “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” and “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, I got the sense that Feynman wanted to impress people in rather specific ways: he wanted people to think of him as deeply curious about the world, brave about being different from others, irreverent about things that don’t deserve to be revered, and yes, smart, but with the kind of smarts that come from effort.

What impelled Feynman to work hard was his curiosity. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” was subtitled “Adventures of a Curious Character”. The subtitle is a pun, since ordinarily “a curious character” means someone whom others are curious about rather than someone who is curious about things. And yes, Feynman liked being a character — a memorable individual with a distinctive personality who couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else. But he was also deeply curious about many aspects of the world, and this curiosity impelled him to spend a lot of time thinking about things. Call it work or call it play, but he logged the hours.

It’s instructive to compare “I was an ordinary person who studied hard” with the self-appraisal of Isaac Newton, of whom a contemporary wrote “I cannot believe otherwise than that he is a genius” (pivoting from the old notion of a genius as a divine vehicle of inspiration to the modern notion of a person animated by such inspiration): Newton wrote that his secret to solving hard problems was “always thinking unto them”.

I missed meeting Newton by several centuries and an ocean, and I never crossed paths with Feynman, but I did meet John Conway, another curious character who’s been called a genius. (Siobhan Roberts’ book about Conway is called “Genius at Play”; James Gleick’s book about Feynman is called, more simply, “Genius”.) My recent blog-essay “Confessions of a Conway Groupie“, written shortly after Conway’s death, touched on a particular kind of harm caused by the genius myth that I hadn’t considered in “The Genius Box”: when we put someone on a pedestal of any kind, we give license to bad behavior we’d be less likely to tolerate in someone we saw as a peer.

The mathematician Mark Kac declared that Feynman (unlike “ordinary geniuses”) was a magician, by which he meant someone whose insights were inexplicable. But Feynman was always eager to explain his tricks. He credited his overall approach to science to his father’s tutelage, and he credited some of the inspiration for his revolutionary ideas about path-integrals to a high school teacher who took him aside one day and taught him about the least-action principle. Feynman loved performing mental math, but he also loved to explain how he used his bag of number-tricks to do those internal calculations. He was a wonderful explainer who relished the challenge of expressing deep ideas in simple language. In “The Genius Box”, I called on thinkers to cast aside the mystique of genius and to explain where their ideas came from. I think Feynman met that challenge better than most scientists of his day and ours.

Part of what it takes to be a great explainer is an understanding of how other people’s minds work. Feynman had a knack for this, and he was introspective enough to have an idea of how his own mind worked as well. He was also intrigued by the differences between minds; for instance, the quote about “no miracle people'” came from an interview he gave (captured in the video Richard Feynman: Thinking) in which he described how he trained himself to measure time in his head and how his friend John Tukey did the same thing using a completely different method. Feynman was fascinated by the contrast. If there’d been a qualitative difference between the way Feynman’s mind worked (the “genius way”) and the way other peoples’ minds worked, he would have noticed it, he would have found it interesting, and he would have talked about it. Since he did not, I surmise that he found no such difference.

To paraphrase Maya Angelou: When someone tells you they’re not a genius, believe them.

Postscript to this postscript: My wife, a psychologist by training, pointed out that quoting Feynman on the issue of whether there are such things as “miracle people” is still, well, quoting Feynman — lifting him up by putting him in the public eye. Haven’t we heard enough from him? “Why not quote a woman and person of color who has been called a genius and has actually devoted years of her life to studying the nature of achievement? Why not quote MacArthur Genius Award winner Angela Duckworth?” (Feynman himself admits “I’m no psychologist”, so why quote him on what is mostly a question about psychology?) In the preface to her book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” Duckworth writes about how when she was young, her father would tell her “You know, you’re no genius.” Many years later he told her how proud of her he was, but still, she writes that he wishes she could travel back in time and tell her father:

“Dad, you claim I’m no genius. I won’t argue with that. You know plenty of people who are smarter than I am. But let me tell you something. I’m going to grow up to love my work as much as you love yours. I won’t just have a job; I’ll have a calling. I’ll challenge myself every day. When I get knocked down, I’ll get back up. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I’ll strive to be the grittiest. In the long run, Dad, grit may matter more than talent.”

4 thoughts on “Miracle People: A “Genius Box” Postscript

  1. nishantchandgotia

    I enjoyed (as always) your post, your article “The genius box” and “Confessions of a Conway groupie”. I found it very enriching and had a chance to revisit my own thoughts on this. I was very average during my high school and quite surprisingly got thrown into an elite undergraduate program in mathematics in India. At that point, I felt like a fish out of the water being surrounded by these ”geniuses” around me (which I was clearly not a part of and never have been a part of). Somewhere around that I came across lectures by Langland https://www.ias.edu/video/Practice-of-Mathematics-1. I remember listening to him talking about the import of curiosity in any pursuit (6:30 – 7:30 of the video) and asking myself how far will curiosity take me (beside all these people who are certainly smarter than me). This remained a thread I kept hanging on to (and still continue with). I was reminded of this by the last paragraph of your article “The genius box” and thought that I should share this. Other than that, I had never thought about the inherent sexism associated with the idea of genius and your writings gave me reasons to reflect on my own behaviour over the past (of whom I thought of as a genius and whom I didn’t). Anyhow, this is turning out to be too long a comment and so I will stop here. Thanks for the articles!

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  2. Sam

    This is a silly debate. Newton wrote that his secret to solving hard problems was “always thinking unto them”. There lies the hard part. It is true that many men enjoyed the privilege to spend their whole energy to always “thinking about problems”, yet even among men few could become Newton. I agree that many great results could have been be obtained by others if they were in the right place in the right time and given similar opportunities. That is no-brainer. But, I also think there are all kinds of brain and it is silly to think each can simulate other, in principle maybe yes, but the effort required to simulate would be nontrivial.
    Can we explain Ramanujan’s skills only by hard work? If we do not have any easy explanation, it is absolutely OK to call Ramanujan a genius. Would your woke wife be happy to call a brown man genius?

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    1. jamespropp Post author

      (Sam, I’m okay with your calling the debate silly; I’m not so okay with your calling my wife “woke”. But on to substantive issues:)

      1) Focusing on language as a proxy for attitudes can indeed be silly, and more importantly, futile. Just take a look at words like “imbecile” and “retarded”; they were introduced as neutral clinical terms and now are unusably pejorative. If somebody were to ban the use of the word “genius”, people would find other ways to put high achievers on pedestals.

      2) Now that I’m becoming something like a journalist, I have to wrestle with the gulf between “Who jumps to mind as an expert on X?” and “Who is an expert on X?” Like most men (AND most women AND most people of color!), I tend to think of white men first. Not because we’re all sexist/racist, but because what we read mostly reflects the opinions/expertise of white men. It’s a vicious circle, and it’s (mostly) systemic, not individual. One way to break out of the circle is for enough of us to stop and ask themselves “Whom am I *not* thinking of?” It’s not so different from the working scientist’s practice of asking oneself “What am I missing here?” when at an impasse, but it’s easy to forget to ask the question when you’re not at an impasse. Angela Duckworth was a supremely relevant person to cite, but it never occurred to me to find out what she had to say about genius till my wife suggested her.

      3) There absolutely are inborn differences, and we can’t all be Newtons. But we can be more like Newton by working harder, and my concern is that the label “genius”, by emphasizing the difference between us and Newton, makes us less likely to be motivated to imitate him. At the other end of the intellectual spectrum, there are people who are sometimes called “intellectually limited”, but that phrase suggests an impassable barrier to achievement. We need attitudes and vocabulary to encourage each of us to do the best we can with the brain we’ve got.

      4) I admit I’m happier about slapping the genius-label on Ramanujan’s forehead than on Feynman’s, and yes, it’s partly because of where Ramanujan was from. If we must have the genius-label, let’s try to be fair about it in terms of nationality and ethnicity. (And gender too! That’s a big part of what I take from Duchin’s essay.) But should “genius” be our go-to word for people whose abilities we can’t explain? I’m unconvinced. Should “idiot” be our go-to word for people whose inabilities we can’t explain?

      5) For most of his life, Ramanujan wasn’t brown — he was Brahmin. (Here I am taking a relationist view of identity: what you are is how others treat you.) One might even say that in a certain sense, he was ”white”: he was the kind of person who was expected to succeed and even excel, despite his family’s financial situation. I hope you agree with me that we want more people to live in a society that encourages them to be brilliant.

      6) And going back to your claim that “This is a silly debate”: I agree that from an global perspective, worrying about what words we use to describe high-achievers is pretty insignificant compared to, say, an entire country depriving women of access to higher education.

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  3. Sam

    I agree with your motive. But I have differences with some of your points.
    Ramanujan was a Brahmin, but that does not mean he was white. Indian Brahmins are a mixed race. Yes, Brahmins enjoyed many social privileges, But in Ramanujan’s case, it was severely limited by poverty. His family was not well educated, nor did he get access to any special treatment/education in school because he was Brahmin, nobody expected him to be brilliant in math because he was Brahmin/male. Of course he had advantages compared to untouchables in India. But that does not take away his credit, as several thousands of Brahmin peers of Ramanujan had same privilege, but none of them became Ramanujan. You cannot explain everything through the lens of identity politics.
    What I find is silly is the widespread belief that calling Feynman/Einstein a genius deters people of color/ females to try hard and achieve great results in science. This is propaganda, I don’t believe this even if a white woman says so. Asians did not have science icons, but they worked hard. Before Noether, Kovalevskaya, Mirzakhani, there were hardly women science icons in those countries, but that did not deter them. Presence of icons sharing similar/opposite identity has negligible positive/negative effect, what is more significant is presence of role models that they can directly relate to (relative/same school/same area), but even that becomes less important after a certain time. Practically speaking, nobody works harder because Newton or Terry Tao are hard workers or nobody stops working hard because for most it is practically impossible to become a Newton or Tao. I enjoy your posts and have regards for you. I am thankful that you posted my contrarian take despite my mild attack (sorry for loosing my cool).

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