by acfriedman

“De rerum natura” – On the nature of things.

In the centuries before the Common Era, little was known about the natural world. Myths regarding creation and the gods, or god, were inescapable. But men like Democritus believed that everything was made of atoms in motion. His life predates the ability to use electronics and lens to see atoms by more than 2,300 years.

Epicurus, a man whose name is a curse in modern Judaism, meaning heretic, believed only in the natural world, and his schools thrived before almost entirely fading in to unremembered history in 300 AD. Such thinkers, for they were hardly scientists by modern definition, were geniuses of their times.

Is Genius merely the ability to understand concepts hereto unknown, or is it a trick of chemicals in the brain, perhaps a heavier brain with more surface area for connections to be made? Maybe yes, but an answer like that is unsatisfying, because it is insincere to put the skills of individuals down to mere fatalism of chemistry, as if Albert Einstein had no choice but to deliver the general theory of relativity to the 20th century.

During the ancient world, in Greece, the term genius was not attached to the individual. The genius was a spirit that came to the individual and delivered through the medium of the person a great work of art or knowledge. I am sure to be oversimplifying it. But genius, even back then, was illusory. It must not have made sense to credit the individual with great ability, when that person could neither demonstrate genius 100% of the time, on all subjects, and conversely could look quite uninformed about subjects never studied previously. Better, surely, to credit a spirit, than give a man an ego too big for his chest.

In current American culture, genius has a few various portrayals. There is the socially-awkward genius, who never plays basketball, kisses a girl, or plays video games. This genius is faulty in everything else but their one gift. Then there is the sick-genius, the “retarded” individual who can calculate the speed of light in his head, and determine new patterns for searching the heavens for black holes. This depiction is rude for many reasons, and it is enough to point it out, without delving deeper. Then there is the idealized genius of everything, from social settings, to mathematics, almost like Tony Stark from the Ironman comic and movies. None of these are accurate. Just this week I saw a Facebook post/article stating that if the news were to claim there is a real life Batman character, it would surely be billionaire, PayPal/Tesla/SpaceEx brilliant millionaire Elon Musk. Okay. Now the latest of American genius stories is that of Steve Jobs. I will come to him in a moment.

Of those three achievements, it is PayPal which has had the greatest impact on people. Tesla is a far second, and while SpaceEx is by far the most extraordinary, it is not at the point where it has critically changed the face of this world (though when it helps change the face of other planets, then I will rank it #1). Genius should be measured on its impact to the rest of the world. There was once a priest in France who kept his community under heavy Catholic rule. Upon his death in the late 18th century, rummaging through his desk people found an entire discourse on the refutation of the Catholic Church,  and of religion, and god. Imagine this: instead of papers on Atheism, the Priest instead had written a discourse on medicine, but kept his findings hidden away, and taught alternative medicine to those people in his care. Now you may not consider Atheism genius, I do not either, but my reasoning on Atheism is not the subject. The point here is that anything powerful enough to change the lives of the masses is deserving of strong language. I do not like genius to be an unapproachable “title.” Nor do I want the word to be used inappropriately. Steve Jobs may be the most recent recipient of the title, in much an undeserving manner. The iPhone and the iPad, were all previously thought of ideas. Marketing Guru? That’s a title I would give the good man. Here is a scene from Arthur C. Clarke in 2001: A Space Odyssey:

When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.

Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished, he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.

Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man’s quest for perfect communications. Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word “newspaper,” of course, was an anachronistic hangover into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites.

Samsung is even using the movie and book as evidence in their patent war against Apple, stating that Apple was not the original founder of the concept, therefore Apple cannot sue Samsung to prevent their own line of tablets. I can go through more, but let me rest on this point, and return to the real one: Genius is a difficult term to place.

I tend to credit great thinkers with the title, and engineers too. But artists surely are deserving, even in these post-post-modern, post-structuralist times (huh?), of such titles. Where does the line start for genius? Are drug companies hiring geniuses to find the cure for cancer, or are the solutions to cancer a genius fix from the works of intelligent, well-meaning, driven, but ordinary, people?

Should we strive for genius? That is, should we strive for perfection, for being #1? I will not say no, nor yes. This is an individual’s question. But there is always someone, somewhere, to say to you, like in the Michael Jordan commercial, “anything you can do, I can do better.”

That is good. Our smart, most able people are competing to be leaders in progress. This does not require genius. Like any competition, the continuous back-and-forth brings about new additions to the world. But genius, like the mind that thought of communication satellites, transistors, and the like, not only partake in the competition, they frequently revolutionize their fields for a generation, and set the field which the rest of us compete. So now we see genius is not subject to brain chemistry alone. The field of competition sets the stage for the brightest stars to shine, and a far distant point for the competitors to strive for and ultimately surpass, if possible.