The Truth About Genius
Those who have been reading this blog over the past 15 years will likely be familiar with Alan Wald, whom I have ofttimes expressed thanks for giving me ideas for future essays. So, who in the world is Alan? Simply stated, he has been one of my closest friends for more than 60 years. Due to the fact that “Stone” and Wald” were so close to one another in terms of alphabetical order, we spent a lot of years sitting next to one another in Mr. Ito’s homeroom (that would be be J.O. Ito, whose son Lance would preside over the O.J. Simpson trial) and Chemistry class, (we were lab partners) which was presided over by the wondrously droll Mr. Falb. Alan and I were born and raised a couple of blocks from one another (he still lives in the same house) and were part of an incredibly unique group of kids who grew up and attended school together from the mid-1950’s through the latter 1960’s. “Our Gang,” which was made up of upper-middle class Jewish kids, were mostly the children of families that made their livings in one way or another from the screen industry - as writers, actors, publicists, directors and ancillary financiers. Our parents and neighbors were largely college-educated, literate, highly intelligent, politically knowledgeable and for the most part, quite successful. And yet, despite all the relative advantages, we were, for the most part, pretty down to earth. Simply stated, we had no idea that our parents and families were any different from anyone else.
Needless, to say, teachers looked forward to our “Gang” finally arriving in their classes. We loved learning and being challenged academically, earned mostly A’s( back when “A” meant “excellent”) and wound up averaging more than 1550 (out of 1600) on our SATS. Most of us wound up attending top-rated colleges and universities and became physicians, attorneys and academics. Among the members of “The Gang”
Gail W. who, along with her husband founded the Kashi company, which they eventually sold to Kellogg’s in 2000;
Stephen G., who became a Harvard-trained pediatrician;
Sam W., who was admitted to med. school despite never having graduated from college;
Alan Wald, who studied epidemiology, traveled the world and now makes his living as a Hollywood extra;
Mike M., who spent 44 years teaching mathematics at UCLA and contemporaneously worked for the Rand Corporation for nearly a quarter century,
The relative “failures” became actors, rabbis and medical ethicists, not to mention network news analysts, and first-rate attorneys in Beverly Hills.
Despite the collective reputation as a gang of geniuses, we were as normal as hell: we collected baseball cards and had fish-tanks; took piano and dance lessons, went to summer camp and read Mad Magazine. Some of us even earned letters in swimming, football and track.
There was, without question, one real, honest to god genius in the group: Mike M., the mathematician. As a kid, Mike was miles and miles ahead of our math teachers. He also had the best fish aquariums (both fresh and saltwater), and collected baseball cards, comic books and more. “I was born with collectoritis,” he said not too long ago. He also developed a world-class passion for opera and eventually, operetta. To say that Mike and his wife are operetta aficionados (his car carries a plate reading “OPERETT”) doesn’t do them justice. Their home was custom built to hold their massive collection of 60,000 recordings, 10,000 pieces of sheet music, 9,000 books, 5,000 vocal scores, and numerous posters, programs, postcards, radio broadcasts, and more devoted to operetta and early musical theater. One day in the future, Mike and Nan’s (his wife) collection will be housed at the University of California, Santa Barbara Library . . . along with a $1 million endowment that will fund the costs of packing, moving, processing and sustaining the collection.
Over the years, Mike has engaged in such far-ranging mathematic topics as The Hilbert Basis Theorem and Hilbert’s Nullstellensatz, Zariski topology, the Grassmannian, Irreducibility and dimension, morphisms, sheaves and properties. (If you don’t have the slightest idea what any of these topics entail, don’t worry; hardly anyone does . . . Remember, Mike is a honest-to-god genius.)
So, what in the world does all of this have to do with genius? Those who have studied the great minds throughout history (famous people like Tesla, Mozart, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Kepler, Kant, Jefferson, Hawking and Chaplin and not-so famous folks such as Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, Emanuel Swedenborg, Konrad Lorenz and Georg Ohm) all share certain characteristics:
An insatiable appetite for knowledge; they question everything.
They talk to themselves; no one understands them as well as they themselves do,
They are incessant readers; they read on many, many topics and in many, many languages.
They are constantly challenging themselves; they must forever be stimulating their brains.
They are acutely aware and understanding of how much they do not know.
They’re largely open-minded; geniuses are willing to accept and consider other views with value and broad-mindedness.
Geniuses possess a high level of self-control; they are generally able to overcome impulsiveness by planning, clarifying goals, exploring alternative strategies, and considering consequences before they begin.
They are, in many cases, very funny people. Even scientists agree.
Additionally, some of history’s best-known geniuses are polymaths; people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, whose knowledge spanned a seemingly endless number of subjects and languages. One of my favorite modern polymaths is former Federal Judge Richard Posner who, in addition to being the most cited legal scholar of the 20th century and America’s pre-eminent authority on anti-trust law, has written on sex, security, politics, Hegel, Homeric society, medieval Iceland and a whole lot more. The Wall Street Journal once called him a “one-man think-tank.”
From all I have read and the many fascinating, creative people of brilliance I have encountered in my first 70 years, I have noted one additional - and truly intriguing - thing that geniuses have in common: an all but total inability to refer to themselves as such. I don’t think it’s because they lack ego; few human beings do. No, I think the reason for their seeming humility is that they are just too busy, too engaged, to waste time on such such mundanities.
Which, of course, disqualifies our current president from ever being considered a genius . . . except by himself. On more than one occasion, ‘45 has referred to himself as “a true Stable Genius (sic).” He first used the term in January 2018 in response to concerns that he was not mentally fit for office, which were magnified after the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.. The book featured quotes from administration officials who questioned Boss Tweet’s cognitive ability, including White House strategist Steve Bannon, who said the POTUS “has lost it.” In response to the Wolf book, ‘45 Tweeted “Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.” He then added that being elected POTUS “on my first try” should “qualify as not smart, but genius . . . and a very stable genius at that!” ‘45’s bit of inane braggadocio led Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) to author the Stable Genius Act, which would “ . . . require presidential candidates to have a medical exam and publicly disclose the results before the general election.” The proposed legislation was referred to the House Committee on House Administration, where it has since languished.
Many of humanities’ greatest advances have come about due to the efforts of geniuses and polymaths who were, in their own time, misunderstood. Nonetheless, their names and achievements are still remembered and lauded; through their brilliance they achieved immortality. Today, however, we are faced with the dangerously inane misdeeds of a self-anointed “stable genius.” Real genius, when all is said, done and understood, is well beyond our ken . . . and whether or not they are “stable” is utterly irrelevant.
I for one am truly humbled to have lived and grown up in the same neighborhood as at least one certifiable genius.
Thanks once again, dear Alan, for putting yet another idea into my head . . . Here’s to the next 70 years!
426 days until the next election.
Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone