Genius

At a recent meeting, a friend of mine was talking about Genius.   He was actually talking about %$&@ing Genius but Older Eyes tries to be a kid-friendly blog so we’ll leave it as just Genius.  I will bet that unless you’re hiding under a rock, you’ve heard someone called a Genius in the last 24 hours.  The use of the word has become so common that when a six-ten power forward makes a remarkable pass to his cutting point guard and the announcer says, He’s a Genius on the court, we don’t even flinch.  Or shout, Are you kidding me?   There have been many attempts to precisely define Genius, one of the best known being one based on IQ.  The best known standard is an IQ of 160.  The six-ten power forward didn’t have one of those.  Neither do I but I’ve never been called a Genius.  My sister-in-law once called me a Renaissance Man, which according to Wikipedia is a synonym for a polymath, sometimes referred to as a Genius’s Genius.  It was a nice compliment but I’m no Genius and it’s not just because my IQ isn’t 160.  IQ is over-rated anyway.  Do you know that there’s a club for people with high IQs?   It’s called Mensa and you have to be in the 98% percentile on a standard IQ test to join.   That’s it.  Yes, you can be an axe-murderer.

I’ve known a few geniuses.  Dr. Irving Reed was on my doctoral committee (and used to call me his long lost nephew because we share the last name) probably qualifies.  He was involved in the development of the first PC, developed a number of widely used communications codes (one is the Reed-Solomon code) and was a pioneer in finite number theory.  I understand it because he explained it to me … he created it.   He was also an awful lecturer and a quiet, unassuming man.  So, Genius can be hard to spot, particularly in esoteric areas like physics or number theory.  Don’t most of us believe that Stephen Hawking is a Genius because we’re told he is … not because we understand what he’s done?   Done.  There it is.  Genius involves creation … not just a brilliant blog post or a corollary to an already known theorem.   Something new that takes us where we haven’t been before.  I like Virginia Postrel’s definition from Wikipedia: Creative geniuses are those rare individuals who have, among other qualities, the discipline and gifts to master the large domains of knowledge that allow them to come up with such surprising combinations. They play in larger fields than most other people: more athletic moves, more musical memories, more images and words, a deeper knowledge of mathematics, of history, of art. They mentally map their fields in ways that allow them to access the right combinations at the right time. Along the way, they may make new maps for others to follow — the periodic table or Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary — or so thoroughly explore their own domain that they in effect create it anew, as Shakespeare recreated English.

And even with that fancy definition, Genius can be hard to call.  Can my six-ten power forward be a Genius on the court?  I don’t think so.  Was John Lennon a musical Genius?   Many people think so but I don’t, especially when I hold Instant Karma up next to this:

Many think that Jackson Pollack was a genius of the abstract expressionist movement but others don’t even think it’s art.  Standing in front of this, I feel I am in the presence of Genius.  Others walk by with hardly a glance.

In the end, Genius can be hard to spot.  But in the end, does it really matter if it’s Genius or not?

Who’s your favorite Genius?

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2 Comments on “Genius”

  1. cherperz Says:

    I agree that the word genius is overused to the point, it’s meaing is diminished but so are a number of other words. Everything is exaggerated for emphasis or for marketing somethig or trying to be dramatic….still…the word genius being limited to someone that can test out on an IQ test thereby proving an intelectal score seems wrong.

    If we assume that everyone has some type of talent, maybe several, that is above the norm…an exemplary kind of ability to do something that most people can’t do, I am ok at people calling it genius. Of course what someone else considers genius and what I consider genius may vary. All in the eye of the beholder.

    example: a number of articles say Picasso was an artistic genius. I don’t get Picasso’s art, don’t find it pleasing to my eyes,…just don’t. And while I am clearly not a genius in terms of evaluating art, I would rather have one of your paintings on my wall. So who is to say who is the artistic genius?


  2. I suppose we might sometimes need to substitute the word “brilliant” for “genius.” Empirically, it seems genius must be measured in some calculable degree of intellect, and as you imply, we can’t determine what Beethoven’s IQ was. Still… I think he was brilliant. Mozart was brilliant. Madame Curie was brilliant. Edison, Franklin, Tesla.. brilliant. What strikes me as a key shared quality between them was curiosity. Much of Mozart’s writing was just figuring out what could come next – musical play that turned into legendary work. It’s curiosity and a willingness to explore possibility that made those people brilliant in the eyes of generations beyond them. And maybe even genius.


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