Thought of the day: Scientific genius

Oct 07 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

One does not demonstrate "genius" by being the first over the line to answer a question that a whole bunch of other people know is the question and are likewise pursuing. Particularly when the thing that lets you "win" is access to some particular datum that someone else just doesn't happen to have right now.

Genius is more credibly associated with answering questions that no other scientist even realizes is the key question yet.

10 responses so far

  • rxnm says:

    So, the criteria for genius are the opposite of the criteria for funding.

    Now you sound like one of those NPR wackaloons.

  • I take it this is a dig at Watson and Crick?

    BTW, what do you think of the O'Keefe/Mosers prize yesterday from your standpoint as a neuroscientist?

  • Grumble says:

    I'm not sure I've ever met a scientific genius.

    I've met many scientists who have a remarkable degree of insight into the problems they study.

    I've met a smaller subset of those who are able use that insight on a regular basis to come up with just the right experiment to reveal something new

    I've met an even smaller number who have the ability to make all the right connections with techniques-oriented scientists, so they routinely have the right technology (that few others have) to do the experiments they dreamed up.

    And I've met only maybe one or two who, possessing all of the above traits, are also able to routinely perform the most elegant and convincing experiment possible, with all the right controls in place, and then publish the story without overselling it by including the 17 extraneous off-topic experiments demanded by glammy journals.

    But that small handful come closer to bodhisattva than to genius.

  • Busy says:

    I think there are many flavors of genius. One of them is the blindly fast researcher who routinely beats other to the punch line. It takes a special talent to be among the fastest people on earth, so to speak. Then there is the insightful thinker which comes up with a novel idea on an existing field. Lastly there are the people who see something where no one else was looking. Alan Turing developing the theory of computation before a single general purpose computer was ever built is one such. People like these can point in a direction sometimes more than a decade before any one else sees promise in that unexplored land.

    These last usually end up being superstars only close to the end of their careers, and sometimes only after their death.

  • Ola says:

    When juxtaposed against McKnight's comments about vertical/horizontal sci-douchery, this thought of the day is quite amusing.

  • rxnm says:

    A. Individuals don't matter much in terms of scientific discovery. Everything gets figured out anyway, +/- 5 years. Not saying we shouldn't recognize good work, but c'mon.

    B. Individuals do make a huge difference for the people they work with--trainees, colleagues, collaborators--bringing out the best in and creating opportunities for others.

    People who think science is about A and don't give a shit about B are the absolute worst. Your professional worth is all about B.

    I think "genius" (extremely rare high levels of intelligence) has fuck all to do with success in biomedical science.

  • drugmonkey says:

    And how is that, Ola?

  • Ola says:

    Well, it would be quite simple to swap your vocabulary about answering questions nobody has thought of, with McKnight's musings on vertically ascendent science projects. The inference being that McKnight's horizontal chasing riff raff are equivalent to your "me too" folks answering the obvious questions.

    I just thought it was kinda funny how in one post you're calling out McKnight for saying such douchey things, but then less than a week later here you are equating similar thoughts with being a genius. Do you actually agree with McKnight in principle and think he is a genius, only taking issue with the douchey way he said it?

  • MoBio says:

    True genius by definition is rare.

    I think I worked with only one--his ideas were startlingly creative (though frequently wrong) and he had a photographic memory (which also caused problems).

    On an interpersonal level he could be quite monstrous.

    As a young scientist this caused a huge degree of cognitive dissonance--it took me decades to accept that genius had nothing to do with anything other than the particular sphere in which it was exemplified.

    Ken Wilber has written extensively on various domains of consciousness that resonates quite a bit with this thread.

  • Busy says:

    "Everything gets figured out anyway, +/- 5 years."

    True enough but often it gets figured out by another genius. If were to remove all the top talents--as opposed to a single one--we would delay science 15-20 yrs. In fact, to give an example I think that happened, fortunately for civilization, during Nazi Germany. They lost too many top scientists and their scientific effort slowed down noticeably.

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