What makes a scientific 'genius'? ( 2014.10.1[Wed.])


  ....The ability to identify insoluble problems within even the most commonsensical and seemingly easily understandable things, and then to make the effort to solve them, is a prerequisite not just in scientific education, but even more so in scientific research as well. In this regard, scientists are stupider than the merely stupid. They need to be simpletons, unable to understand or accept. They need to become true fools.

From “On Science and Scientists,” Torahiko Terada, Essays (Iwanami Shoten)

  I remember a problem from years ago, that went something like, “If you had to save Darwin, Newton, or Mozart, but could only save one of the three, who would you choose?” (I’m not sure if it was those exact three names). Well, if you think about it, both Darwin and Newton were immediately followed by others doing similar work – Wallace and Leibniz. But who could substitute for Mozart? It defies probability to think that his like will be born again. For this reason, the answer was supposed to be Mozart, and he was supposed to be the sole true ‘genius’ of the group.

  Hmm. If that is the case, then I suppose there are no true geniuses in science. For in science, we need to be able to have others understand our discoveries, which means we can’t be so much farther ahead of everyone else that our work is incomprehensible. It doesn’t pay to be a ‘genius’ of that sort. I think that is what Torahiko Terada was referring to in his own essay on this theme (quoted above). No matter how sublime and important a truth, it will not be valued as scientific if others cannot understand it. For Mozart, there was no need to be able to explain to others how he composed his music – only for them to be able to enjoy and admire it. In the arts, we are happy to have geniuses, regardless of whether we can truly understand them. Which is why there are few geniuses (in the artistic sense) among scientists. 

  At the same time, we hear the word ‘genius’ bandied about all the time in everyday use, to the point that it has become almost meaningless. For my part, I think we should retain the term only for those insights that come once or twice in a lifetime. Take Alfred Wegener and his 1912 theory of continental drift, as one such example. The story has it that, while he was hospitalized, he spent an entire day in his bed examining a map of the world, and realizing how close the fit between the western coasts of Europe an Africa made with the corresponding eastern seaboards of North and South America. If he had been in a Japanese hospital, the map would likely have placed Japan at the center, making such a discovery even more unlikely.

  In any case, based on this observation, Wegener proposed his theory that the continents are moving, but at a time when concepts such as mantle convection remained unknown, his ideas were treated as no better than heresy. The earth’s history, however, sided with Wegener, and today we are all aware that, eons ago, there was only a single great supercontinent, Pangaea.

  But even in such rare cases, it remains very much in doubt whether we could call Wegener a genius. Rather, he had a stupid idea that turned out to be correct. Even Wegener himself did not fathom the geophysical mechanisms underlying continental drift, and it was decades before plate tectonics shoed the truth of his notion. Perhaps then Conrad Waddington, who perceived the true character of development and evolution from observing population genetics phenomena was more of a genius? Maybe we can agree that this is an important criterion, the ability to home in on important incidental observations and follow the skein to true insight. Paul Nurse says his Nobel Prize work began when he noticed something interesting in a dish of fission yeast he was about to discard.

  In the 1970 Toei film Japan Sinks (Nihon Chinbotsu), a rogue geophysicist Dr. Tadokoro (played by Keiju Kobayashi), makes a dire forecast about the future of the Japanese archipelago. When asked about a scientist’s most important quality, he responds, “Intuition,” an answer I respect immensely. In another wonderful scene, Tadokoro tears apart a newspaper and harangues his seniors about the perils of continental drift. If the answer had been something like “continual effort,” then I might well have quit science long ago. For a lazy man like me, intuition and serendipity are real assets, which must only be reconciled with the way the world really is. The ability to do so is a true mark of a scientist.

  Changing gears, I remember last year being invited to join a research conference in the unlikely venue of a resort area in Mexico. After the closing reception and awards ceremony, a band took the stage and the rather staid meeting was instantaneously transformed into a dance party. I think I may have been the only one there who felt something strange.

  I suppose that is because I want scientific meetings to be the sort of places where people tear up newspapers during heated discussions. Learning about new techniques is also important, of course, but there laziness can be an impediment. Somehow, I couldn’t help but feel like I was at a welcome party for new staff at a Bubble Era company that has since gone bankrupt, and I ended up leaving early and heading back to my hotel. I can’t help but wonder whether I am alone in feeling a sense of being out of place in a scientific world that becomes more like a business all the time...

  In summer of 2014, I spent some time in Hongo while giving a lecture, and too the opportunity to visit one of my regular bookshops. I say regular with some hesitation, though, because in recent years I have been so busy that I am only able to go about once per year, if that. But hunting for antiquarian books is a leisurely pastime in any case, so I don’t suppose that is such a bad pace all things considered.