Like many an arrogant kid before me, when I graduate from high school in my podunk hometown (no, it wasn’t marshy, and I say podunk with all the warm feelings of a idyllic childhood), I was filled with confidence that I was one of the smartest people I knew. Oh, I’d never say it, and yes I knew I was good mostly at only one small thing, mathematics, but I’m pretty certain looking back that I was a pretty confident ass. As you can well imagine, then, transitioning from my high school to Caltech, an institution filled with near-perfect-SAT-scoring students, Nobel laureate faculty members, and a wide range of just frickin’ brilliant people, resulted in a large dislocation in my perspective concerning my own capabilities. But over time, I began to realize that, while I wasn’t the sharpest cookie in the cookie jar, every once in a very rare while I could do something worthy of interest to my fellow genii in grooming (mostly jokes, mad rantings, or random acts of bizarreness, if you must know.) Thus I came to the perspective that there was no such thing as a universal genius, that possibly, just possibly, there are people who are good at differing things—little genii of their own domains. It’s often disheartening to sit in a room with a large number of brilliant people, until I remind myself of this fact. And Monday, while doing exactly this form of sitting, I began to ponder the different ways in which these people have their own styles of brilliance. Or, in short, I made a list.
Dave’s horribly biased and totally incomplete list of the different facets of genius among the theorists he knows (just to cut out the comment before it happens, of course these are not mutually exclusive):
- The Human Calculators (aka the Problem Solvers) When we all think of the stereotypical brilliant person, the picture most of us have in our head is someone from this category. These are the people who, if you give a hard problem, will be able to out problem-solve, out calculate, out prove everyone else around them. The legends about this group tend to involve feats of amazing mathematical prowess: proving an unsolved problem posed as a homework problem by an evil professor, inverting matrices in their head, or summing infinite series without batting an eyelash. The great thing about these people is that they have a great chance of solving any problem you give them. The hard thing must be that no one wants to talk to them about the problem they are working on…do that and the person might just jump the gun on you and solve the problem before you.
- The Random Generators These are the people who generate ideas at a mile a minute. They sometimes have only a cursory understanding of details, and rely heavily on a “feeling” for the direction they are taking. They’re the ones you’ll see spending more time around the coffee table, spinning a yarn, or debating some off topic idea about a new iPhone application. Sometimes you’ll see them say things out of the blue that amaze even themselves. As scientists we often give lip service to being creative, but truly pushing on the boundaries of the box isn’t, I think, really recognized as a form of brilliance unless it is repeated more than a few times (“he was just lucky!” if you have only one interesting idea.) The great thing about these people is that they are a constant fount of inspiration. The hard thing about them is that they are a constant fount.
- The Field Jumpers Detailed domain knowledge is often of little use in its original field, but can vastly impact seemingly unrelated fields. There are people who have not just mastered a tool, but have the flexibility of mind to apply it outside of where it was original designed to apply. We often say that people coming across the disciplinary divide have a “fresh perspective”, but more often than not what they really have is a perspective shaped by their prior field. A strong marker for a field jumper is a history of changing fields: this characteristic is thus often latent until the day after tenure. The great thing about field jumpers is that they stir the pot. The dangerous thing is that when moving into a new field, they don’t often do adequate background to understand what has been done and not done before (Physicists are notorious field jumpers in this respect.)
- The Connectors (aka the Encyclopedia Connectica) A joke I used to tell: You can tell you’re a theorist if someone describes jail to you (room, board, quiet) and you ask “Do they give me a pen and paper?” While there is no doubt that quiet contemplation aids the intellectual digestion of most theorists, sometimes its possible that you just don’t have the mind (brains or frame of) to solve the problem you are working on. This is where the connectors come in. These are the renaissance scientists who have a vast encyclopedic knowledge of who did what when and, even better, when you talk to them about your problem can (a) understand your problem and (b) point you to the person or research that might best help you solve your problem. Now, you say, where is the genius in being able to point someone in the right direction? Well if it was so easy, why couldn’t you just do it on your own. The encyclopedic keepers of our intellectual history, combined with the exceedingly efficient search engine known as “talking to them” (eat your heart out Google) is, to me, a true form of brilliance. The great thing about connectors is that you can talk to them about anything and they will often lead you into an entirely new direction or connect you to someone you’d never meet otherwise. The dangerous thing is that they might connect someone to you!
- The Communicators The most ridiculed of the forms of genius, the communicator is able to take the results of deep science and turn them into something comprehensible. Don’t think this is true genius? You obviously haven’t read enough seminal papers lately—not that I’m a literature snob or anything, but complete sentence would be nice. The amazing thing about a communicator is that they can bridge the most difficult subject by illustrations that remain true to the spirit of the problem. Having currently been bashing my head up against writing book chapters, I can attest to the genius it takes to synthesize and coherently link together a body of knowledge in order to produce, for example, a textbook. Have you ever picked up a paper which upon reading the paper brushed aside hours you spent frustratingly trying to read written by experts in the field? That’s the work of a communicator. Communicators filter and shape the language and form we have for our deepest results. On the other hand, their propaganda can fossilize the view of a particular field.
- The Refactoratti So you’ve worked on your problem and solved it. You’re exhausted from the focus you’ve had on simply getting to the end of the problem, but really happy to start talking with people about what you’ve done. If you happen, after doing this, to encounter one of the refactoratti, you might even be lucky enough to understand what you’ve just done. The refactoratti are able to see through your result and understand it for what it truly adds to our knowledge. These are the deep people we all seek out to discuss our results. I suspect that they have very coherent pictures of all of their knowledge in their head, and can thus more easily see how what you’ve done is innovative. They are usually the opposite of scatterbrained. Refactoratti are awesome for their reflected light. They are also dangerous, of course, because the reflected light might be that someone has already done what you just did!
One reason I find this interesting to think about has to do with the two talks and many blog posts written by Michael Nielsen on the general theme of open science. A point which Michael discusses is that the lack of openness in science (including mechanism for reward in such systems) is bad for many reasons, including the fact that one can be toiling away at a problem which could be easily solved by some other expert (or this is my interpretation of one of Michael’s points.) An important piece to the puzzle of why their is reluctance to push into open science is, in my mind, that we often don’t properly reward people for their contributions. We don’t view the careful crafting of a paper as a skill worthy of major attribution nor of being the person who connected the two groups who were able to put their heads together to solve the problem. Because we view our work as PROBLEM…SOLUTION, and not as the more complex craft required to push science forward, we tend to think about science as a task of “me, solve problem, reward.” But it shouldn’t be this way, and we should recognize the manifold nature of genius in pushing science forward. With this, I think, comes a better ability to understand how to bring science out into the open. Or at least that’s my optimistic hope sitting in a room surrounded by Human Calculators, Field Jumpers, and Refactoratti.