The Genius Gap

Kate was scheduled to argue a case Friday morning in Federal court in Manhattan, so we decided to make a weekend of it. I drove down after class on Friday, and we went to dinner with Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden on Friday night, and spent Saturday at the Met, getting some culture.

Kate's a big fan of stained glass, so whenever we're there, we make it a point to check out the Tiffany windows they have on display. This trip, there was the added bonus of a special exhibition of items from Louis Comfort Tiffany's country estate, which showed the extravagent results you get when an artist is also absurdly wealthy.

As always when looking at Tiffany windows, I was struck by the gap between Louis Comfort Tiffant and, well, everybody else. The man did absolutely amazing things with stained glass, and nothing else I've seen comes close.

Which makes me wonder: What's the field with the biggest gap between the geniuses and the rest of the pack?

I don't know if I can come up with an example of a bigger gap than that between Tiffany and his competition. My knowledge of art is not all that extensive, but it seems to me that when I wander through the painting galleries, even the most highly praised masterpieces don't jump out in quite the same way. Or, rather, while it's true that someone like Monet did some spectacular painting, there are equally impressive paintings by other people from around the same time. It's rare to find galleries where the difference between "Wow!" and "Enh, it's nice..." is as extreme as you see with stained glass.

Of course, to some degree, this is a matter of numbers. There are relatively few people making museum-quality stained glass windows, so it's not surprising that the field has produced a small absolute number of geniuses.

There's also a question of time. Three hundred years ago, the gap between Isaac Newton and the rest of the field of natural philosophy would've been absolutely brethtaking. These days, it's a little harder to see, because Newton's accomplishments, towering as they were in his own day, are way down at the bottom of the edifice of modern physics.

(And, of course, there's the whole question of Leibnitz, who was pretty close to Newton's level, in terms of math if not physics...)

In modern physics, you could probably make a case for Einstein's General Relativity as being the biggest gap between an individual and the rest of the field. It's really not my field, but my impression is that GR is very much a thing unto itself, and really hasn't been significantly modified since Einstein first put it out there. People have worked through the implications of the theory in much more detail than he was able to do, but nobody has significantly modfied the basic structure in eighty or ninety years. We know that it doesn't play well together with quantum theory, but if anything, it works a little too well in most situations.

This shouldn't be restricted to physics, though, or even science. I'd like to hear examples of the fields with the biggest gap between the person who is the very best, and the next best person. I'm sure there are examples from other areas of art, music, sports (Wayne Gretzky? Jim Brown?), whatever. So what are they?


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What's the field with the biggest gap between the geniuses and the rest of the pack?

Stand-up comedy.

I think you could make a pretty good case that Milton's Paradise Lost does the same thing with epic poetry. Sure the Homeric epics are great, but they're actually quite repetitive (understandably so, since they were "written" to be recited orally from memory, so repeating key phrases such as "the grey-eyed goddess Athena" made it easier to remember). The Aeneid is good, but it doesn't reach the same epic level of tone and language. Dante did some great work, but he should have stopped in Inferno. Similarly, Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser all ramble on much too long.

Jim Brown! And maybe Bill Phillips!

By Perry Rice (not verified) on 30 Apr 2007 #permalink

Based on a PBS (?) program related to that exhibit, I'm not sure your premise is correct. Tiffany did not design all of those works. The greatest works in one entire category (I forget which, since those details seemed irrelevant at the time) was designed by a woman in his shop, whose career was ended when she got married.

Having seen Magic play in person many times, there is a gap between people like him and Gretzky (who both seem to slow down the rest of the world and "see" what is going on before anyone else can even imagine it).

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 30 Apr 2007 #permalink

I'd pick "pop-music lyricist" as an example of such an occupation. (Of course, getting fans to agree upon just who the geniuses are would probably result in violence.) :-)

Like you said, probably the fields with smaller size, which would increase variance.

Geology might be another. Artistic gardening, etc.

One could argue that Hilbert was the Leibniz to Einstein's Newton: Hilbert may well have developed GR on purely mathematical grounds (writing down the simplest possible action principle involving the metric) even if Einstein had not. Indeed, he came up with the Einstein field equations around the same time Einstein did. Then again, Hilbert received much inspiration from Einstein, and some have claimed that Hilbert got his action principle from correspondence with Einstein.

By Ambitwistor (not verified) on 30 Apr 2007 #permalink

I've always thought that physics and art and athletics all have ability spectra with the same shape; even amongst the professionals there's a huge factor in ability between most of us and the real stars. What is the shape of the ability spectrum? I'm inclinded to say more like a power law than a gaussian. And the points about small sizes having more variance are likely true.

A few contenders for very best with great gaps:
Antonio Stradivari
William Shakespeare
Robert Trent Jones

white collar fraud.

Stradivari is an excellent choice.

I think Archimedes was really ahead of his time.

In terms of fields,

criminal mastermind? seems like only a few would separate themselves.

Computer programming. Order of magnitude variances between average and good programmers are well-known. And there are only a few programmers like Linus Torvalds or John Carmack around.

By Richard Campbell (not verified) on 30 Apr 2007 #permalink

In baseball, you could make an argument for Babe Ruth, especially against the players of his era (we won't get into the whole segregation issue here). First, he shattered, absolutely shattered, all the existing home run records of his time (he broke the single-season record three straight years, leaving it more than double what it was before); there were two years, I believe, in which he had more home runs than any other team in the league; a similar achievement today would entail a hitter hitting between 200 and 250 home runs in a season (note that those are high totals for hits, let alone home runs). He had a number of similar record-breaking achievements in the career categories, and was also an excellent hitter for average, finishing, IIRC, in the top 30 or so all-time.

Plus, he started out as a dominant left-handed pitcher, with a miniscule ERA, several 20-win seasons, and a then-record 29+ consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series; he was a member of 3 Red Sox World Series winners, and probably the staff ace on the latter two. Had he continued along this path, he probably would have gone into the hall of fame as the top left-hander of his era.

Kind of like if Wayne Gretzky, in addition to all of his scoring records, had spent the first 4 or 5 years of his career winning Vezina Trophies and Stanley Cups with, say, the Islanders.

By Captain C (not verified) on 30 Apr 2007 #permalink

The gap between Warren Buffet and whoever happens to be the best trader in your city, wherever you are, is HUGE (and quantifiable, which is nice)

By anonymous (not verified) on 30 Apr 2007 #permalink

Don Bradman, hands down. He was a cricket batsman with an average of 100 runs per innings. The second best (and third best, and fourth etc) is about 60. A "great" batsman will average about 50.

This Wikipedia graph of batting averages makes it pretty clear that, at least in sport, Bradman makes Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Wilt Chamberlain and all the rest look garden variety.

Okay, I couldn't care less about Cricket, but that Wikipedia graph of batting averages...that's damn impressive. I like the statistical analysis on his page as well, it makes a compelling argument that he was better at his sport than anyone else ever has been at theirs.

Michael is right. Bradman was better than the rest at his role in his chosen sport (batting in cricket) to a greater extent than anyone has been in any sport.

Of course, Bradman famously didn't average 100 per innings, but came up short by (I think) four runs to his total.


From the CBS Sunday Morning show recap page:

"ART: Tiffany Glass

Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the famous jeweler, was the artist responsible for the classic Tiffany lamps and stained glass windows. But in fact, many of the lamps, windows and mosaics were designed by Clara Driscoll, one of the women who worked for Tiffany at the turn of the 20th century. A huge trove of letters, discovered in 2005, has shed new light on Tiffany and his work. Martha Teichner tells us the story of the "Tiffany Girls." We'll also visit Laurelton Hall -- Tiffany's Long Island mansion recreated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "

- Looks like he wasn't so singular after all...

Also, here's an interesting post on cosmicvariance concerning "genius", and Physicists' obsession with it: