The Puzzle Of Genius

This is not about being smart. It's not even about being really smart, scoring 1600 on the SATs, finishing the Sunday New York Times Acrostic in ink in 23 minutes or mastering six languages by the age of 10. This is, rather, about that elusive, enigmatic, romantic thing called genius.

It is a measure of the mystique of genius that scholars have long despaired of even defining it, much less identifying its magical ingredients. Instead, they have settled for giving its vital statistics, as if piles of data somehow illuminated genius any more than "three thous, five ands, two toos" conveys the haunting passion of Shakespeare's 18th sonnet. In his 1904 "Study of British Genius," Havelock Ellis noted that most geniuses were fathered by men older than 30; few had mothers younger than 25; many were sickly as children. Other documentarians of genius report that many were celibate (Copernicus, Descartes, Galileo, Newton), irregular churchgoers and left fatherless (Dickens) or motherless (Marie Curie, Charles Darwin). A new wave of researchers aims higher. Through analyses of hundreds of history's greatest thinkers, these scholars are teasin out what styles of thought, what temperaments, what personalities characterize the Darwins, Titians, Mozarts and Napoleons of history. Their work promises to help ordinary mortals become more creative (though not certified geniuses) and to teach schools and parents how to nurture unusual intelligence (page 52). And it may answer the unsettling question: why are there no Freuds, Einsteins or Picassos today?

Judging by the hundreds to the thousands of newspaper references to "geniuses" every month, we're overrun with them-everyone from Casey Stengel to Jackie Gleason wins the label (page 48). What, then, constitutes the genius that stands at the apogee of human thought? Intelligence and expertise fuel it, argues Harvard University psychologist David Perkins, but are not enough. Marilyn vos Savant whose IQ of 228 is the highest ever reported, has not exactly proved Fermat's last theorem, one of mathematics' great unsolved puzzles. (She is, instead, a question-and-answer columnist for Parade magazine.) And run-of-the-mill math Ph.D.s have IQs just as high as truly great mathematicians. Similarly, creativity is necessary for genius, but not sufficient: the creation must shatter worlds and bring forth new ones, as Arnold Schoenberg smashed classical notions of tonality and invented 12-tone serialism. Perhaps most telling, geniuses do not merely solve existing problems, like discovering an AIDS cure. They identify new ones. It does not take a genius to analyze dreams; it required Freud to ask in the first place what meaning they carry from the psyche. Using that standard, Harvard education theorist Howard Gardner (page 48) profiles seven geniuses of the modern era in "Creating Minds" (464 pages. Basic Books. $30), reaching bookstores next week. Einstein, Freud, Picasso, Stravinsky, T. S. Eliot, Mahatma Gandhi and Martha Graham, he writes, all transcended "the solution of problems already posed."

What does it take to topple existing paradigms and discover bold new ones? What is common to the intellect that produced "Guernica," as well as the one that spawned the theory of relativity? It may seem ludicrous to even ask. But in "Creating Minds" Gardner joins a small cadre of scholars offering evidence that one can characterize genius. And in one of those rare instances of theories fitting real people, the descriptions match what today's most creative thinkers say about themselves.

"Because of the arbitrariness of ideas and the vast panorama of things that I can choose from to write music, this is a difficult process of sorting and processing," says composer John Corigliano, 55, whose much-lauded works, including "The Ghosts of Versailles" opera, combine lyricism and serialism in an emotionally resonant fusion. "Before I started composing [a guitar concerto] recently, my brain was feeding out strings of pieces from my childhood, little scraps of melody that I would hear and remember. I feed it and feed it and it all subconsciously comes together."

Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis, calls this the permutation of "mental elements"--images, phrases, snippets of memory, abstract concepts, sounds, rhymes. Intelligence fills the brain with more of these elements; like the child with pailfuls of Legos, the highly intelligent person has a greater chance of forming the novel combinations of ideas, images or symbols that constitute a masterpiece than does someone with a mere starter set. In his 1988 book "Scientific Genius," Simonton suggests that geniuses are geniuses because they form more novel combinations than the merely talented. "In a loose sense, genius and chance become synonymous," he says. His theory has etymology behind it: cogito--"I think"--originally connoted "shake together"; intelligo, the root of "intelligence," means "select among."

Those rare souls who manage to arrange these thought elements into a masterpiece of physics or poetry share certain personality traits. Iconoclasm disposes geniuses to entertain permutations of images and memories that more mundane thinkers toss out as too loopy. Similarly, creative geniuses are willing to take intellectual risks by merging disparate ideas, says Simonton. Physicist Murray Gell-Mann, now at the Santa Fe Institute, boldly asserted in 1963 that the protons and neutrons of atoms are formed of subatomic "quarks" with fractional electric charges, something with seemingly ludicrous implications. But he was right. "Discarding accepted ideas of what's possible can make it easier to take new ideas more seriously," he says modestly. Introversion, another trait common to scientific as well as artistic geniuses, may attune them better to the inchoate musings of their neurons; they can hear themselves think.

Scientific genius is often marked by an interest in unrelated fields, making novel combinations more likely. Gutenberg combined the mechanisms for producing playing cards, pressing wine and punching coins to create movable type. That willingness to play in the fields of thought characterizes today's creators, too. In the 1970s, Frank Wilczek of The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., deduced how the nuclei of atoms stay together, one of those rare "knowing the mind of God" discoveries. His breakthrough occurred "when I was worried about a different problem"-a completely different force of nature. "But I realized that a failed approach in one area might be successful in another."

In genius there is a tolerance for ambiguity, a patience with unpredictable avenues of thought; like hikers ambling down a country lane with no particular destination or schedule, geniuses explore at leisure the blue highways of ideas. Intellectual rambling also allows the genius to bring side by side what others had never thought to connect. In 1979, for instance, physicist Alan Guth was puzzling over magnetic monopoleshypothetical chunks of magnetic north poles divorced from any south. He was also playing around with odd notions of "false vacuums," freezing and unifying the forces of nature. He hit upon no less than a new theory of genesis. "Very few people had seen [monopoles and cosmology] together," says Guth, 46, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His "inflation theory" posits that the universe began in a hyperexplosion that makes the big bang look like a whimper; it answers mysteries of cosmologyon which earlier theories had been mute.

John Ashbery, 65, forged the New York school when lyric poetry seemed to have exhausted its ability to stretch language. His unanticipated lines and stark images in surreal passages arise from what he calls "a vivisection of language. I sort of collect words that suddenly seem to have a new meaning for me, in contexts I have never thought of before. I don't plan my writing. What comes out is usually quite surprising. I write to find out what I'm thinking." The purity of language and the precedence of language over cerebration derives from his visual conception of words. "I find that my work has a powdery quality to it, a light like the light today. shining through the haze and heat."

If one style of thought stands out as the most potent explanation of genius, it is the ability to make juxtapositions that elude mere mortals. Call it a facility with metaphor, the ability to connect the unconnected, to see relationships to which others are blind. "The images that scientists have as they do science are metaphorical," says Roald Hoffmann of Cornell University. Hoffman shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the most significant breakthrough in theoretical organic chemistry: a way to predict from first principles whether a reaction will occur. He is also a poet. "The imaginative faculties are set in motion by mental metaphor. Metaphor shifts the discourse, not gradually, but with a vengeance. You see what no one had seen before." In 1865 F. A. Kekule intuited the shape of the ringlike benzene molecule by dreaming of a snake biting its tail.

Where others pinpoint metaphor, Gardner identifies what he calls an ability to "combine different modes." For Einstein, it was the visual-he saw in his mind a light ray-with the esthetic, the sense of elegance that marks a " right" physics theory. The French composer Olivier Messiaen could see the "color" of a tone. Picasso was so intent on seeing the world as pure image that, as a boy, he saw numbers as patterns, not symbols of quantities: "2" became a folded pigeon wing and "0" an eye. Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin, painted with germs: he would culture a batch of microorganisms, each a different hue, paint them onto a petri dish and wait for them to grow into a picture of a ballerina or a mother and child. When T. S. Eliot was learning to talk, he -spoke in the rhythm of sentences but without understandable words imposing the aural on the verbal. Corigliano prepares for big commissions by painting or writing. "In the building of a piece of music, there is not music at all," he says. "I type out descriptions and do drawings-sometimes just shapes."

The creative geniuses of art and science work obsessively. They do not lounge under apple trees waiting for fruit to fall or lightning to strike. "When inspiration does not come to me," Freud once said, "I go halfway to meet it." Bach wrote a cantata every week, even when he was sick or exhausted. Though most composers would kill to have written even one of his best pieces, some were little more than wallpaper music. Eliot's numerous drafts of "The Waste Land" constitute what one scholar called "a jumble of good and bad passages [that he turned] into a poem." In a study of 2,036 scientists throughout history, Simonton found that the most respected produced not only more great works, but also more "bad" ones. They produced. Period.

They love what they do, and if that can be described as a childlike delight in painting, or composing, or searching for a grand unified theory of nature, Howard Gardner thinks that is no coincidence. Creative geniuses tend to "return to the conceptual world of childhood," he writes, and are able to "wed the most advanced understandings" of a field "with the kinds of problems, questions, issues and sensibilities that most characterize...a wonder-filled child." Noam Chomsky of MIT, whose theory of the "deep structure" of language created modern linguistics, says, "The phenomena I've been concerned with have always been considered obvious. You have to be willing [to ask obvious questions]," as children notoriously do. Chomsky's modesty echoes that of Einstein, who once wrote, "My intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time [things which a normal adult has thought of as a child] only when I had grown up." By then, he could join the child's wonder to the trained scientist's expertise. Frank Wilczek's current goal? Discovering why empty space doesn't weigh anything.

E.O. Wilson, who shook biology with the theory that genes control culture, cannot walk past a log without turning it over to see what might crawl out. "Every kid has a bug period. I just never grew out of mine, " says the Harvard biologist, 64. He based his seminal theory of "sociobiology" on his observations of ant behavior.

Yet childlikeness can evanesce like so much dry ice. And that goes a long way toward explaining why genius peaks early-in the 20s in math and physics and lyric poetry, the 30s for other sciences, music, art and writing novels. "It is a particular combination of youth and maturity that allows the most revolutionary work to take place in the sciences," says Gardner. "Too much time and experience thinking in a certain way can prove uncongenial to any innovation." Put another way, as the once chance permutations of ideas and images harden in the mind, the intellect becomes so set, so organized, that there are fewer stray elements and fewer chances for spontaneous, novel combinations. Simonton calls it "this self-defeating aspect of creativity."

Physicist Ed Witten, 41, has been called "the most brilliant physicist of his and qaite a few other generations. "He is the master of string theory, a field as arcane as it is fundamental: it promises to explain what matter is, positing that the most basic particles are made of tiny wriggling strings. Witten can still throw off in an afternoon what he considers "trivial" ideas-ideas that it takes other eminent physicists two years to grasp. But the steely eyes behind his thick glasses fix on the middle distance when he thinks of his intellectual arc. "When I was younger I would wake up every morning with the feeling that I was going to have a better idea that day than I had ever had. It's kind of sad to have lost that feeling."

It is all very well to wax lyrical about thinking metaphorically and crossing frames of references, but in the end the only meaningful explanation of genius may lie in the brain. Unfortunately, "we're not entirely sure where to look," says neuroscientist Arnold Scheibel of UCLA. The only insight is that, although the amount of gray matter has little to do with genius, how neurons are wired might. Smart people have more complex, more efficient, neural highways for transmitting information: Ph.D.s have a vast, complicated neural web, but high-school dropouts only a sparse, inefficient one. (This could explain why geniuses are more adept at bringing together disparate images, thoughts and phrases: their brains look like Ma Bell's network.) In 1985 Dr. Marian Diamond of UC Berkeley and Scheibel found that Einstein's brain had four times more "oligodendroglia"-helper cells that speed neural communication-than the brains of 11 gifted people she also studied. But were better neural networks the cause or effect of Einstein's genius?

Biologists are having better luck identifying innate qualities of temperament that foster genius. The genius's drive to create prolifically may be biological, Gardner suggests, "aris[ing] from a temperament that seeks arousal." An innate deficit in a brain chemical does seem to drive people compulsively to seek physical or intellectual highs-climbing a mountain, scaling a mathematical peak. Similarly, researchers have identified biochemical quirks that seem to explain why some people avidly seek out risk, another defining quality of genius.

Yet the world does not lack for risk-takers, for iconoclasts, for obsessive workers. Where, then, are the geniuses of today? Only Chomsky, Witten and a few others of their exalted rank compare to the geniuses of a half century ago. Simonton wonders whether the extreme specialization of today's science is at fault: a narrow specialist has less chance of making the novel combinations that add up to genius than does a scientist knowledgeable about several disciplines. Or maybe genius requires an intellectual crisis, as befell physics around the time Einstein was working as a Swiss patent clerk. Perhaps physicists need the $11 billion Superconducting Super Collider atom-smashing machine to create a crisis of inexplicable findings -and spur genius. In art, as long as the modern world worships an ability to shock more than it does insight and Titianesque talent, greatness may be eclipsed by outrageousness. And everywhere, as long as egalitarianism rejects the mystique of genius in favor of the notion that everyone has it in him to be an artist, there will be no successors to Picasso or Mies van der Rohe.

And what could be emptier than a world without genius?