Thursday, 20 February 2014

The mythical genius

If you want to be a successful scientist, it helps to be a genius. Failing this, you should ensure that people think you're a genius. Given that geniuses are extremely rare, but that hundreds of scientists work in every university in every city in the world, it should be clear that the genius act is far more common than the real thing.

A full virtuoso genius act is a vast artistic creation, and the life's work of most scientists. All I can do here is mention two of its common aspects.

The first is a set of extreme work patterns. Any extreme will do. On the one hand: "I work all the time, and I never sleep." Alternatively, "I never work, but I am so brilliant that I wipe the floor with everyone else anyway." As props in these performances, the former involves a ridiculous show of drinking a lot of coffee, while the latter, drinking a lot of alcohol.

Working hours also play a key role. You can choose to be in the office before everyone else arrives in the morning, or the last to leave after everyone else has gone home -- but a nine-to-five schedule is too radical to countenance. Or you may never enter the office at all, except to occasionally tell stories of four-day-long drug parties and three-week-long snowboarding holidays, while casually dropping off samples of your most astounding work. This potent performance culture leads to graduate student offices that are never empty day or night, never free of boasting and story-telling, never quiet, and in which actual work is never done.

The second important choice is arrogance versus modesty. Are you in-your-face "I am smarter than all of you!", or do you adopt the Goofy tone, "Aw, gee, shucks, I don't think I could do that," before blowing everyone else out of the water?

A perfect example of the in-your-face variety is the student exam technique of a now-distinguished professor. For a three-hour exam, he always turned up half an hour late. He went to the back of the room, where he sat down and made a lot of noise. He then proceeded to complete the exam in an hour and a half. He made it clear he was finished by putting his feet up on the desk, and spending the next fifteen minutes leisurely smoking a cigar. Finally he made yet more noise and left, with almost an hour still on the clock. The crucial part of this performance, of course, was that he aced the exam.

It's an unforgettable act, but it can fail spectacularly, so most people prefer to feign modesty instead. Then it's easier to keep a low profile if you screw up.

If we are to look to the true pinnacle of the arrogance/modesty show, we come to the physicist Richard Feynman. His personal myth-making was so successful that he was able to turn it into bestseller books. And he was able to concoct the perfect myth, by appearing both a simple, regular guy, and a flamboyant show-off genius, all at the same time. The trick worked so well that my first introduction to his books was from a fellow student who said, "Look at this guy. He's just a normal person, not that smart, but just by looking at things carefully and working hard, he managed to get a Nobel prize. There's hope for us yet." There couldn't have been a greater accolade to Feynman's performance.

It has to be said, however, that outside the crowd of physicists eager to dote on their hero, the act is not always so convincing. A mathematician friend (mathematicians, being so close to physicists, resent them intensely) had to read only half of Feynman's first book before distilling the essence of a typical Feynman story. "I didn't think I'd be very good at mountain climbing," he mimicked, "but I read a bit about it in the encyclopedia Britannica, and after a while I got pretty good at it. The next thing I knew I was at the top of some mountain and all these people were cheering at me, and they told me later that it was called Everest." As skeptical as my friend pretended to be, however, he learned the recipe well, and went on to a successful career.

This genius act may sound simple, but you have to remember that every scientist's performance is in competition with every other. And to forget that it's an act can lead to disaster. Everyone has met the first-year student who is so brilliant that they don't need to turn up to lectures; they soon cease to turn up at all. And we've all met the dedicated scholar who refuses every invitation to go out for a drink, a movie, a party, a hike, or even just to accompany you to check the mailbox, because, "I'm sorry, I'm busy, I just have so much work." Eventually these characters crack up, and achieve nothing besides providing a short burst of precious material for their colleagues' own mad-scientist performances.

I have my own experiences of getting dangerously deep into the genius act, but I'll leave those for next week.

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