OK, here's more commentary on some of the interesting stuff over at Cosmic Variance, this time on the cult of genius:
During high school or college, many aspiring physicists latch onto Feynman or Einstein or Hawking as representing all they hope to become. The problem is, the vast majority of us are just not that smart. Oh sure, we’re plenty clever, and are whizzes at figuring out the tip when the check comes due, but we’re not Feynman-Einstein-Hawking smart. We go through a phase where we hope that we are, and then reality sets in, and we either (1) deal, (2) spend the rest of our career trying to hide the fact that we’re not, or (3) drop out. It’s always bugged the crap out of me that physicists’ worship of genius conveys the simultaneous message that if you’re not F-E-H smart, then what good are you? In physics recommendation land, there is no more damning praise than saying someone is a “hard worker”.
I'm not a physicist, so I don't have any personal experience with how badly physics is infected by a cult of genius. In biology, our geniuses aren't as flashy, partly because brilliant mathematical theories of the type found in theoretical physics don't do much good in biology.
But I wonder, is there really too much of a cult of genius? I'll admit it - I'm a Feynman junkie, and I love to devour biographies of the great physics geniuses like Einstein, Heisenberg, Oppenheimer, and Gell-Mann. However, I don't worship these people because they were so smart. The genius part certainly adds to their hero appeal, but these guys exhibited more than just smarts. They practiced science as it should be at its best.
Julianne, in her post, talks about what traits a great scientist really should have:
Yes, you have to be clever, but if you have good taste in problems, an ability to forge intellectual connections, an eye for untapped opportunities, drive, and yes, a willingness to work hard, you can have major impacts on the field.
Those are traits possessed in abundance by Feynman and Einstein and the others. Most of us don't have the sheer smarts that these geniuses had, but their success also came from their drive and their ability to choose important and solvable problems. That's what I admire most in Feynman, and it's why his lectures and anecdotes still have such appeal.
Take this gem from Feynman, for example:
The principle of science, the definition, almost, is the following: The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific “truth.” But what is the source of knowledge? Where do the laws to be tested come from? Experiment, itself, helps to produce these laws, in the sense that it gives us hints. But also needed is imagination to create from these hints the great generalizations - to guess at the wonderful, simple, but very strange patterns beneath them all, and then to experiment to check again whether we have made the right guess.
Feynman wasn't just smart. He got science - he understood what it was about, and how, at its best, it should work.
So if, as Julianne worries, science students come into grad school worshiping geniuses for the wrong reasons, putting themselves at risk for failure when they realize that they aren't the next Einstein, we should set them straight by teaching them that Einstein and the rest of the science Pantheon should be admired for more than sheer IQ.