Hawking Up Hairballs

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Greatest

Neal DeGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and celebrity scientist. He's not as well-known as the late Carl Sagan, but I've seen him on three or four documentaries on PBS and the cable channels, so he may be on his way. He's telegenic, eloquent, and blessed with a deep, resonant voice. Even better, he's black which gives comfort to those who would like to believe that the US really is an egalitarian country where there are adequate opportunities for African Americans in science.

All of this is to lead up to a remark that Dr. Tyson made in a recent speech. He said that, all things considered, Isaac Newton was the most brilliant intellect ever. Statements like that irritate me, and we Americans seem to have a particular affection for these kinds of judgements. They're even more common in sports. A favorite pastime of TV announcers is speculating upon who was the greatest baseball pitcher, basketball center, or football running back.

This cultural obsession arises from a number of strains in the American character. One is our persistent belief that talent will out in the end. I've had people say exactly that to me before, and even those who do not state it so baldly believe something of the sort. A corollary to that says that there is a spectrum of talent, and that we can rank people from top to bottom. This attitude probably originates in Puritanism. People are just where they are supposed to be in life. Those who are most virtuous are at the top, those who are not are at the bottom. Remove religion out of the equation, and talent takes the place of virtue.

A second belief that influences this obsession with "the greatest" is our decidedly ahistorical prejudices. We tend to believe that those of considerable abilities would thrive at any time under any circumstances. If Newton were alive today, he would stand at the forefront of physics. Pasteur would be knocking on the door of a cure for cancer. Lavoisier would be discovering a substitute for our diminishing supply of petroleum.

Neither of these prejudices stands up under scrutiny. Talent does not win out in the end. One can only speculate as to how many potentially great intellects languished in the cotton fields of the slaveholding South, or in the textile mills of New England, just to name two of the more mind-numbing environments. Not only that, but talent is conditioned by circumstances. That is something that we don't tend to realize in this country. It's even reflected in popular culture. The movie Good Will Hunting is a prime example. Here we have this guy, who is about twenty years old. He's not only a mathematical genius, but a polymath too, and he grew up in blue-collar South Boston, where he lived in a series of foster homes in which he was abused. Let me tell you something folks. Anyone who grew up in such circumstances would not become the sort of genius portrayed in that movie. If those kinds of abilities aren't nutured early, they don't develop. At best he would have shown a facility with numbers and ended up working for a bookie or something like that. On the other hand, consider two of the great intellects of 20th-century physics, Richard Feynmann and Murray Gell-Mann. They were both Jews who grew up in New York City. If you read their biographies, you realize that, not only were they blessed with good DNA, but they were raised in a local culture where learning was respected and intellectual achievement was encouraged. That counts for a lot.

In addition, the historical circumstances have to be right for someone to shine. In terms of sheer brilliance, there are dozens of theoretical physicists alive today who are just as smart and imaginative as Einstein was. Their IQ's and accomplishments certainly suggest as much, but they're not famous. Why? Because the historical circumstances are different. At the time when Einstein began his career, quantum mechanics and relativity were just waiting to be discovered and developed. No one really knew it at the time but, in retrospect, it's apparent. Now, in 2006, it may very well be that the physics of fundamental things has played itself out. It could even be at a deadend, for the simple reason that it is so difficult to obtain any experimental results that will fuel theoretical breakthroughs. String theory, the cutting edge theory of the moment, is coming under increasing criticism for just that reason, because it doesn't make any practical experimental predictions. Edward Witten, the leading figure in the field, is obviously a man of immense intellect, and probably the equal of Newton, but he won't be remembered like Newton. The historical circumstances don't permit it.

I would have been happier if Dr. Tyson had said that Newton was a great intellect who was responsible for some wonderful accomplishments. It's not as dramatic as statements go, but it's closer to the truth.


Blogger julianza said...

Amen. I agree with this completely. The "greatest" nation on earth is obsessed with superlatives. One must consider the contexts. There's the part that's inpiration, the part that's perspiration, and the part that's just the dumb luck of being in a context (historical, social, familial, economic) that nurtures a talent (or a tyrant) to actualization (right place, right time)... This is not to detract from the, say, brilliance, of brilliant minds, or the idiocy of a moron. But anyway, you have undoubtedly how many brilliant minds out picking cotton their whole lives, or stuffing fries into cardboard, and then you have someone like Bush, buoyed by deceit, willful blindness, fear, stupidity, religious zealotry, privilege, amorality, (a bi redundant here)etc. in the White House, possibly the most powerful person on earth (sorry for the superlative). Talent not only doesn't always win out, but look what does. It is more appropriate when referring to Einstein, or Newton, or Pasteur or whoever, to say, the most brilliant intellect that the constellation of forces political social, economic, parental, and etc., conspired to nurture.

9:35 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home