Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Genius: It's Not for Everyone

Genius: It's Not For Everyone

Many people associate the Nobel Prizes--identified by one science magazine as "the big kahuna of genius awards--with public recognition and financial reward for achievement reached as a result of genius. It doesn't necessarily work that way.

For example, William Shockley, winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1958 for inventing the transistor, was refused admission to a study of genius as a child because his IQ (Intelligence Quotient) was not deemed to be high enough.

In 1968 Luis Alvarez won the Nobel for his work on elementary particles. He had been excluded from the same study as Shockley. As kids, they must have lacked something. Maybe it wasn't genius they lacked, but the ability to write tests and score high marks.

The genius study began in 1928 when Stanford University prof Louis Terman--a strong supporter of IQ tests--wanted to find out how many geniuses were around. Terman defined genius as anyone who could score 140 or higher on standard IQ tests of the day.

None of the children in the study--known as "Termites"--has ever won a Nobel Prize.
Not that they were all failures in life. Termite Jess Oppenheimer invented the TelePrompTer and Termite Norris Bradbury once led the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

October is the month when the year's Nobel winners are announced. If you haven't been contacted, you likely didn't win this time around. Can you find out if you were at least nominated? Yes, but you'll have to wait for 50 years. That's how long the Nobel Committee keeps its lists of nominees secret.

Many outstanding geniuses of the 19th and 20th centuries--at least the male ones--gained reputations as guys who liked to bed the ladies. They include Richard Feynman, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell. (Sorry if that burst your bubble about Albert. Apart from a scampish attitude, he had a smile and grin that melted many a heart. Look how popular his image is even today.)

How could geniuses, notoriously considered as geeks, become ladies men? One theory suggests that geniuses--at least the ones who become well known--have an inherent tendency toward risk taking. Einstein once said that if a new idea isn't considered absurd at first, it will go nowhere. It takes chutzpah to make it successful and widely accepted. Risk taking is considered to be linked to higher than normal levels of testosterone.

William Shockley and eugenicist Robert Klark Graham set up the Repository for Germinal Choice, in Southern California, in 1981. That was essentially a sperm bank for Nobel winners and well known geniuses. Women could buy a fair chance at having a child with a high IQ through artificial insemination.

Unfortunately, Graham died in 1997 and the sperm bank for geniuses closed in 1999 after a huge amount of negative publicity.

Having a high IQ is no guarantee of financial security in life. Geniuses are notoriously poor managers of money, likely because their focus in life is elsewhere. A study at the Ohio State University Center for Human Resource Research showed that those with average and lower than average IQs were as good at saving their money as bright people.

Einstein is reputed to have lost most of his Nobel money on bad investments.

You don't usually find geniuses as CEOs either. Many are socially inept, not great people managers.

Is real genius in fact a form of mental imbalance, even a disorder? Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger identified a form of autism--known today as Asperger's syndrome--where a person engages in intense absorption with a very narrow range of special interests. Google "savant syndrome" to find some of them. Think A Beautiful Mind.

Asperger believed that for outstanding "success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential." He believed there is a clear link between mathematical and scientific genius and the form of autism named after him.

Talk about absent-minded geniuses, the term was almost invented for Norbert Weiner. The inventor of the field of cybernetics was the poster child for absent-mindedness.

He once forgot that he had driven his car to a conference and took the bus home. Finding his car missing from his driveway, he reported it stolen to the police. Let that scenario play itself out in your head.

Sometimes genius doesn't even help toward success in the working world. In the 1990s, Bell Labs found that its most productive and valued electrical engineers were not the geniuses it employed. The best were those who had good rapport with their coworkers, were able to empathize, were cooperative, persuasive and had the ability to build consensus.

How intelligent are our nearest DNA relatives? In 2007, Kyoto University conducted three memory-based intelligence tests using chimpanzees and college students. Take a moment now to picture that.

Ready? The top scoring chimp beat out all the students in the first test, tied with a few in the second and came out on top again in the third. You just knew it had to end that way, didn't you?

But are chimps the smartest animals? Sadly we can't pit them against Alex, a gray parrot that died last year at age 31. Alex was widely believed to be the smartest bird ever. He could identify 50 objects, seven colours and shapes and quantities of up to six.

If that sounds lame, remember that it was people who designed the tests. How would you stand up in an intelligence test designed by a parrot or a chimp? Think it couldn't happen? That's because you don't have the ability or skills to think on their level. Most animals are much smarter than we give them credit for. We just think they're not as bright as us because we design the tests.

Most of us don't have a clue about how to communicate with animals. Our pets can usually read our moods and attitudes based on our behaviour easier than we can read theirs.
Getting back to genius and intelligence, you may be able to boost your own intelligence. Australian scientists at the University of Sydney and Macquarie University claim that intelligence can be raised, at least in the short term, by taking daily doses of 5 mg of creatine. Creatine is a compound found in muscle tissue.

In any event, your intelligence can drop if you don't use it. Like any other kind of body function such as muscles and nerves, it's use it or lose it with intelligence. It's not like money in the bank. Keep your brain well exercised or you will lose what you have now.

Senility is a preventable disease. Getting old is inevitable, getting stupid is not.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers who want to grow children who are well balanced socially, emotionally and intellectually as well as physically.
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[Primary source: Discover, October 2008]