Styles of brilliance

Dave at The Quantum Pontiff ponders:

Like many an arrogant kid before me, when I graduate from high school in my podunk hometown (no, it wasn’t marshy, and I say podunk with all the warm feelings of a idyllic childhood), I was filled with confidence that I was one of the smartest people I knew. Oh, I’d never say it, and yes I knew I was good mostly at only one small thing, mathematics, but I’m pretty certain looking back that I was a pretty confident ass. As you can well imagine, then, transitioning from my high school to Caltech, an institution filled with near-perfect-SAT-scoring students, Nobel laureate faculty members, and a wide range of just frickin’ brilliant people, resulted in a large dislocation in my perspective concerning my own capabilities. But over time, I began to realize that, while I wasn’t the sharpest cookie in the cookie jar, every once in a very rare while I could do something worthy of interest to my fellow genii in grooming (mostly jokes, mad rantings, or random acts of bizarreness, if you must know.) Thus I came to the perspective that there was no such thing as a universal genius, that possibly, just possibly, there are people who are good at differing things—little genii of their own domains. It’s often disheartening to sit in a room with a large number of brilliant people, until I remind myself of this fact. And Monday, while doing exactly this form of sitting, I began to ponder the different ways in which these people have their own styles of brilliance. Or, in short, I made a list.

His incomplete list (as Dave himself describes it) consists of problem solvers, random generators, field jumpers, connectors, communicators, and the refactoratti. The one class that I think he misses are the problem mongers — those whose genius lies in picking holes in existing solutions (with or without offering solutions).

6 Responses to “Styles of brilliance”

  1. Ludwig Says:

    Pauli comes to mind as a good candidate for your last category. This is not to say that if himself didn’t do brilliant original work, but I believe he was famous as a conscience keeper type. After one lecture where he was a grad student in the audience, he is supposed to have said, ‘Not _all_ of what Professor Einstein has just said is wrong…’ or something like that!

    On a related but tangential note, I remember reading somewhere a piece in which the author thought venture capital/angel investor type companies needed to employ a resident Bastard-in-Chief whose job description would be to be very smart and to ruthlessly shoot down any and all business plans!

    Nice post, thanks for links.

  2. Fëanor Says:

    Apropos Ludwig, it’s not just Einstein who was criticised by Pauli. Even God faced flak. Check this out (from Asimov’s Treasury of Humor).

  3. Guru Says:

    Dear Ludwig/Feanor,

    Thanks for the inputs/links. As Ludwig notes the Devil’s advocates play a crucial role in making things clearer, more precise and less error-prone (though they might be an irritation most of the times — esp. as Feynman notes elsewhere, after one falls in love with one’s own theory).


  4. Ludwig Says:

    Lord High Elf (if one is permitted :-), awesome link, thanks much. Sounds very much like Pauli. And like God!

    Guru: I think “…clearer, more precise and less error-prone…” is exactly how Pauli saw himself and was seen when wearing his critic hat. Basically if you put your paper or idea through the Pauli wringer and it came out on the other side, your work was on that much surer ground.

    The Second Creation is chock-full of these anecdotes. I vaguely remember that Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit (was it? Someone, at any rate…) postulated something that necessitated that the mass of the electron be much higher than observed values. They published this (without going through the Pauli machine) and he promptly found the error, but had the judgment/intuition to tell them, “…don’t worry, the difficulty will disappear when the real quantum theory is discovered…” or something like that.

  5. Guru Says:

    Dear Ludwig,

    Good to see somebody else who had read Second Creation; I enjoyed it a lot and read it back to back twice one summer vacation — on the recommendation of another friend of mine. And, yes; I think (it is) Kramer (who) even told Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit that at their age they can afford to make mistakes, or something to that effect!


  6. Ludwig Says:


    Ditto, ditto 🙂 And I remember the comment about Uhl./Goud. being told that they were young enough to commit mistakes! It is a great book for whetting that kind of appetite, although I must say that I haven’t done the cover-to-cover that you have. I lose track somewhere near the Shelter Island Conference usually, and then do a hop-skip-and-jump! I also remember screaming through “Brighter than a Thousand Suns”, need to find a new copy from somewhere.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: