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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 2 June 2018

"Sudden Genius" by Andrew Robinson

This is a beautifully written book containing the potted biographies of ten characters upon whom Robinson bestows the title of  'Genius': Leonardo da Vinci, Wren, Mozart, Champollion, Darwin, Curie, Einstein, Woolf, Cartier-Bresson, and Ray. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book while disagreeing, on mainly methodological grounds, with almost all of the conclusions Robinson draws about genius.

I suppose I should declare two interests. First, Robinson was a friend of mine at school. Second, my doctoral thesis touches upon creativity and 'eureka' moments, though not upon genius as such.

There are two major problems. Firstly, I dispute that you can draw valid conclusions about the nature of something by looking at those individuals who are, by definition, unusual. It is like trying to understand mammals by considering marsupials. Robinson acknowledges this problem, stating that “the convincing method to determine whether there are causal links between personality characteristics and creative performance would be to begin with a group of young people before they show any eminence and study their personality and their creativity over the course of their lives.” (p 295) Nevertheless he persists in drawing conclusions from anomalies.

Secondly, he has a sample of ten. Furthermore, he has selected these ten with no obvious criteria. Given that he quotes Csikszentmihalyi who points out that van Gogh's contemporaries did not recognise his genius. but we do, hence "What we are saying is that we know what great art is so much better than Van Gogh contemporaries did - those bourgeois philistines.” (p 208, quoting Csikszentmihalyi) nevertheless he insists that “genius is the name we give to the quality of work that transcends fashion, fame, and reputation ... Somehow, genius abolishes both the time and the place of it origin.” (p 315) He is proud that his sample is balanced between the arts and the sciences. There is also a nod towards ethnic diversity ('only' 90% western European) and gender equality (20% female). But there must be questions about who he has picked. Why Einstein rather than Schrodinger or Bohr or Dirac? Why Curie rather than Rutherford; Ray instead of Welles; Woolf instead of Joyce? With such a small sample size the selection is crucial. I am sure that I could prove almost any thesis if I only needed the evidence of ten individuals I self selected: all geniuses are left-handed; all geniuses are gay; all geniuses believe in God. As it is, even with his sample, Robinson struggles. He makes pronouncements such as “the huge growth in size and competitiveness of higher education in the second half of the twentieth century and after that did not increase the number of exceptionally creative scientists.” (p 276) which he evidences with an anecdote of a genius outside his sample. Seeking to prove that genius flowers after ten years of hard work on a problem he resorts to selecting manipulating start and end dates. He dates Einstein's ten years, for example, not from when he started studying Physics but from when he started studying it "seriously". Even then he has to explain away exceptions. Marie Curie was a bit too quick because she was married to Pierre, for example. Other pronouncements have even less evidence: he claims a characteristic of genius is that personality is protean: it is a "near-certainty that creative people do not actually have the kind of enduring personality.” (p 295) As to the percentage of genius which is perspiration: “There can be no doubting that geniuses work habitually and continually ... Bach on average composed 20 pages of finished music per day ... Picasso created more than 20,000 works; PoincarĂ© published 500 papers and 30 books; Einstein produced 240 publications; Freud had 330.” (p 317) This looks impressive but it is again anecdotal, choosing five geniuses four of whom are outside his data set.

Is genius linked to madness?
  • It appears that the greatest artists of the Renaissance were neither notably unconventional nor notably temperamental, but on the contrary studious, hard-working, courteous, sociable, and sophisticated.” (p 57)
  • However the poets from the Romantic period “were more than five times as likely to have committed suicide, at least 20 times more likely to have been committed to an asylum or madhouse, and 30 times more likely to have suffered from a manic depressive illness.” (p 59)
  • However again, most modern writers “were charming, fun, articulate, and disciplined. They typically followed very similar schedules, getting up in the morning and allocating a large chunk of time to writing during the earlier part of the day. They would rarely let a day go by without writing.” (p 61)
I have a counter-thesis. Genius and talent are not separate categories, as Robinson believes, but part of a spectrum. A lot of genius is down to luck. Darwin without the Beagle is unlikely to have made the discovery that has led to the Genius label even though his work on barnacles would have been just as thorough. There are millions of brilliant minds working away as doggedly as the sung geniuses but because their work does not capture the zeitgeist they are unsung. Genius is like a sandpile. Each one of us is a grain of sand and we land on the sandpile. Most of us cause trickles, a few of us cause landslides. Whether you cause a trickle or a landslide is partly down to the characteristics of yourself but mostly due to the characteristics of the slope you land on.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book. Robisnon manages to find new interesting facts about people who have been much written about:
  • During its first run in Vienna in 1786 ... The Marriage of Figaro received so many encores that the length of each performance was almost doubled. Within a week of the premiere, the Holy Roman Emperor ... was obliged to issue a general order for all operas permitting encores only of the arias.” (p 106)
  • Mozart’s “constitutional inability to rest on his laurels is why he evolved into a great composer during the last decade of his life.” (p 117)
  • when some grand conception was working in his brain he was purely abstracted, walked about the apartment and knew not what was passing around ... but when once arranged in his mind, he needed no Piano Forte but would take music paper and whilst he wrote ... conversation never interrupted him.” (p 121 quoting Constanza Mozart)
  • Darwin’s notebooks show “key advances in Darwin's thought ... along with retreats, detours, impasses, and blunders.” (p 154) 
  • In Polish schools in the 1870s “The Russian language was mandatory in education, to the extent that lessons in Polish as a language had to be carried out in Russian.” (p 161) 
  • Pierre Curie and his brother Jacques discovered piezoelectricity in 1880. (p 170) 
  • Einstein wrote that “creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wide views, discovering unexpected connections ... [ page break] but the point from which we started out still exists and can be seen.” (p 182 - 183)
  • Einstein's first child born to his first wife Mileva was a girl called Liserl. “To this day no one knows what happened to her” (p 190)
  • Virginia's cousin J K Stephen was mad and has “been proposed by one historian as being the murderer Jack the Ripper.” (p 205)
  • The novel Mrs Dalloway has “a narrative voice borrowed freely from speech rhythms shorn of conventional speech markers.” (p 210) 
  • Virginia criticised Edwardian novelists for laying too much “stress upon the fabric of things ... if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it.” (p 211)
  • The worst thing about the air raids at Richmond, Virginia [Woolf] wrote to her sister in early 1918, was having to make conversation with the servants all night in the shelter.” (p 213)

There are some other moments of fascination:

  • “‘proto-writing’ - that is, signs capable of expressing a limited range of meaning but not the full range of spoken language - seems to have existed during the last ice age, in the form of enigmatic cave drawings, petroglyphs, and notched bones, perhaps 20,000 years old. (Modern examples of ‘proto-writing’ include international transportation symbols at airports, mathematical symbols, and musical staff notation.) ‘Full writing’ - that is, a sign system able to express any and all thought - most likely started some five millennia ago in the expanding cities of Mesopotamia ... the breakthrough that transformed proto-writing into full writing what's the rebus” (p xxii)
  • The majority of breakthroughs do involve an identifiable, pivotal episode of revelation, whether one calls it a eureka experience or not. ... another term might be ‘ epiphany’.” (p xxiv)
  • There has never yet been an instance of a teenage breakthrough - not even by Newton or Mozart.” (p xxxv)
  • Francis Galton “ observed that a large audience at a lecture fidgets around once a minute on average, about half as often when gripped by the speaker’s words, and that the fidget of an engaged listener is briefer than the fidget of a bored listener.” (p 4)
  • Not only did the long-term committed perform better with a low level of practice than the short-term committed with a high level of practice ... the long-term committed performed 400 per cent better than the short-term committed when they, too, adopted a high level of practice.” (p 12)
  • The more a pianist practiced over time, the thicker was the myelin, the less leaky and more efficient the axons, and the better the communication system of the brain’s synapses and neurons.” (p 33)
  • No one puts their IQ in their curriculum vitae” (p 17)
  • An autistic child may step on another child on the floor, treating him or her as a lifeless object, because the autistic child has no ability to ... imagine that the second child may have a mind like its own.” (p 45)
  • If the genes that predispose people to madness can also cause positive attributes such as enhanced creativity, then there would be a force keeping them in the gene pool.” (p 53, quoting Nettle 2001)
  • How often does it happen that clothes, money, pomp, and especially the curled wig is that which turns a man into a scientist, counsellor, or doctor” (p 110, quoting Leopold Mozart)
  • The story of Idomeneus, king of Crete, who is forced to sacrifice his own son as a result of a vow to the gods, made while shipwrecked on his return from fighting in the Trojan wars, to sacrifice the first person he meets if he is saved.” (p 114)
  • To every ten real connoisseurs there are a hundred ignoramuses. So do not neglect the so-called popular style, which tickles long ears.” (p 114, quoting Leopold Mozart)
  • Nobility, wealth, rank, high position, such things make a man proud. But what did you ever do to earn them? Chose your parents carefully, that’s all.” (p 115, quoting Figaro in the Beaumarchais play)
  • hieroglyphic inscriptions continued to be written until AD 394.” (p 127)
  • The word Copt is derived from the Arabic qubti which itself derives from the Greek Aiguptos (Egypt). The Coptic script was invented around the end of the first century AD, and from the fourth to the tenth centuries Coptic flourished as a spoken language.” (p 129)
  • Even English has non-alphabetic characters such as £. (p 135).
  • Edward Gibbon wrote in his memoirs that ‘ conversation enriches the mind, but solitude is the school of genius’ ... Edison ... said: ‘the best thinking has been done in solitude’. ... Wagner noted that: ‘isolation and complete loneliness are my only consolation and my salvation.’ Byron stated: ‘society is harmful to any achievement of the mind’.” (p 262)
  • There is a developing genetic base for personality: “A study of New Zealand adults over time showed that those with the greatest tendency to depression - that is, high scorers on neuroticism - had two copies of short forms of the serotonin transporter genes, as opposed to either one copy of the short form and one of a long form or two copies of the long form, inherited from the subject parents.” (p 294)
  • ‘If there is inspiration, it’s not something that comes at the beginning of the piece. It comes in the course of writing it’, the composer Elliott Carter remarked.” (p 318)


Robinson also wrote a marvellous biography of Thomas Young The Last Man Who Knew Everything

June 2018; 329 pages

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