Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Media Icons and Geniuses Part 2

You want to start a debate? Just say such and such figure is NOT a genius and the intellectual throw down will commence. This is especially true when the field is music, where everyone thinks they know a lot and everyone knows they have good taste. Here's a starter debate about genius: Ray Charles - not a genius, Stevie Wonder - quite possibly, yes. Go.

Western culture's obsession with music has brought us to the point that a few great albums, a handful of sonic innovations and abstruse lyrics result in the labeling of genius. The band that is definitely a recipient of this premature labeling is Radiohead, where a handful of albums spawned one Lily Holmes to comment, "No one comes close to the inventiveness of Radiohead. I wouldn't be surprised if Radiohead's popularity eclipsed that of the Beatles in 20 years." It's been almost ten years since Radiohead released "Ok Computer" an album that's feels as monstrous today as it did then. However, I think we can put to rest Miss Holmes assertion as nothing more than hyperbolic bong talk. Are they endlessly inventive, it seems to be the case, are they one of the great bands of all time, probably. Genius? I guess we have to delve into that definition.

Genius elicits a lot of emotion and a lot of, oddly enough, irrational responses. One would hope that a precise definition for it would exist. That would be a false hope. The human brain is an unbelievable complex organ that works on chemical and electric levels that we really can't fathom. Questions like where does personality reside or where is "consciousness" remain unanswered.

Let's start with IQ. Apparently, anyone with an IQ over 150 is a "genius." However, IQ tests examine very specific types of intelligence particularly the ones that deal with vocabulary, spatial geometry, logic and problem solving of an algebraic natures. I'm sure Mozart would flunk the math sections of an IQ test but his genius is a given. A lot of people can solve the quadratic formula, only a few can compose symphonies in their head. Not only that, there are millions of people walking around with 150+ IQs. Clearly genius needs to be a little more exclusive in nature for it to feel right. Also have you been to a Mensa convention? These are smart people, some are even erudite but they aren't all geniuses. In many cases they're highly educated people with a good amount of general knowledge and one focus where their knowledge is monographic.

I'll take a softer approach. It seems that one difference between a genius and someone whose brilliant is the leaps of understanding a genius makes. It's one thing to figure out that if a light particle (a photon) hit a subatomic particle (a quark) measuring the exact position of the quark might be compromised (Heisenberg) by compromised by the impact of photon against quark. It's however a completely different kettle of fish to posit space and time are one continuum and that the act of moving at near light-speed not only dilates that continuum but that hitting light-speed would cause an object to increase to infinite mass. As infinite mass is by definition impossible we now have a universal speed limit (Einstein). The multiple revelations and corollaries from his theories have completely reshaped how we view the world taking us from a Newtonian view of things to a "modern" view of things. In fact the work that Einstein produced just around 1900 serves as the convenient marker for modern physics. It took the genius of Einstein to largely invalidate the work of another genius (Newton). To be fair, Newton provided us with the intellectual underpinnings of modern physics and of course he provided us with one version of calculus: the indispensable tool of theoretical physicists. Einstein's theories demonstrated the various limitations of Newton's laws especially when considering the astronomic or the subatomic.

I think that hits on the primary aspect of genius. A genius changes the way things are done. A genius revolutionizes our approach and, often, signals the death knell of how things are done in the past. It would seem that genius is part raw cranial power, part demonstration of that power and one part that is unfathomable. That's the tough part of genius, it would seem that true genius is incomprehensible to one who isn't. I can play chess, but it's inconceivable to me how Garry Kasparov can think 30 moves ahead and match wits with a supercomputer that can literally do a trillion FLOPS Geniuses perceive the world in totally new ways that shed light more on our limitations than our understanding of them. An example:

"In 1917, Ramanujan fell seriously ill with what has since been confirmed to have been tuberculosis, and his doctors feared he would die. It was during this time that the famous 1729 story happened. Hardy went to see Ramanujan during his sickness, and during the visit remarked that he had travelled in cab number 1729, a boring number; he hoped it wasn't a bad omen. Ramanujan instantly replied that 1729 is not a boring number at all as it is the smallest number that is expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways (10^3+9^3 = 1000+729 = 1729 ; 12^3+1^3 = 1728+1 = 1729)."

There's a lot more material here than I thought. To be continued . . .

In a bit.

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