What Character Traits Do Geniuses Share in Common?: From Isaac Newton to Richard Feynman

Back in 1993, James Gle­ick wrote Genius: The Life and Sci­ence of Richard Feyn­man. A decade lat­er came his biog­ra­phy on Isaac New­ton. As Gle­ick men­tions above, the two scientists–who lived, of course, cen­turies apart–shared very lit­tle in com­mon. New­ton (1643–1727) was “soli­tary, anti­so­cial, unpleas­ant, bit­ter.” Richard Feyn­man (1918–1988) could be best described as “gre­gar­i­ous, fun­ny, a great dancer.” Watch him joy­ous­ly play the bon­gos to see what Gle­ick means.

So the ques­tion remains: What did they have in com­mon? And par­tic­u­lar­ly what char­ac­ter traits con­tributed to their “sci­en­tif­ic genius”? Gle­ick goes on to explain:

They were both, as I tried to get in their heads, under­stand their minds, the nature of their genius, I sort of felt I was see­ing things that they had in com­mon, and they were things that had to do with alone­ness. New­ton was much more obvi­ous­ly alone than Feyn­man, but Feyn­man did­n’t par­tic­u­lar­ly work well with oth­ers. He was known as a great teacher, but he was­n’t a great teacher, I don’t think, one on one. I think he was a great lec­tur­er. I think he was a great com­mu­ni­ca­tor. But when it came time to make the great dis­cov­er­ies of sci­ence, he was alone in his head. Now, when I say he, I mean both Feyn­man and New­ton, and this applies, also, I think, to the genius­es that I write about in The Infor­ma­tion, Charles Bab­bage, Alan Tur­ing, Ada Byron. They all had the abil­i­ty to con­cen­trate with a sort of inten­si­ty that is hard for mor­tals like me to grasp, a kind of pas­sion for abstrac­tion that does­n’t lend itself to easy com­mu­ni­ca­tion, I don’t think.

Soli­tude. Con­cen­tra­tion. Abstrac­tion. In a nut­shell, that’s what goes into the mak­ing of a genius.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Stag­ger­ing Genius of Isaac New­ton

Sir Isaac Newton’s Papers & Anno­tat­ed Prin­cip­ia Go Dig­i­tal

Free Physics Cours­es (From Our Col­lec­tion of 1200 Free Online Cours­es)

Richard Feyn­man Cre­ates a Sim­ple Method for Telling Sci­ence From Pseu­do­science (1966)

‘The Char­ac­ter of Phys­i­cal Law’: Richard Feynman’s Leg­endary Course Pre­sent­ed at Cor­nell, 1964

The Feyn­man Lec­tures on Physics, The Most Pop­u­lar Physics Book Ever Writ­ten, Now Com­plete­ly Online

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  • Ros says:

    Anoth­er thing genius­es have in com­mon is they ask child­ish ques­tions as adults… New­ton asked ‘What made the apple fall?’ Ein­stein asked ‘What wold hap­pen if I could ride the par­ti­cle of light that came from the clock? Would it always be that time?’

  • Time alone, time to think, con­cen­trate and observe would help so many of us.. not nec­es­sar­i­ly become genius­es; how­ev­er, think more clear­ly and live, per­haps become smarter and hap­pi­er lives. Thanks for the reminder to slow down!

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