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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