Why Einstein Was a “Peerless” Genius, and Hawking Was an “Ordinary” Genius: A Scientist Explains

Genius sells. Pub­lish­ers of biogra­phies and stu­dios behind Oscar-win­ning dra­mas can tell you that. So can net­work sci­en­tist Albert-Lás­zló Barabási, who has actu­al­ly con­duct­ed research into the nature of genius. “What real­ly deter­mines the ‘genius’ label?” he asks in the Big Think video above. When he and his col­lab­o­ra­tors “com­pared all genius­es to their sci­en­tif­ic peers, we real­ized that there are real­ly two very dif­fer­ent class­es: ordi­nary genius and peer­less genius.” Con­sid­er­ing the lat­ter, Barabási points to the per­haps unsur­pris­ing exam­ple of Albert Ein­stein.

“When we looked at the sci­en­tists work­ing at the same time, rough­ly in the same areas of physics that he did,” Barabási explains, “there was no one who would have a com­pa­ra­ble pro­duc­tiv­i­ty or sci­en­tif­ic impact to him. He was tru­ly alone.” Illus­trat­ing the class of “ordi­nary genius” is a fig­ure almost as well-known as Ein­stein: Stephen Hawk­ing. “To our sur­prise, we real­ized, there were about six oth­er sci­en­tists who worked in rough­ly the same area, and had com­pa­ra­ble, often big­ger impacts than Stephen Hawk­ing had” — and yet only he was pub­licly labeled a “genius.”

“The ‘genius’ label is a con­struct that soci­ety assigns to excep­tion­al accom­plish­ment, but excep­tion­al accom­plish­ment is not suf­fi­cient to get the genius label.” Through­out his­to­ry, “remark­able indi­vid­u­als were always born in the vicin­i­ty of big cul­tur­al cen­ters, and every­thing that is out­side of the cul­tur­al cen­ters was typ­i­cal­ly a desert of excep­tion­al accom­plish­ments.” Today, as ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist and essay­ist Paul Gra­ham once wrote, “a thou­sand Leonar­dos and a thou­sand Michelan­ge­los walk among us. If DNA ruled, we should be greet­ed dai­ly by artis­tic mar­vels. We aren’t, and the rea­son is that to make Leonar­do you need more than his innate abil­i­ty. You also need Flo­rence in 1450.”

What would it take to dis­cov­er the “hid­den genius­es” who may have been born into unpro­pi­tious cir­cum­stances? This is one con­cern behind Barabási’s inquiry into the nature of sci­en­tif­ic promi­nence. The ques­tion of “how does the qual­i­ty of the idea that I picked, and the ulti­mate suc­cess, and my abil­i­ty as a sci­en­tist con­nect to each oth­er” led him to devel­op the “Q fac­tor,” the mea­sure of “our abil­i­ty to turn ideas into dis­cov­er­ies.” His analy­sis of the data shows that, through­out a sci­en­tist’s career, the Q fac­tor remains more or less sta­ble. Apply­ing it to big data “could help us to dis­cov­er those that real­ly had the accom­plish­ment and deserve the genius label and put them in the right place.” If he’s cor­rect, we can expect a bumper crop of books and movies on a whole new wave of genius­es in the years to come.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

“The Most Intel­li­gent Pho­to Ever Tak­en”: The 1927 Solvay Coun­cil Con­fer­ence, Fea­tur­ing Ein­stein, Bohr, Curie, Heisen­berg, Schrödinger & More

This is What Richard Feynman’s PhD The­sis Looks Like: A Video Intro­duc­tion

Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Stag­ger­ing Genius of Isaac New­ton

Explore the Largest Online Archive Explor­ing the Genius of Leonard da Vin­ci

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • George Andrew says:

    Indeed being a genius is not that easy,we are talk­ing about seek­ing the truth that will be inspi­ra­tional ref­er­ences for our future gen­er­a­tions, the great­est lessons that pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions was going through is the big bang the­o­ry forc­ing every­one to believe it as truth ‚but when asked to demon­strate exact­ly what they say in a lab­o­ra­to­ry recre­ation of space real­i­ty uni­verse and they can’t demon­strate, we have to be care­ful of what infor­ma­tions they put on media for pub­lic use because it might gonna lick them in the ass lateron,this is why we I say being a genius is not easy,you have to earned it truthfully,you do not want to be mis­lead­ing your entire peo­ple and coun­tries to false infor­ma­tions that’s a seri­ous accu­sa­tions if ille­gal­ly by law,they could­n’t detect dark mat­ters par­ti­cles and grav­i­ty but they said in the big bang the­o­ry they know exact­ly what they are say­ing is right because it’s accord­ing to them,no one can be able to cre­ate a tiny mini ver­sion of how space real­i­ty uni­verse was made,even if you asked peo­ple liv­ing in the present future have no clues at all,and if I can achieved it what will they say ?

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