Sand bucket on the beach of Punta del Este, Uruguay. David (CC BY 2.0)

Genius: Capacity and Hard Work

Forrest ChristianLearning, Theory Leave a Comment

For all his success, Rutherford was not an especially brilliant man and was actually pretty terrible at mathematics. Often during lectures he would get so lost in his own equations that he would give up halfway through and tell the students to work it out for themselves. According to his longtime colleague James Chadwick, discoverer of the neutron, he wasn’t even particularly clever at experimentation. He was simply tenacious and openminded. For brilliance he substituted shrewdness and a kind of daring. His mind, in the words of one biographer, was “always operating out towards the frontiers, as far as he could see, and that was a great deal further than most other men.” Confronted with an intractable problem, he was prepared to work at it harder and longer than most people and to be more receptive to unorthodox explanations.

[A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition, 2005 (2003), New York: Broadway Books, pp. 171]

Bill Bryson’s description of Ernest Rutherford, the early 20th century physicist who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his investigations into radiation, may seem a bit surprising. Americans — and perhaps Britons, too — have a penchant for imagining people who come up with great new ideas as people who seem to have everything lined up. Rutherford and others (Einstein comes to mind quickly) worked hard and kept looking as far as they could.

I figure that most of the SST / Requisite / Real Boss people would find the quote Bryson uses from (I think) David Wilson’s 1983 Rutherford : Simple Genius because it illustrates one of the points we usually make: intelligence deals with our ability to have longer or farther horizons in our thinking.

But at the same point, Bryson’s longer description provides some points that some avoid. Rutherford was known for his brilliant insights, a intuition that uncannily found the answer without all the mucking around in the equations that others did. Only somewhat true. Rutherford actually performed hundreds off failed experiments, personally without using the usual lab slaves, which led to his having seen so much that he could make connections that others couldn’t. Yes, he had the capacity to see things that others couldn’t, but he still had to put in the time to see enough of the results to “intuit” the pattern.

It’s not just his capacity but his personal tenacity. He was willing to do scientific drudge work often reserved for female assistants, spending hours watching the experiment fail to produce any results. This marriage of capacity, personality and situation is what led to him change the world of physics.

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