Concentration of genius - in place and time - and fundamental developments in modern physics

I have wondered for some time about the apparent concentrations of genius in certain geographic areas during certain eras that seem to produce an awful lot of important knowledge. Is that because the key actors were unusually brilliant geniuses or simply lucky enough to be around as a new area was beginning to emerge?

I once asked here about the concentration of genius in Ancient Greece ca. 500 - 300 BC and whether they were truly unique or just lucky. It seems as if the answer was neither - indeed they were highly influential, but mostly because they, uniquely, wrote stuff down and thus became the dominant intellectual progenitors of thought (and not just ‘Western’ thought).

What about modern physics (relativity, quantum theory)? Other than Einstein (and maybe even including him), were the founders of modern physics just lucky to be there at the right time or were they an unusually concentrated group, in place and time, of geniuses?

I know that others had had intimations of relativity (i.e. Poincare and I assume others) but, even so, they, too, were European and essentially contemporary. Regardless, it seems to me that having Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac, and Fermi, all be near-contemporaneous is somewhat miraculous. Was it a miracle of luck or genius?

Your ancient Greece covers a span of 200 years.

A lot of things depend on various technological developments. So when the electron microscope was developed people think of lots of different questions which can be answered by it.

Several of the physicists who pioneered atomic physics were from Budapest, Hungary around the same time period.

It wasn’t just limited to physicists coming from Budapest in that time period either.

I do wonder if its just that a tiny % of humans, maybe 0.01% are super geniuses, and they just pick up innovation wherever the culture they are born into is at. So maybe Einstein would be working in something like biotechnology or artificial intelligence had he been born in 1990 instead of born in 1879.

My WAG is that scientific progress is much like the growth of children, in the broadest physical and intellectual meaning of the term. It’s a constant, gradual process, but every once in a while there’s been a sufficient amount of incremental change that one is suddenly aware of a major qualitative change. When major qualitative changes happen in science, like relativity overturning classical physics, or quantum mechanics introducing radical new concepts, it’s a matter of both luck and brilliance that some individuals are in the right place at the right time to assemble the incremental pieces into major new insights. Some, like Einstein, were probably much farther ahead of the curve than others in terms of pure independent innovation, though all of them made mistakes. Arthur Eddington famously rejected the possibility that anything like a black hole could exist, and ridiculed and embarrassed a young Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (after whom the Chandrasekhar limit is named).

The always-obligatory XKCD commentary: :smiley:

While there are individuals that make huge discoveries the popularized names ignore the millions of people working hard to move the field forward so those discoveries could even happen.

Even the people that are popularized are not always due to discovering the critical discoveries but those that are most visible. Emmy Noether as an example is one of the most important people in the history of mathematics, yet her fame was muted by the lack of a penis.

Just like in any other type of fame, many of the most influential people aren’t known to people outside of the field and the influence and the work of the masses is almost universally ignored.

There are uniquely brilliant individuals who can develop theories that are revolutionary, these unique times you pointed out are also time periods where society allowed these fields to grow more than some born trait.

I actually thought about including Noether in my little list. She would be another good example.


Maybe it’s simply that only so many ‘fundamental’ discoveries can be made (in a given area).

And FWIW, that’s one of the great promises of the Internet; the ability to bring together virtually (via email, data sharing, etc…) all these singleton minds who may not be in a place where they’re among peers and/or getting the stimulation they need. In a sense, they had that in Einstein’s, Feynman’s and Dirac’s day, but it was via mail, and not nearly what we have today.

Why did so many great musicians and musical acts seem to come out of Detroit?
Was it the diverse mix of ethnic groups comprising the population? And all those black folks who had migrated from the South, carrying with them all that beautiful, addictive pain-inspired music with them?

Was it the city’s early history of clubbing and thus club music (like big band jazz)?

Was it the thriving manufacturing economy and all those good union jobs, which attracted musicians, like John Lee Hooker, who needed good day jobs so they could perform at night? Musicians like Berry Gordy, who used those good wages to launch their own labels?

Or is it just that there’s just something about gritty city life that inspires innovation and creativity? And because there are so many venues to perform and be noticed, someone with talent can find success in a city like Detroit versus some backwater somewhere.

All of these things combined probably explain why Detroit is a major music scene. Artists flourish where there are already institutions set up for them, and artists beget other artists. Artists, just like anyone else, depend on a social network. Through connections, Berry Gordy was able to get his music to Jackie Wilson–who then topped the charts with his songs. Without that success, Gordy wouldn’t have discovered another song-writing genius, Smokey Robinson, who then wouldn’t have been able to develop the talent of his friends from the projects. I firmly believe there is talent everywhere, at every time. But it has to be discovered, which means someone needs to be looking for it and know what to do with it.

It is good economic times and a social culture that allow for people to work on the subjects.

Consider how Europe was a backwater while the Islamic Golden Age was flourishing, or how the US’s global contributions have been decreasing after the funding of the cold war dropped of and the anti-intellectual movement continues to gain steam.

The US has been taking the advantage of being a magnet for the worlds entrepreneurs and best of the science for a while but we are now blocking that influx and spending is being reduced so other parts of the world are on the rise again.

As a specific example the Higgs would have been found at the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas and the LHC may have never been built, but the US decided to exit high energy physics due to funding politics.

While we remember those individuals who did make huge steps forward, they needed the opportunity to do so.

It’s worth remembering that human population has grown exponentially. Yes, most of the great minds of physics were in the past hundred years, but then, most of all of the people in history were in the past hundred years.

Yeah but world population is about 4x bigger than it was a century ago, plus more parts of the world can produce high end scientists. For one thing, IQ is higher due to the Flynn Effect which should mean a far higher % of the population are in the 160+ IQ range (using 1910 definitions of 100 IQ).

Plus more parts are industrialized, and can contribute to science. Japan, South Korea & China have large domestic scientific institutions. Plus it seems like its easier for qualified individuals from places like the middle east, Africa, latin America, etc to immigrate to a developed world.

Point being, the world should have far far more human capital and be much better at utilizing that capital than it was a century ago, but nowadays it doesn’t seem like there are well known geniuses like there used to be. Maybe that is because nowadays there are so many thousands of them that most aren’t known outside of their field of study.

Stephen Jay Gould has an entire book, Life’s Grandeur, related to the question of why in baseball outliers (like Ty Cobb or Ted Williams) are less common today: It’s not that baseball super-performers are less common — it’s that they’re more common! (they’re no longer “outliers.”)

By the same token there may be “too many” great mathematicians and scientists to choose from today. (Nevertheless there is one “outlier” — Edward Witten — who is often compared to the great geniuses of the past.)

The Golden Ages of Greek mathematics and Islamic science have already been mentioned, but the Islamic Golden Age occurred at roughly the same time as a technology revolution in China and the “High Middle Ages” of Europe. Science started to blossom in Europe near the end of this period in the time of Fibonacci and Roger Bacon … but the worldwide Black Death epidemic seems to have crushed the flowering of science and technology everywhere. (Can you name a single famous scientist born in the 14th century?)

There was an epoch of huge genius which began at the time of Gutenberg’s invention and Columbus’ discovery; first artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, then scientists like Kepler and Galileo. Was there something “in the air” then?

I would suggest that it is largely due to bootstrapping.

There was a man, for example, who hypothesized that children will become prodigies at pretty much anything if you start training them in it around the age of 4. As such, he decided to use his daughters as guinea pigs and chose Chess as the “anything”:

And while it’s probably not completely fair to say that it’s the results of the experiment that a mad genius’ children ended up being chess geniuses, I suspect that there isn’t zero relation between their long exposure and (more importantly) early exposure.

If there is a Greek genius who invents, say, new methods of doing math for construction, then people will be talking about it, teaching it to their young construction apprentices, etc. The word will be around. Clever puzzles invented by the genius will be put to teens and they’ll be stumped and then once they find out the answer, they’ll put it to their younger siblings, to stump them in turn, so suddenly you have 4 year olds being posed interesting logic and math problems that were so originally so difficult that the local genius felt so proud of his having found a solution that he had to share it, and now 4 year olds are encountering it first thing in their development, opening up whole new pathways in their brain that never could have been opened before.

Modern day Americans are almost certainly “smarter” than your average Bulgarian (no offense to Bulgarians), simply because we have kids’ science TV and computers regularly available to them. They’re not smarter in the sense that they have better DNA or anything, just that they have had the advantage of earlier exposure to more modern ideas and that allows their brains to start developing along those lines.

My gut tells me that there still aren’t many Ted Williamses out there, or Einsteins, Newtons or Goulds, for that matter. And that the real problem these days is identifying them when they do occur- rather than being a 100 watt bulb in a field of 20 watt refrigerator bulbs, we’re now trying to find that 100 watt bulb in a field of 80 watt bulbs.

As soon as I read the OP, I was thinking “Oh, I am going to post on the Martians!” But you beat me to it.

I suspect that there are more geniuses, but much of their work is in areas too abstruse to be easily described in the media. Or as easy to demonstrate as relativity, thanks to the eclipse.
There are also more places for geniuses to go, so we aren’t likely to see the concentration we saw 100 years ago.
I’m reading Hawking’s last book. Genius, definitely. But he didn’t revolutionize things the way Einstein did.

Reminds me of the wonderful sci-fi short story Mimsy Were the Borogoves, by Henry Kuttner and his wife C. L. Moore, published I believe under their pseudonym Lewis Padgett. I don’t want to give away spoilers but the intriguing premise is, what if a couple of young children had the opportunity to have their malleable minds trained in this way on a skill completely unknown to any normal adults?

Even when people don’t formally collaborate they talk to each other. The most important reason to go to scientific meetings is not the talks; it is the occasion to talk to your peers. And if they should happen to mostly be in one place and speak the same language, so much the better. Of all the mathematical geniuses I have known, not one was solitary; they all gathered groups around them and the members played off each other.

As one example, Einstein had the physical intuition to develop general relativity, but he didn’t know how to express it mathematically. Geometers (Minkowski, IIRC) taught him about Riemann and then he was off. Even so, Hilbert actually published the equations of general relativity a few days before Einstein, but Einstein gets the credit because the physical ideas behind were his. In any case, Einstein and Hilbert were in constant communication over it.

Sometimes technology develops to expose phenomena that pose interesting questions for brilliant minds.

Discoveries like radio, vacuum tubes, photoelectric effects and the discovery of radiation at the beginning of the twentieth century gave lots of experimental evidence on which to advance fundamental theories to connect the dots.

That’s very true Hari Seldon - A really interesting exception, though, was J. Willard Gibbs - the first great American scientist, and as influential a figure as any of the Titans named in the OP (although he was the generation before, late 1800s). The father of chemical thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, plus groundbreaking contributions to optics and vector calculus on the side.
Worked his entire life in isolation in the parochial backwater of Yale University, publishing his seminal work in Transactions of the Connecticut Academy (edited by his brother!).

He achieved recognition during his lifetime, and at a high level - e.g. foreign member of the FRS, Einstein gave him the slightly back-handed compliment as the ‘Greatest mind in American History’ in 1901, so it wasn’t like he was labouring in obscurity. But he developed all of his deep theoretical insights into thermodynamics working alone, with no supporting community of scientists in the US at that time.