Self-educated Brilliance

Having read a lot about Einstein recently, and having enjoyed the debate in the “Fear of Mathematics” thread, I now have a question to raise:

Is it possible for our current society to foster talent like Einstein’s?

For example, Einstein couldn’t do arithmetic, yet had a brilliant career, largely because society at the time didn’t discriminate against people without higher degrees. All that mattered were his results.

Could someone like him, self-educated with great ideas and the ability to back them up with Greek notation (Numbers? What are they?), get published in the journals?

Someone who flunks basic math certainly can’t get into university anymore, let alone get a degree in physics. Would that person, if they could do the work anyway, be respected in academic circles?

How does the question apply to the humanities, as well as the sciences?

What are you talking about? Read this article from the Encyclopedia Brittanica to start with:,5716,108494+2+106018,00.html

Einstein had a Ph.D. in physics. He got his bachelor’s degree at 20 and his doctorate at 25, slightly early by most standards. The idea that he had problems in school are greatly exaggerated. There was a point (during what we would call his junior high school years) that he was bored with what his school was teaching, so he goofed off and didn’t even try to learn what they were teaching him. Einstein was always recognized as being smart, although sometimes he was considered a troublemaker.

This idea that he had problems in school is part of the myth that there are completely untutored scientific geniuses out there who have made major discoveries without ever even having any contact with the scientific world. There are no such things. If you’d like, I can tell you about how the story of Ramanujan is usually butchered to create the impression that he was an untutored genius.

Sorry, somehow that slipped through the seive that is my memory.

But I think the question still stands. If I, with nothing but a bachelor’s degree in English and a great love for linguistics were to read up on all the research and come up with ground-breaking ideas, would anyone pay attention?

Would someone pay attention? Perhaps, perhaps not. But that’s not entirely because you aren’t currently in academia. Read the books The Linguistics Wars by Randy Allen Harris and Western Linguistics: An Historical Introduction by Pieter A. M. Seuren. It’s about the battle in transformational grammar between the generative semantics and the generative syntax schools. It’s argued (more strongly in Seuren than in Harris) that the wrong theory won the battle. Some people left the field in disgust and others just quit publishing. (I was a grad student at the time, and I left the field too, but I don’t think my leaving is particularly compelling proof that something was wrong.)

The interesting thing is that this was largely a battle between people who already had tenure. Even within an academic field, sometimes the wrong theory wins.

Getting someone to pay attention is the hard part, whether you have the PhD or not. Getting a PhD is a small step in that direction, but it is not absolutely necessary. However, if you’re willing to do all the work that would get you the attention that you desire–you might as well get the degree. That would be the easy part.

About that Einstein thing: David Hilbert, one of the great mathematicians, once wrote to Einstein: “If I could calculate as quickly as you, then the electron would have to capitulate in the face of my equations…” (Pais, p.260)

The man could do arithmetic.

You’d get attention if you had a good enough agent. James Horner gets all the attention nowadays in the field of paleontology, but there are probably thousands of better qualified, better educated, smarter paleontologists out there who are completely ignored because they don’t understand how to make the system work.

Surely, you mean Jack Horner, right?

On the other hand, he had a MacArthur Fellowship (genius grant) and he discovered the first dino eggs in the Western Hemisphere and the first evidence of colonial nesting and parental care. He said he’d accept an honorary PhD (from the Univ of MT I believe), but they’d have to give him an honorary BS first.

Now, what do you mean, he’s working the system? Do you mean, he’s out getting his hands dirty?

Getting attention nowadays is easy, whether you have credentials or not. I suspect Graham Hancock has influenced more members of the general public than have all the rest of the Egyptologists in the world combined, and he doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about, and absolutely no credentials in the field.

In general nowadays advanced degrees are becoming less and less necessary. The CEO of our software company is self-taught, and rose through the ranks. We have people with 2-year diplomas working alongside guys with M.Sc’s in computing science, and in many cases being promoted past the more qualified person.

It used to be that without a college education you simply couldn’t go past a certain level in a company. There was a rigid heirarchy. That has broken down now in many companies. A degree will help you get in the door (although you can get in without it), but once you’re there all that matters is your personal ability. Again in our company, we’ve had people join as admin assistants with high school diplomas, work their way into the development department through self-study, and rise through the ranks to become engineering managers.

Anything can be published in popular literature or the media. However, scientific journals will look at credentials. Also, any valid scientific theory requires a large consensus in the scientific community.

Yes you can but it’s easier if you have a degree. There was an incident a few years ago involving butterflies. The story is something like this. There was a housewife who liked to sit in her backyard and watch the butterflies. She went to the library to find out more information about the type of butterflies in her yard. There was very little information published. She learned how to do research, collected data, and published a well recieved peer reviewed book. She is now the world expert on xyz species of butterflies.

My favorite example is Emily Rosa, whose fourth-grade science project wound up published in the JAMA. It seems prety likely that she was the major contributor to the project.

Citation of Emily’s article in the Journal of the American Medical Association

Emily Rosa on Scientific American Frontiers “Ask the Scientists”

Quackwatch on Therapeutic Touch" (note that Dr. Barret of Quackwatch is a co-author on Emily’s paper in JAMA).

I’m interested, Wendell, can you give me the short version or point me to a link?

If you are an unknown in a given field but think you’ve just had the brainstorm of the century then I think one way to get noticed is to have someone champion your cause. After copyrighting your material walk to the nearest University with someone qualified to study your work. Bribe them if necessary (if you really think you’ve done something original and important). Buy them dinner or tell them you’ll give them $1,000 if they think your stuff is crap and you’ve wasted their evening. While some topics might take days/weeks/months/years to fully evaluate I’d hope an expert could at least identify a promising and original thought in short order (making it worthy of further study). If it is truly worthwhile the academician who reviewed your work can then use their pull to get the paper published/reviewed.

Not to be a wet blanket on that, but as promising as that sounds, what would probably happen would be the academician would not understand your idea as well as you do, since you’ve spent so much time on it. They would be dubious, especially if it looks promising. They would be impressed with your knowledge of the field (if you were knowledgeable) and would enjoy talking to you about it. Possibly, a few rough edges would turn up. Even PhDs argue with each other, and vehemently. No good idea is going to go unchallenged. After a few meetings, they would probably suggest you apply to go to graduate school…

D Marie,

O.K., to start with, here’s the Encyclopedia Brittanica article on Ramanujan.,5716,64161+1+62575,00.html

The usual romanticized version of Ramanujan’s life is that he was a poor Indian clerk, completely unappreciated by anyone around him, who decided to write G. H. Hardy, the English mathematician, with some of his mathematical theories. Hardy was so impressed that he brought Ramanujan to Cambridge to work with him.

The truth is, while he might have been somewhat poor by present standards, he was middle-class by turn-of-the-century Indian standards. He was a Brahmin, for heaven’s sake, and he had graduated from high school, which probably put him in the top 5% of Indians for education already. He was recognized in his teens as a genius, and he entered university at 16 with a scholarship. The problem there was that he spent all his time on math and neglected his other subjects, so he lost his scholarship. Still, other mathematicians recognized his ability and helped him to get a job as a clerk so he could do math in the evening. He had already published one paper by the time he wrote Hardy. The reason he wrote Hardy was that an Indian mathematician told Ramanujan that Hardy was doing things close to his work and would be the best one to talk with.

Yes, Ramanujan was a genius, and he did his early work in comparative isolation, but he was not the completely untutored genius doing his work without any contact to the academic world that he’s sometimes mistakenly thought to be.