Skip to main content

Genius – a very short introduction – Andrew Robinson ***

One of OUP’s pocket series ‘a very short introduction’ (books with a cover design that says ‘dull’), this title takes on the thorny topic of genius. It’s hard to say whether or not this subject is science at all. There is certainly some science in the book – when looking at studies of the way the brain works and the nature of intelligence – but the concept of ‘genius’ itself is such a fuzzy one that is probably more a media label than anything meaningful.
Apart from anything else, as Andrew Robinson makes clear, we can’t agree on what genius is, nor on who is a genius. There are a few exceptions – few people could argue about Newton or Einstein – but in many other cases the validity of the claim is open to question. What I found fascinating was that Robinson says that in some cases genius is disputed – for example Picasso – while in others it’s undisputed – for example Mozart. I was surprised that Picasso is questioned while at the same time (I know I’m in a minority) I really don’t see what the fuss is about Mozart, whose music seems mostly trivial to me. As another example of the subjectivity of this label, Robinson constantly refers to Virginia Woolf as a genius. What? Is he serious? More celebrity than genius I would have said.
The more I read this book, the more I thought that this thing being labelled genius is an entirely different concept between (say) science, art & music. However, for some reason this difference doesn’t come though in the text until very late in the book, and when Robinson does cover it, what he says is not very satisfactory. He never explores the thesis, for example, that art only has a value that is set by fashion – genius in art is inevitably going to be subjective – while science can have an objective assessment of value that makes it much easier to pinpoint genius (even if the collective nature of scientific work makes it harder to assign this genius to an individual).
All in all it’s a good little book in that makes you think about the nature of genius – but an irritating topic, because in the end it’s a subject that is so arbitrary. A work of genius? Probably not.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

On the Moor - Richard Carter ****

There's much to enjoy in Richard Carter's pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England's Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it's inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants - I confess I was ignorant of the peregrine falcon's 200 mile per hour dive - or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

Carter is something of an expert on Darwin, and inevitably the great man comes into the story many times - yet his appearance never seems forced. It's hard to spend your time in a natural environment like this and not have Darwin repeatedly brought to mind.

I confess to a distinct love of these moors. Having spent my first 11 years in and around Littleborough, just the other side of Blackstone Edge from Carter's moor, the moorland…

Ten Great Ideas About Chance - Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms ***

There are few topics that fascinate me as much as chance and probability. It's partly the wonder that mathematics can be applied to something so intangible and also because so often the outcomes of probability are counter-intuitive and we can enjoy the 'Huh?' impact of something that works yet feels so far from common sense.

I think I ought to start by saying what this is isn't. It's definitely not an introductory book - the authors assume that the reader 'has taken a first undergraduate course in probability or statistics'. And though there's an appendix that claims to be a probability tutorial for those who haven't got this background, it's not particularly reader-friendly - in theory I knew everything in the appendix, but I still found parts of it near-impossible to read.

As for the main text, if you pass that first criterion, my suspicion is that, like me, you will find parts utterly fascinating and other parts pretty much incomprehensible. Th…