Two Geniuses

January 16 was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The next day was the first week of classes for Rutgers, so I spent the day working through my notes for my graduate course in General Relativity. As a result, I was spending the day thinking about both Dr. King and Albert Einstein at various moments. With both of these great people bouncing through my brain, I ended up with some confused thoughts, which I felt like I had to share and maybe clarify. It might be a strange combination, but these are strange times. In the end, I wanted to write about why Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement matters for physics, why we scientists must care about these issues, engage with these issues, and support the struggle that is still not at an end. 

Einstein holds a special place in the hearts and minds of theoretical physicists. For me, Einstein was always the great ideal: someone who, through sheer force of thought, determined how the Universe Must Be. In the popular telling (“popular” here being the sort of pop-science that adolescent wanna-be scientists like myself absorbed), Einstein didn’t need experimental results to figure out Special and General Relativity. He saw how the world must be, and was so sure of the clarity his vision that he didn’t need the mere mortals to catch up with actual experimental results in order to know that his theories were right. Einstein was the unique man, without whom we would still be scrambling around in the dark. Other titans of physics have been given this reverent treatment as well: Feynman’s cult of personality is well known, for example. 

Of course, this is not true, or at least not the full story. There is a reason that Lorentz transformations in Special Relativity are named after Lorentz, and the Hilbert action in GR is named after Hilbert. Einstein catapulted us into the future, yes, but he did so by building on what others had done and were doing.

Further, Einstein was reacting to experimental evidence when he came up with special relativity: the Michelson-Morley experiment demonstrated that everyone measured the same speed of light, and that was all Einstein needed. More to the point, regardless of the degree that Einstein was or wasn’t reacting to experiment, that is not how theoretical physics is usually done. We are driven by experiment, even if sometimes that driven force is distant from the immediate question at hand, or how much theory leads or lags experiment. We are, all of us, part of the world, and what happens in the world matters to our work, even if it isn’t obvious.

In many ways, the image of Einstein that the younger me had was just that: an image, a picture of a man and a series of events that is not and was not real. The real man was more complicated, though no less deserving of admiration, praise, and emulation. Einstein as a person bears no responsibility for the misconceptions that people built around him. But that dream and that idealization of him as a figure is widely shared, and it is an aspect of that popular image of Einstein that has been mixing with thoughts of Dr. King in my head today.

Part of the mythos of Einstein in the public mind is an effort to to divine what bit of him and his life made his genius possible. Stories abound of when Baby Einstein learned to talk, or what grades he got in high school (turns out, he actually did very well in math, as one might expect). Even after his death, his brain was preserved and studied, looking for the physical mechanism of his genius. If we can only copy that, the thought goes, we can become like Einstein, or (as evidenced by the Baby Einstein line of toys) at least make our kids like Einstein.

And this is the thing that has got me thinking: this obsession with Great Men and what made them and them alone Great.

In The Panda’s Thumb, Stephen J. Gould wrote

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

I think about this quote a lot, especially when I think about the image younger me had of Einstein and the other great physicists. The exact alchemy that creates a singular genius may not ever be knowable: in retrospect there may be moments or events for that one person that could be identified, but throw another person through the same wringer and you might never get the same result.

And even if you get a measure of quantities associated with “genius,” what then? What use is it really to say “using my magic neural mapper, I have decided this child has a 74% chance of being Einstein-level smart”? What if you’re wrong? And more to the point, what genius will you miss because they don’t manifest in a way that you expected when you developed your test?

Too often scientists confuse the ability to measure a thing with the thing itself. This is not just restricted to us scientists; IQ tests, SATs, GREs, the expanding field are of endless standardized testing in American schools, all are predicated on the idea that, while we can’t measure ability perfectly, having a bad test is better than no test. However, when given metrics that must be passed, people will adapt themselves to the metric rather than developing the thing the tests are designed to measure. We teach to the test, rather than use the test to measure achievement. It is well known that the Physics GRE is not a good measure of ability as a scientist, yet we place a great deal of importance on it as a gatekeeper to graduate school, because we have a test, so we use the test. What use is it to make seniors endlessly study the technique of doing well on a particular test that will never again matter? Who are we missing and what talents are we missing be doing so?

So I come back to Gould’s quote. Not everyone is or can be an Einstein-level genius. I am certainly not. I’m not even a regular genius — though I count some of my most proud achievements in life the times I have worked with them as peers. Not everyone can be as good at physics and math as I am (meager as my talents are as compared to the true wizards), though I think more people could do what I do than they themselves realize. 

But who those geniuses are, and where they will come from? Or even, where do the people at my level (the pretty damn good at what we do, but definitely not a genius people) come from? That can be anyone and anywhere. I have never seen any evidence to shake me from my belief that intellectual ability is uniformly distributed throughout the human population. A true genius, or even a merely good physicist, is as likely to be born a man or a woman, black or white, disabled or not, Chinese or Norwegian, Jewish, Muslim, or atheist, to Republican parents or Democratic.

The only difference is in how that ability is nurtured and given a chance to show what they are capable of. I had a huge advantage of having middle class well educated parents who surrounded me, at an early age with books and museum trips and all the rest. I also had the advantage of being a white male in America, and so I had many examples of people who looked like me who achieved my dream who I could follow, and when I followed that dream, took me seriously, respected me, and did not undercut me.

Einstein would not have accomplished what he did were he constrained by fate to labor in the cotton fields or a sweatshop, or even if his parents were so constrained. He would not have been vaulted to the heights he reached if his early papers were ignored, or his ideas stolen without concern for repercussions, due to his gender or race. (And in telling the real story of Einstein, we cannot forget his forced flight from Germany due to his religion.) Untold women and minorities have been turned away from universities, their talents withering for the lack of access to their peers and the multiplicative effect that has on one’s scientific output, to say nothing to those barred from decent basic education.

For this is another myth of the Einsteinian genius, and a far more pernicious one: the myth that true genius shines through regardless of the roadblocks thrown up in their path. Einstein was a patent cleric during his annus mirabilis, yes. But he was a patent clerk with access to the academic world, who would be taken seriously by his peers, with a Ph.D. adviser and contact with the wider literature and questions of the time. He was overcoming a barrier that would have stymied me, but he was not rising from nothing. The idea that true genius will be discovered anywhere, regardless of the hurdles that genius must overcome is incorrect on the facts, and can be used as a bludgeon to dismiss those who are trying to expand access.

All of this is why Dr. King must be relevant to scientists. Why the movement he led and who’s goals are not yet realized in America or around the world matters for physics. We are products of our society, no matter how much we might pretend that we are separate and apart from such base concerns. Who is a scientist? Who gets to try to be a scientist? Who gets to even dream of being a scientist? These are questions that are answered both by the society in which we live and by our own actions as members of academia.

Even if your only concern is the progress of “science” (whatever that means), you should want the largest percentage of humanity as possible to be given the opportunity to show their ability. How much further would we be today if the unidentified geniuses who’s abilities rival or surpass Einstein could have spent their years struggling through graduate school or even wiling aways days in a patent office rather than prevented from even dreaming of such a life? I have no idea who these people were — they passed us by, unrecognized and unmourned. But it is a statistical certainty that they existed, and that all aspects of human endeavor are poorer for the (often literal) barriers placed between them and the realization of what they were capable of.

Dr. King organizing a bus strike was part of a process that began to open the door for a segment of America to let their abilities be recognized and rewarded in a way they were not before. Science today is richer for it, as is the rest of the world. But that process of justice and equality is not complete for racial minorities, just as it is not complete for women, for LGBT people, for people with disabilities, for poor people of all races and genders, and for many others. And this process is not one that occurs naturally, of its own accord. The arc of history may bend towards justice, but only if people are actively bending it. It takes work, and it takes a recognition that this work is important. 

Equality and a level playing field matter for science, both because it is likely that the next Einstein is toiling away in a sweatshop today right now, and because the people sitting beside her deserve just as much consideration and opportunity as we want to give our geniuses. And that is what I found myself thinking about as I study the brilliant theory of one great person on a day honoring another.