WickedEye's Quotient

2/22/2006 at 17:02

Intellectual Elegance

I probably mean both more and less than others when I talk about genius.

Genius and its characterization are at the heart of how I think of both science and art; the first half of my definition of genius is compassed in the dictionary definition: “A person endowed with transcendent mental superiority” (Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary); a person who sees ideas and patterns beyond the ordinary range of perception.

The second half of my definition is harder to elucidate; to me the essence of genius, of intellectual elegance, is not Occam; not the abruptness or abbreviation of the route- though all intellectually elegant solutions incorporate the principle of simplicity.

No, what defines intellectual elegance is both its grace- the ineffable arc of something direct and pure- and its creativity.

Intellectual and artistic genius both well from the same spring: the ability to do a task or formulate an idea such that it is at the same time utterly unexpected and self-evident.

My favorite examples of this sort of thinking are Giotto, Newton, and Mendeleev.

Giotto, when asked by Pope Benedict to submit a drawing so that Benedict could decide which artist would paint in St. Peter’s, sent a drawing which almost didn’t get delivered. The messenger who came to collect Giotto’s drawing was certain, when he received it, that the artist was mocking him.

Giotto, on receipt of the demand for a drawing, immediately stood, took pen and red ink, and drew for the messenger a perfect circle.


Luckily, the messenger delivered the circle with an account of how the master had drawn it, and luckily Benedict had the wit to see what such an ability meant.

But- think of it. How many men in history could- not just draw the circle, which number is vanishingly small to begin with- but understand that the power to do such a thing was the greatest demonstration of virtuosity possible?


Newton, while examining a prism, saw and noted that the light rays split themselves into spectra- “ghosts” of the ray which entered it- and wondered, Why? The received answer of the time was that this splitting occurred because the ability to be split into a spectrum by a prism was an innate property of white light.

Newton saw what no-one at that time had yet seen: that this was not an explanation*. It was merely an answer- one which was accurate, and yet which in its self-contained circularity gave no meaningful response to the actual question.

It took a genius of the order of Newton- father of much of modern science- to understand what the question actually meant.

On that question- that very, very simple question- and its subsequent answers is almost all of modern physics, particle theory, and cosmology built.

Q: Why does a beam of white light split into colors when passed through a glass prism?
A: The universe, as we understand it.


Dmitri Mendeleev is responsible for what we know as the periodic table of elements. It is the basis of all chemistry studied today, and is also the originator of many of the patterns which led to the great physical deductions.

Mendeleev’s feat unites both of the above forms of genius. His was both a grasp of the meaning of the question he asked- What patterns does chemical behavior follow?- and an incredible, graceful, intuitive leap over the abyss of unknowing that he faced.

Mendeleev had only the noted observations of chemical behavior- chemical properties, as they were then called- and a primitive understanding of atomic weights with which to work in order to formulate a table of coherent patterns.

His leap showed him that the pattern he saw included elements which he did not yet know- and where in the pattern those chemicals fit. Mendeleev saw that there must be elements with certain properties in certain places on the table- elements which were, as yet, undiscovered.

He predicted the existence of certain elements, and the chemical properties they would display, and placed them on the table. Accurately.

His ability comes perilously close to what I’ve previously defined as magic (“Words Are The Soul’s Ambassadors”, at right): The capacity of seeing the existent unknown, and quantifying it. Naming it.

Making it known. Making it real.

With a simple table.


And unequivocally, magnificently, triumphantly human.

You know- I take that second-to-last bit back.

Who needs magic?

*A statement that makes something comprehensible by describing the relevant structure or operation or circumstances (WordNet, Princeton University).

2/20/2006 at 00:58

Movie Line Awards

I need something lighthearted to do right now, so in response to the impending Oscars I’ve decided to distribute awards to some of my favorite movie lines/exchanges:

Winner in the “Best Pick-Up Line Response” Category:
“Hi. I’m Johnny- Johnny Dangerously.”
“D'you know your last name’s an adverb?”
-Michael Keaton and Marilu Henner as Johnny and Lil, in Johnny Dangerously

Winner in the “Worst Set-Up In History” Category:
“The young lady with the Uzi- is she single?”
-River Phoenix as Carl, in

Runner-Up in the “I Guess My Dreams Are Normal After All” Category:
“I had my dream again where I'm making love, and the Olympic judges are watching… I got a 9.8 from the Canadians, a perfect 10 from the Americans, and my mother, disguised as an East German judge, gave me a 5.6. Must have been the dismount.”
Billy Crystal as Harry, in
When Harry Met Sally

Winner in the “I Guess My Dreams Are Normal After All” Category:
“Something strange happened to me this morning.”
“Was it a dream where you see yourself in sort of sun-god robes, on a pyramid, with a thousand naked women screaming and throwing little pickles at you?”
“Why am I the only one that has that dream?”
-Val Kilmer and Gabriel Jarret as Chris and Mitch, in
Real Genius

Winner in the “Best Almost-Completely-Invisible Insult” Category:
“Because iocane comes from Australia, as everyone knows, and Australia is entirely peopled with criminals, and criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.”
“Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.”
“Thank you. -Where was I?”
- Wallace Shawn and Cary Elwes as Vizzini and The Man in Black, in
The Princess Bride

Winner in the “Ridiculously Perfect Wordplay” Category:
“Oh, the terrorists, they ran that way... it was a run-by fruiting."
-Robin Williams as Euphegenia, in
Mrs. Doubtfire

Winner in the “Best Extended Euphemism” Category:
“Your man Christian is a cake boy.”
“He's a disco dancin', Oscar Wilde readin', Streisand ticket holdin' friend of Dorothy, know what I'm sayin'?”
-Donald Faison and Alicia Silverstone as Murray and Cher, in

Winner in the “Best Archaic Insult” Category:
“Were her breath as terrible as her terminations, there were no living near her.”
-Kenneth Branagh as Benedick, in
Much Ado About Nothing

Winner in the “Best Line In The Entire Misbegotten Movie” Category:
“It’s me!”
“Prove it.”
“You’re a dick.”
-Hugh Jackman and James Marsden as Wolverine and Cyclops, in X-Men

Winner in the “Most Concise Case Summary” Category:
“It was oregano, Dave. It was a dime bag of oregano.”
“Yeah, well, your client thought it was marijuana.”
“My client's a moron. That's not against the law.”
-Tom Cruise and Matt Craven as Dan and Dave, in A Few Good Men

Winner in the “Best Warm Fuzzy Egalitarian Moment” Category:
“I'm rapidly becoming a big underground success in this town.”
“Gee, in another twenty-five years you'll be able to shake their hands in broad daylight.”
-Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder as Bart and Jim, in Blazing Saddles

Winner in the “Best Explanation Of Romance” Category:
“Annie, when you meet someone and you're attracted to them, it just means that your subconscious is attracted to their subconscious, subconsciously. So what we think of as chemistry is just two neuroses knowing that they’re a perfect match.”
-David Hyde-Pierce as Dennis, in
Sleepless in Seattle

Winner in the “Glass Is Half Empty And It’s Over An Open Flame” Category:
“You know, we're sitting on four million pounds of fuel, one nuclear weapon, and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder. Makes you feel good, doesn't it?”
-Steve Buscemi as Rockhound, in

Winner in the “Best First Line Of A Movie Ever” Category:
“Say, any o' you boys smithies? Or, if not smithies per se, were you otherwise trained in the metallurgic arts before straitened circumstances forced you to a life o' aimless wanderin'?”
-George Clooney as Everett, in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

2/14/2006 at 07:23

Happy Valentine's Day, Mr. Cheek

This is the only valentine I’ll be sending today- no cards, no hearts, no flowers. Valentine’s Day, for me, has been bad juju for long time.

But Joey Cheek, Olympic Gold Medalist in the 500-meter speedskating competition, has given me- and many, many others whose plight is desperate- something enormous today.

He has given his Olympic Gold Medal money to Right to Play, an organization founded by 3-time Olympic Gold Medalist speedskater Johann Olav Koss, to help the lives of children in depressed or disadvantaged parts of the world.

Yet more importantly, at the inevitable press conference on the day that is the crowning achievement of any athlete’s life, his comments about himself amounted to:
“I love what I do. But it’s honestly a pretty ridiculous thing. I mean, I skate around on ice in tights, right? So- but, because I’ve skated well, and because I now have a few seconds of microphone time, I have the ability to- to hopefully raise some awareness, and raise some money…”

This, after winning an Olympic Gold Medal. At what is- at the risk of belaboring the point let me repeat- the ultimate moment of any athlete’s life, after years of struggle and the kind of effort and discipline that most of us cannot even begin to imagine, he focused his fifteen minutes of fame on others- on people in desperate need, in an attempt to help them and to use his victory to persuade others to help them as well.

His conference focused on Darfur and the children exiled from the conflict to refugee camps in Chad, to whom he is directing his prize money. Stating that “on some level it is empowering to think of someone other than yourself”, he discussed the genocide in Darfur and his $25,000 donation- because he hopes that Olympic sponsors will match his donation. His plea- and the pressure of the world’s attention, because of this extraordinary man, to the actions of the corporate sponsors- has already begun to bring in donations: Nike has stated it will donate $30,000 in product to whatever program Joey Cheek wants.

Granted that I haven’t lived through all that many Olympic Games; granted that I have little experience with the behavior of athletes. Even so, Mr. Cheek did something extraordinary today, something I’ve never seen or heard of before.

Many, many other athletes have won Olympic Gold Medals and have gone on to help the unfortunate and those most in need. But I have never seen anyone take the attention of the world, focused on him because of an extraordinary and globally acknowledged achievement, and point it away from himself. I’ve never seen anyone say, Yes, this is my moment in the sun- but these people need the light more than I do. They need your help. Look at them, please. Help them, please.

Joey Cheek did that today.

It’s been months since I’ve been able to feel good about my country- a place I love passionately- and my countrymen, of whose warmth and kindness and humor and grit I’ve always been so proud. It’s been years since I’ve felt that the world has seen us like that- has seen ordinary, everyday Americans as we really are. It seems as though it’s all the worst parts that have been on display lately.

Mr. Cheek changed that. Seldom have I seen the cheerful compassion I cherish in my countrymen so effectively or self-effacingly displayed, and never have I seen it in a moment of such consummate personal triumph.

Joey Cheek made me feel proud to be an American today, for the first time in a long time.

And it wasn’t because he became an Olympic champion. It was because of what he has done with his medal, his fame, and his ideals.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Mr. Cheek. It’s not quite a hand-knitted scarf, but I hope it warms you a little.

It certainly has me. And for that, thank you.

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