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).

Anonymous nelavellaku said...

beautifully expressed!  


Anonymous Calladus said...

I’d like to submit the bane of electrical engineers everywhere – Scottish Mathematician James Clerk Maxwell. His work extended and connected the works of Carl Gauss, André-Marie Ampère, and Michael Faraday, scientists who had created equations that messily described what had been thought of as two separate phenomenon: electricity and magnetism.

Maxwell’s elegant equations connected the two into electromagnetism, and in so doing also quantitatively showed that light was electromagnetic in nature. Future theoretical physicists such as Einstein, Hawkings, and Brian Green owe everything they’ve accomplished to Maxwell. Inventors such as Guglielmo Marconi and Philo Farnsworth could not have invented radio or television without Maxwell’s work.

Every time you adjust an antenna, turn on a computer monitor, or run anything with an electric motor, you are paying tribute to Maxwell.  


Blogger Scientiae said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.  


Blogger Scientiae said...

You're absolutely right; Maxwell belongs on this list.

He was a genius both as a mathematician and as a physicist, and Maxwell's insight and innovation in both areas is the main body of work which led directly to our enormous increase in understanding the nature and mechanics of EM radiation in both the form of particles- which made possible the development of quantum theory- and the form of waves, which has enabled our current understanding of the structure and extent of the universe.  


Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs2.5 License.