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Scientific Genius and the Contemporary Biography: James Gleick’s Genius and Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind – Juuso Aarnio

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 3, 2004

Literary Studies

© 2004 Juuso Aarnio





Juuso Aarnio



At the beginning of the 21st century, a fascinating dichotomy characterises the concept of genius. While the value of the word itself seems to have decreased through overuse in everyday language, it nevertheless continues to denote qualities that are highly esteemed in culture (Murray 5). Although theorists such as Roland Barthes1 and Paul de Man have attempted to demystify genius by showing how it is a historically contingent – and especially in de Man’s case, a politically motivated (see 273) – concept, it stubbornly continues to influence thinking in contemporary society – even to the extent of having become commodified, especially by those writing for audiences outside the academic world.2

It could be argued, as some critics do, that contemporary culture is obsessed by the phenomenon of genius. As Marjorie Garber’s “Our Genius Problem” suggests, it is conceivable that the obsession stems from the fact that, in Western societies, individual achievements are generally more valued than those of collectives. Although talented individuals rarely work in isolation, the representation of their achievements – the myth of genius – often tends to obscure the role of their collaborators, as in the stories of the discovery of DNA (Watson and Crick) and the electric lamp (Edison). Moreover, the achievement may sometimes not even be directly related to the individual: in the case of Einstein and theory of relativity, for instance, the scientist and the equation E=mc2 became inextricably intertwined with the atom bomb in the post-war public imagination, even though the development leading to the weapon itself had begun before Einstein’s theory gained widespread acceptance and was mainly conducted by other physicists (see Friedman and Donley 154-6).

In this paper, I examine the representation of scientific genius in contemporary biographies. I argue that, to a considerable extent, portrayals of highly talented scientists are influenced by the notion of the Romantic genius. My chosen material consists of James Gleick’s3, Genius: Richard Feynman and modern physics (1992), a biography of the famous U.S. physicist, and Sylvia Nasar’s4 A Beautiful Mind (1998), a biography of the Nobel-winning mathematician John Nash. Below, I discuss how the two biographers incorporate elements of Romanticism in the lives of their subjects. While Gleick employs stereotypical descriptions of the Romantic genius5, he also aims present a demythologised6 portrait of Feynman that questions their validity; Nasar, on the other hand, seems to subscribe less critically to such descriptions: her portrayal of Nash echoes the myth of geniuses as tragic heroes who must eventually overcome their alienation.

It is, of course, important to recognise the importance of the form of writing that is being dealt with here. Although concerned with narrating the facts of a particular life as they emerge from the biographer’s source material, biographies tend to mythologize their subjects as much as they demythologise them. The personality-oriented biographical form, as Ira Bruce Nadel states, constitutes “a demythologizing form” (176) in its insistence on providing an accurate story of the subject’s life. This attempt, however, is bound to be an ironic one in the end: even though biographers may succeed in dispelling particular myths, they may consciously or unconsciously replace them with others. The foregrounding of certain central events, characterisation, linguistic and stylistic choices and the general narrative structure create an ordered whole of a mass of facts, “the biographical ur-slime” (Schlaeger 58), out of which new myths arise (Nadel 178-9). Following from the fact that the myths are produced by the hermeneutic activity of the biographer, then, “[t]here is no meaningful talk about a ‘life’ beyond interpretation” (Schlaeger 58). Consequently, projects of demythologisation employing the genre of biography are problematical in the following sense: because of its backward looking, conventional form and its insistence on the celebration of the individual, biography embodies qualities that place it in opposition to, for instance, deconstructive practices (see Schlaeger 59, 63) that have carried out projects of demythologisation such as that of de Man’s in academic literature.7

Notwithstanding the conventional form of biography, however, the literary techniques listed above make it possible for biographers to impose their own interpretation on the known facts of the subject’s life. This can be demonstrated by examining Gleick’s prologue in Genius. It is here that Gleick defines the distance between his own position as a biographer and the biographical subject: the use of hyperbolic language and a certain type of characterisation suggest that he chooses to view the physicist from afar, hence giving readers an impression of a heroic presence. The prologue is structured around a lecture given by Feynman to his wartime colleagues, who are described as “the whole priesthood of modern physics” (Gleick, Genius 5), in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania in 1948. The short sentences at the beginning of the scene create a sense of mystery, while anticipating the occurrence of a profound moment: “Night fell and Feynman spoke. Chairs shifted. The priesthood had trouble following this brash young man” (Gleick, Genius 5). Through the biographer’s admiring gaze, several qualities of the Romantic genius are linked to the young Feynman:8

Feynman – mystifyingly brilliant at calculating, strangely ignorant of the literature, passionate about physics, reckless about proof – had for once overestimated his ability to charm and persuade these great physicists. Yet in truth he had now found what had eluded all of his elders, a way to carry physics forward into a new era. He had created a private new science that brought past and future together in a starkly majestic tapestry … Twentieth century physics had reached an edge. (Gleick, Genius 7)

Bordering on hyperbolical, the passage shows how certain qualities attributed to the individual scientist are linked to a disjunctive moment in the history of science. It links the various qualities attributed to Romantic geniuses – the originality of vision, a passion bordering on obsession and an intuitive rather than strictly rational kind of knowing – to scientific revolution, hence suggesting that individuals possessing them are the ones that initiate conceptual breakthroughs.

Gleick returns to the Pocono meeting in a later chapter, thus introducing an element of circularity into the narrative. In this way, the event turns into a biographical key moment with certain mythical implications. Armed with his “patchwork of guesses and intuition” (Genius 258), Feynman not only literally but also symbolically faces his predecessors, of whose work he is, to a large extent, ignorant:

Not even at Princeton, when he lectured to Einstein and Pauli, had Feynman stood before such a concentration of the great minds of his science. He had created a new quantum mechanics almost without reading the old.… (Genius 257)

Eventually, Feynman fails to convince the older physicists, because he is unable to justify the mathematical principles behind his ideas (Gleick 257). Hence, again, Gleick’s description of the meeting foregrounds the opposition between learning and intuitive knowledge: Feynman’s private science is contrasted with the opinion of the majority – it is only his inability to properly communicate his vision that prevents its acceptance.9

This question is also implicit in descriptions in Gleick’s earlier work. In Chaos: Making a New Science (1987), Gleick’s seminal work on the history of chaos theory, the settings in which scientists are represented can be read to have a symbolical dimension. As N. Katherine Hayles notes, they function as means of attaching a sense of “ambiance” to the work of scientists (172). For instance, Gleick’s discussion on the universality of chaotic phenomena begins with a description of Mitchell Feigenbaum observing natural phenomena:

A few dozen yards upstream from a waterfall, a smooth flowing stream seems to intuit the coming drop. The water begins to speed and shudder. Individual rivulets stand out like coarse, throbbing veins. Mitchell Feigenbaum stands at a streamside. He is sweating slightly in sports coat and corduroys and puffing on a cigarette. He has been walking with friends, but they have gone ahead to the quieter pools upstream. (Chaos 157)

In this passage, then, Feigenbaum appears as a solitary scientist who sees something that his colleagues have failed to notice. It is almost as if he has deliberately turned away from his company in order to observe nature, which is metonymically present through the image of the waterfall. The violent motion of the water suggests a familiar conceptual context for chaotic phenomena under observation: at the beginning of the research into chaos, it is exactly this kind of complex phenomena that mainstream science – as symbolised by Feigenbaum’s companions – has ignored. Similarly, in the description of the Pocono meeting in Genius, the individual scientist is contrasted with a larger group. With his intuitive ideas about path integrals and the movement of positrons, Feynman recognises the importance of details that others have chosen to regard unimportant. Hence, descriptions such as those given of the Pocono meeting and Feigenbaum’s encounter with nature serve to establish the dichotomy between the one – genius – and the many – the scientific community – as a major theme in Gleick’s work.

Besides identifying crucial events in Feynman’s life such as the Pocono meeting, Gleick foregrounds the originality of his subject’s vision through characterisation. The description of the young physicist’s appearance and voice separate him from his European colleagues, thus further emphasising his status as an outsider in the physics community: “The ideas were unfamiliar, and his slightly reckless style irritated some of the Europeans. His vowels were a raucous urban growl. His consonants slurred in a way that struck them as lower-class” (Gleick, Genius 6). It is notable that such characterisation is not exclusive to Genius; it occurs in the descriptions of visionary outsiders in Chaos as well. For instance, Gleick describes the chaos theorist Mitchell Feigenbaum’s appearance in the following way: “His hair was a ragged mane, sweeping back from his wide brow in the style of the busts of German composers. His eyes were sudden and passionate” (2). In Genius, a similar image suggestive of Beethoven imposes the features of the well-known Romantic composer on Feynman’s physical characteristics:
His hair, swept back in dramatic grey waves, had receded high atop his head, leaving a statue’s high brow above a pair of heavy eyebrows that curled more impishly than ever. His pale blue shirt was open at the collar. A pen and eyeglass case rested in his front pocket, as always. (369)

As Daniel Cordle observes, the link between Romanticism and the description of Feigenbaum’s appearance serves not only to present the scientist as an individual revolutionary but also to transfer these qualities on his science as well (82): because of their unique vision, only revolutionary individuals are able to make revolutionary science.10

In addition to the techniques available to biographers discussed above – the foregrounding of certain events, distancing and characterisation – images suggesting transgression enhance the innovative nature of Feynman physics. On this level of such popularised Romanticism, science is regarded as a highly individual affair. If Chaos stresses the inherent difficulties in the linguistic description of advanced scientific concepts, Genius also repeatedly emphasises Feynman’s “private physics”, whose principles “he could barely communicate, let alone prove…” (251). In order to communicate these views to the reader, Gleick employs images that suggest originality and the choosing of one’s own path. The portrait of Feynman as an original mind is already anticipated in the imagery of the first chapter, “Far Rockaway”, which describes the physicist’s childhood. To a certain extent, the building blocks of Feynman’s later role as a freethinker in physics are partly traced back to the socio-historical conditions of his childhood environment. Although not concerned with a psychoanalysis of the young Feynman, Gleick’s portrayal of Far Rockaway foregrounds a sense of self-sufficient existence, self-determination and creativity:

On foot or on their bicycles, Far Rockaway’s children had free run of a self-contained world: ivy-covered houses, fields, and vacant lots. No one yet has isolated the circumstances that help a child grow whole and independent, but they were present. At some point in a town’s evolution, houses and fences grow dense enough to form a connected barrier. When that critical point is reached, movement is mostly restricted to public streets. In Far Rockaway boys and girls still percolated through the neighborhood and established their own paths through backyards and empty lots behind the houses and streets. They were autonomous and enterprising in play, roaming far from their parents’ immediate oversight, riding their bicycles without accounting for their whereabouts. (Genius 20)

Not only does this passage function as a description of the physical settings of Feynman’s childhood, but it also contains symbolism to which the reader begins to attach importance as the narrative unfolds further. The metaphor of the scientist as a child, for instance, (Gleick, Genius 19) – an individual acting on the basis of natural curiosity and doing (see Gleick, Genius 284) rather than previous learning – not only helps to sketch an individual concerned more with inventive experimentation rather than the extent of his reading, but also links Feynman to the ideal of unschooled genius in the Romantic tradition. Like children who tread their own paths instead of those taken by others, unschooled geniuses owe their intellectual freedom to the deliberate ignorance of the thinking of their predecessors.

Other passages evoke the metaphor of the scientist as an artist or a magician whose novel inventions seem to have little to do with the traditional scientific methods of solving problems. Gleick describes the writing process of Feynman’s doctoral thesis as follows:

When he was done, the first part of the thesis looked deceptively old-fashioned. It worked out some nearly textbook equations for the description of mechanical systems, such as springs, coupled together by means of another oscillator. Then this intermediate oscillator disappeared. A stroke of mathematical ingenuity eliminated it. A shorthand calculation appeared, very much like the classical Lagrangian. Soon the ground shifted, and the subject was quantum mechanics. The classical machinery of the first part turned into something quite modern. Where there had been two mechanical systems coupled by an oscillator, now there were two particles interacting through the medium of an oscillating field. The field, too, was now eliminated. A new quantum electrodynamics arose from a blank slate. (Genius 147)

Note how certain expressions in this passage link the scientist both to a magician11 and an artist. While a “stroke” metonymically refers to the physical movements of the latter’s hand, the sudden disappearance and appearance of elements characterise the workings of the former. Not only, then, does the passage mark another turning point in the history of quantum physics in Genius, with Feynman turning his back on the work of his colleagues by “leav[ing] his collaboration with Wheeler decisively behind” (Gleick, Genius 147). It also links the model of discontinuous history of science to the Romantic notion of innate genius whose vision – like that of a child-like scientist – is not obscured by too much theoretical excess baggage. Consequently, such descriptions transport the artistic genius into the realm of science.12 Like a unique artistic masterwork, Feynman’s vision of quantum electrodynamics appears to be more a result of inspired and spontaneous creativity than a logical conclusion of careful rational analysis built on the work of earlier theorists.

Eventually, however, Gleick’s book proceeds to the demythologisation of its biographical subject and thus begins to question some of the assumptions indicated in the passages quoted above. By discussing the concept of genius in contemporary culture, it establishes a meta-level to its own use of the word that Nasar’s treatment of Nash lacks. While Gleick evokes the metaphors of the scientist as a magician or an artist whose creations seemingly emerge ex nihilo, he goes behind the admiring views of Feynman’s colleagues by looking at the scientific activity of genius through the physicist himself:

So many of his witnesses observed the utter freedom of his flights of thought, yet when Feynman talked about his own methods he emphasized not freedom but constraints. The kind of imagination that takes blank paper, blank staves, or a blank canvas and fills it with something wholly new, wholly free – that, Feynman contended, was not the scientist’s imagination. (Genius 324)

It is through such passages, then, that Gleick’s biography demythologises its subject. Physical reality sets constraints to the work of scientists, just as genre-specific rules restrict what can be done in art – in this sense, science and art are similar endeavours. Gleick seems to suggest that as a scientific genius, Feynman can be portrayed as what Gillian Beer calls a “system breaker” (152) – in other words, the transgressive, heroic Romantic genius. At the same time, however, it must be recognised that his genius is also that of a “system maker” (Beer 152) whose task is to organise a body of knowledge for the benefit of others – the latter part of Feynman’s career is spent in an attempt to produce a unified vision of physics (see Gleick 329). The recognition of this fact, I think, is what Gleick ultimately seeks to accomplish on the level of demythologisation.

A Beautiful Mind: Genius as Tragic Hero

Like that of Genius, the prologue of A Beautiful Mind focuses on certain events that the biographer sees as epitomising the life of the subject. Nasar recounts an anecdote concerning a meeting between Nash and George Mackey, a Harvard professor who had come to visit the mathematician in a mental institution in 1959 (see 11). It links Nash’s mathematical insights to his schizophrenic condition, thus introducing a familiar theme in the mythology of genius: the close relationship between mental brilliance and madness. Through anecdotal material foregrounding Nash’s otherness and eccentricity and quotations from medical authorities, Nasar offers readers a portrait of a fundamentally tragic character whose genius is inextricably linked to suffering. Note how she employs a similar kind of laudatory tone that characterises the prologue of Gleick’s work. Summarising the personality of her subject, Nasar tells readers how

No one was more obsessed with originality, more disdainful of authority, or more jealous of his independence.… Nash acquired his knowledge of mathematics not mainly from studying what other mathematicians had discovered, but by rediscovering their truths for himself. (12)

Hence, while Nasar portrays the inside of the mind of Nash the human being through anecdotal material and references to medical literature, she simultaneously puts Nash the mathematician on a pedestal through her strongly laudatory, assertive language. In terms of the notion of Romantic geniuses, her choice of words points to the dichotomy between the one and the many that characterises their existence: only individual geniuses have the access to the realm of the transcendental from which their novel ideas seem to emerge.13 The contrast between these biographical angles – the tragic human and the heroic scientific genius – prepares his later portrayal as a tragic hero who eventually triumphs in the end.

In addition to establishing Nash’s status as a tragic hero in the prologue, Nasar lets her subject emerge through her selection of intertexts that further foreground certain elements characteristic of the Romantic notion of genius. The intertextual elements are employed as paratexts at the beginning of each chapter; the quotations from eminent poets, philosophers and historians such as Wordsworth, Wittgenstein and Edward Gibbon can be read to reflect a certain type of ideology of genius. They epitomise an essentially Romantic conception of genius by linking solitude and innovation together: Wordsworth’s “self-sufficing power of solitude” (qtd. in Nasar 25) is directly linked to genius in Gibbon’s “solitude [as] the school of genius” (qtd. in Nasar 58) which, in its turn, links solitude to unschooled creativity in Wittgenstein’s “It is good that I did not let myself to be influenced” (qtd. in Nasar 66). In the Romantic ideology of genius, to which Nasar quite wholeheartedly seems to subscribe, solitude is regarded as a necessary condition for innovation. Paradoxically, alienation, on the other hand, which guarantees subjects their solitude, is a condition that the Romantic geniuses must eventually overcome to reach unity within themselves and the world (Currie 28-30). As I propose below, schizophrenia, a condition of where the unity of the individual’s psyche becomes seriously divided, can be read as symbolising this condition.

Although Nasar does not explicitly make the comparison between the scientist and a child as Gleick does, her description of Nash’s method of arriving at mathematical solutions nevertheless invokes the notion of the unschooled genius. For Nasar, Nash’s mathematical genius is not so much associated with traditional processes of problem solving practiced by the mathematical community at large as it is with intuitive processes unique to certain individuals only. Rather than approaching problems step by step, Nash seems to arrive at solutions through intuition rather than careful logical analysis (Nasar 12). Like Feynman, Nash deliberately turns away from the thinking of his colleagues, preferring intuitive seeing to learning from books (see Nasar 12, 15, 68). Commenting on Nash’s first paper on economics, “The Bargaining Problem”, Nasar’s view on Nash’s genius echoes the admiring tone of the mathematician’s colleagues:

The striking feature of Nash’s paper is not its difficulty, or its depth, or even its elegance and generality, but rather that it provides an answer to an important problem. Reading Nash’s paper today, one is struck most by its originality. The ideas seem to come out of the blue.… Nash arrived at his essential idea … before he had read von Neumann and Morgenstern’s book. (90)

As demonstrated by such passages, Nasar does not distance herself from the views expressed in her source material, but rather chooses to align her interpretative angle as a biographer with them. For instance, in the mathematician Mikhail Gromov’s description, Nash’s ability for intuitive, instantaneous seeing sets him apart from his colleagues: “Many of us have the power to develop existing ideas. We follow paths prepared by others. Most of us could never produce anything comparable to what Nash produced. It’s like lightning striking” (qtd. in Nasar 158). Other quotations go even further in asserting Nash’s status as an innate genius: Nasar quotes the mathematician Donald Spencer’s claim that “[p]eople didn’t give Nash [mathematical] problems. He was highly original. Nobody else could have thought of this problem” (qtd. in Nasar 130; emphasis original). Hence, again we encounter the dichotomy between the one and the many that so forcefully characterises the Romantic notion of genius: rather than suggesting that Nash is merely more talented than others, Nasar seems to say that there is a fundamental difference between Nash and other mathematicians that is not accountable by nurture alone.

Perhaps indicating how influential such a notion is in the contemporary culture, these descriptions – consciously or not – manage to capture its essence: through their exceptional intuitive abilities, truly creative individuals are not subject to the same laborious step by step processes to reach solutions to problems. Hence, the notion of the Romantic genius suggests that there exists a definite qualitative difference between geniuses and the rest of the society that cannot be overcome by traditional methods of learning. On the other hand, Spencer’s highly laudatory comments on Nash’s creative capabilities blur the boundaries between the scientific and the artistic genius by attributing to scientific discoveries an important property of artistic masterworks: that they could have been brought about only by such individuals as Nash. Hence, if we were to accept Spencer’s claim, we could easily argue that the eventual shape of Nash’s solutions to the problems of game theory is in some sense a reflection of his unique mind. If this is true, then geniuses are truly indispensable to the notion of scientific progress: instead of presenting impersonal, more or less probable occurrences, scientific discoveries in this view become very much singular happenings in which the person and the achievement cannot exist without each other.

In addition to the dichotomy between the one and the many, Nash’s characterisation in A Beautiful Mind and that of the Romantic genius intersect each other also through another fundamental theme: the link between genius and mental illness. “A predisposition to schizophrenia”, Nasar writes, “was probably integral to Nash’s exotic style of thought as a mathematician, but the full-blown disease devastated his ability to do creative work (Nasar 19), thus to a certain extent making Nash’s illness the cause of his genius. Whether this claim is justified or not, I again want to point out how closely it parallels the links between alienation, creativity and suffering in the notion of the Romantic genius. If we accept the claim, we can – with a hint of irony – argue that Nash’s genius is truly innate, as contemporary medical research sees schizophrenia as a product of genetic14 factors. Nash’s descent into a mental illness appears to parallel the idea in the mythology of the Romantic genius that asserts the inability of geniuses to utilise their talents for free, because they are eventually forced to recompense for them through personal suffering (see Murray 6; Currie 83).

With the description of his schizophrenia, Nash’s character changes from that of an eccentric hero to that of a victim. While he has previously chosen to alienate himself from others, alienation is now imposed on him by his illness. At this point, then, Nasar’s biography offers another major irony in its subject’s life: Nash, who has desperately fought against the danger of outside control – of becoming “part of someone else’s larger design” (Nasar 124) – now succumbs to danger from within. The resulting division of his former self from the new one(s) is characteristic of those Romantic heroes who are reduced to mere cogs in a vast machinery operated by hostile outside forces (Currie 32): the schizophrenic Nash feels himself to be the target of various organisations and tries to decipher their intents through esoteric means such as numerology.

My reading of Nash as a victim is supported by the comparison Nasar makes with her subject and the character Joseph K in Kafka’s The Trial (1925). Feeling persecuted by vaguely hostile outside forces for non-existent crimes, both suffer from a deep sense of alienation and guilt (Nasar 327). Critics such as Robert Currie argue that the view of genius as victim of circumstances does not appear in Romanticism but rather emerges with modernist writers such as Kafka (12, 170). Seen from this viewpoint, characters such as Georg Bendemann, Gregor Samsa and Joseph K are indicative of the downfall of the Romantic genius: with their mediocre talents, they lack the powers possessed by their heroic counterparts (Currie 165-6). Hence, they are unable to break free from alienation that for them is synonymous with suffering; they nevertheless represent genius by the virtue of being alienated, by being the one among the many (Currie 168-170). By identifying Nash with K, then, Nasar briefly introduces elements of the modernist conception of genius into her narrative; unlike Kafka’s characters that escape alienation only through dying, however, her subject manages to overcome his alienation in the end.

Hence, the identification of Nash with Joseph K is only partial – Nash’s eventual triumph reaffirms his status as a Romantic genius. As bizarre as Nash’s methods of coping with his illness may sound, they nevertheless have something in common with the attempts of Romantic geniuses to overcome division and chaos. The chaos threatening Romantic geniuses is often outside in the society (Currie 30); this is also how Nash feels, although the feeling is a result of the projection of his inner division on the world outside. Whereas Romantic geniuses seek help in the realm of the transcendent (Currie 45-6), Nash turns to the realm on which his genius manifests itself: mathematics. For Nasar, Nash’s esoteric pursuits in the world of numbers constitute a “desperate [attempt] to make sense out of chaos” (334), which also characterises the attempts of Romantic geniuses to “[bring] about another and perfect order” (Currie 45). By making random phenomena meaningful through esoteric mathematics, Nash is able to communicate the reality of his inner experience to others, thus both re-establishing a link to the world and taking the crucial steps towards overcoming his alienation.

In this article, I have briefly discussed the employment of the concept of genius in two recent biographies on notable scientists. I examined some techniques available to biographers for creating an interpretation of a life: the foregrounding of key events, the use of certain kind of vocabulary, distancing, characterisation, various tropes, quotation and analogies to fictional characters were the primary means used to achieve a particular biographical angle in the two biographies. I argued that both works model their biographical subjects on the template of the Romantic genius, a visionary outsider who deliberately turns away from the thinking of the majority. While Gleick’s Feynman emerges as a highly original scientist, his genius ultimately lies not in visionary flashes of intuition, but rather in his ability to see the physics as a unified whole. Nasar’s Nash can be seen as a tragic Romantic hero who undergoes extensive suffering as a compensation for his talent. Although generalisations should not be attempted on the basis of primary material with such a limited scope, the two biographies may be thought indicative of a widespread valorisation of the individual – and the tendency to link genius to the person rather than to treat it as an attribute of certain traits in individuals – in our contemporary perception of the world of science.


1. See Roland Barthes, “The Brain of Einstein,” trans. Annette Lavers, Mythologies (Frogmore: Paladin, 1973) 68-70. Back to text

2. In addition to the works discussed in this article, consider, for instance, Dennis Overbye’s biography Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance (2000), which focuses on Einstein’s relations with the opposite sex, and fictional works such as the films Amadeus (1984), Good Will Hunting (1997), with its non-confirming protagonist as a mathematical genius and Shakespeare in Love (1998), which speculates on the importance of love for the playwright’s creativity. Back to text

3. Gleick’s rise to one of the best-selling science writers was initiated with the publication of his first work, Chaos: Making a New Science (1987), which presents a popularised account of the history of chaos theory. In addition to the works discussed in this article, he has also written about the concept of time in contemporary society in Faster: The Acceleration of Just about Everything (1999). Back to text
4. Nasar’s work won the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. Three years later, it was made into a successful film with Russell Crowe as John Nash. Back to text

5. By no means I am suggesting that the characterisation of Feynman is entirely Gleick’s own. Often, passages in the biography utilise earlier material in which he seen from a certain perspective – the distinction between Gleick’s own voice and that of the other commentators is hence sometimes hard to make unless the reader follows the notes accompanying the body text at the end of the book. Nevertheless, what matters here is that Gleick has consciously selected this particular material to construct his protagonist. Back to text

6. “A modern music theorist might, in his secret heart, carry an undeconstructed torch for Mozart, might feel the old damnably ineffable rapture; still he understands that genius is a relic of outmoded romanticism” (Gleick, Genius 323; emphasis original). Back to text

7. Such attempts, however, are not exempt from all recent biographies. As Malcolm Andrews argues, Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Charles Dickens, Dickens (1990), aligns itself with “a post-structuralist reassessment of the genre of biography” (180) in three ways: first, it mixes biographical facts with biographical fiction, thus drawing attention to the question of authenticity in the creation of historical portraits; secondly, by remaining self-reflexive of its own status as a historically contingent construct; and thirdly, by widening the array of the traditional methodology of historical scholarship through fictive devices (see Andrews 180). Back to text

8. The passage appears to be a composite of the views expressed by scientists such as Hans Bethe, Robert Marshak, Abraham Pais, Julian Schwinger, Victor Weisskopf and John Archibald Wheeler in addition to other sources (see Gleick, Genius 446). Read in conjunction with Gleick’s own views on intellectual revolutions and the individuals initiating them (see Chaos 37), the foregrounding of these particular features in the scientists’ interviews suggests a degree of conscious intention on the biographer’s part, rather than merely a repetition of the rhetoric of these scientists. Back to text

9. This, obviously, is one of the fundamentals problems facing the Romantic genius: How to cross the border between the private knowledge of the one and the public understanding of the many? (see Currie 15). Back to text

10. Indeed, in Chaos Gleick explicates that the notion of private science is more than a historian’s fancy: “A few freethinkers working alone, unable to explain where they are heading, afraid to tell their colleagues what they are doing – that romantic image lies at the heart of Kuhn’s scheme, and it has occurred in real life, time and time again, in the exploration of chaos” (37). As, however, David Porush correctly observes in his discussion on Gleick’s role in the popularisation of chaos theory, labelling Gleick as a Kuhnian science writer is problematic: it may be that the scientists interviewed for Chaos either consciously considered their own work in the Kuhnian framework or were unconsciously influenced by its statements through the general scientific culture (167). On the basis of my own reading of Genius, Gleick certainly is not averse to presenting important scientists as revolutionary individuals with certain Romantic qualities attached to them. Back to text

11. In this context, it should be observed that the magician, in turn, is linked to the idea of innate genius. Anticipating the emphasis given to originality by Romantic theorists, Edward Young in his Conjectures on Original Composition In a Letter to the Author of Sir Charles Grandison (1759) links genius to the magician, whose creations are brought about through invisible, inspired means (see Bate 89). Back to text

12. As Christopher Norris remarks, for Kant genius belongs foremost to art rather than to science because of the incommensurability between aesthetic and theoretical understanding. “[I]n art there is no question of intellectual progress, of collective advance through a shared application of the truths discovered by previous thinkers” (153; emphasis original). Back to text

13. The culmination of the anecdote about the meeting between Nash and Mackey seems – although humorously – to suggest the view that the ideas of genius originate on a realm outside the subject: “the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did” (qtd. in Nasar 11). Back to text

14. See, for instance, Michael R. Trimble, Biological Psychiatry (Indianapolis: Wiley, 1996) and Irving I. Gottesmann, Schizophrenia Genesis: The Origins of Madness (New York: Holt, 1990). Back to text


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