Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1430:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1430.

Today, I find genius puzzling. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I liked the movie Good Will Hunting. But when I talked about it with friends, many said they thought the central character, Will Hunting, was unbelievable. They said that no real person could be that smart. Actually there really are people like that. Still, I understand why he seemed implausible.

Will Hunting was a young man at war with his world. He worked as a janitor at MIT, where he viewed the professors and students around him with contempt. When a math professor posted seemingly impossible problems on a hallway blackboard, he solved them anonymously at night. He bullied the intellectual elite with his mind just as he bullied tough kids in Boston's Back Bay with his fists.

So what's the reality behind troubled young Will Hunting? The Academy-Award-winning script of the movie was co-written by actor Matt Damon, who played Will. The young man on the screen showed us genius as both actor and real person.

But was the fictional genius too far-fetched? Try the story of Evariste Galois. Born in 1811, he set down the foundations of mathematical group theory before he got himself killed at the age of twenty. Galois was a perfect real-life model for the fictional Will Hunting.

William James Sidis, born in 1898, could read at 18 months. He graduated from Harvard at sixteen and went off to Rice University as a math professor. He lasted eight months while students ridiculed him. Sidis spent most of his life collecting streetcar transfers, and he died at the age of 46.

Srinivas Ramanujan, born in India in 1887, was too poor for college. He taught himself mathematics. When he died (at 36) he left a body of math that mathematicians are still mining. The movie mentions Ramanujan in its own bid for plausibility.

I recently heard 27-year-old Evgeny Kissin play all the Chopin preludes. When Kissin was two, he'd come downstairs in his diapers and climb up on the piano bench to play Chopin. When he was thirteen, he stunned the world by playing what was deemed a definitive performance of the two Chopin concertos. I don't expect to hear piano playing like Kissin's again in my lifetime.

The list goes on: Like Ramanujan, Mozart died at 36. The troubled math prodigy Sonya Kovalevsky made it to 41. Since Ben Franklin lived to enjoy fame and respect as an old man, we tend not to include him with Mozart, Ramanujan, or Will Hunting. But he belongs there. Once every decade or so, one rises up among us -- then, as often as not, lives a troubled life and dies young.

Will Hunting was real enough. We need to know that because a little of Will Hunting lives in each of us. When we let that genius out of the box -- that genie out of the bottle -- we're in trouble. The world can only stand so much genius. When too much of it turns up in one place, it can burn a hole in the ground.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.