The Lone Genius Paradigm and Our Infatuation with Intellectual Heroes

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Image credit: Ágnes Mócsy/Young Kim

As a physicist musing about genius, I wonder whether I know any geniuses or whether the best physicists I know are just really, really smart. I cannot help but think about the romantic image associated with most scientific geniuses: brilliant minds stunningly producing transformative ideas in a magic moment of enlightenment.

Here come the well-worn examples of Isaac Newton with his revolutionary ideas about gravity that (supposedly) literally struck him when an apple dropped on him from a tree. Or Albert Einstein with his wild hair standing in front of a chalkboard covered in impossible-for-earthlings-to-understand equations pulled from his mind through pure thought experiments.

It’s not just age-old tales. We come across a similar image of genius in the 2014 film “The Theory of Everything,” where Stephen Hawking is portrayed as having a major revelation about black holes while secluded in his living room, peering at the coals in his fireplace. The image of genius that emerges, at least in science, is that of someone – specifically, a man – working in isolation to single-handedly conduct an intellectual revolution that can scarcely be understood by his peers. This picture of lone geniuses is not only inaccurate, but our affinity for viewing our intellectual history and its heroes through the lens of a lone-genius mythos is damaging both to science and to society.

Lone geniuses are not lone. Look closer and you’ll find that they work in a wide community of people who often lay the ground for a scientific breakthrough. By focusing praise on one individual in isolation, we often miss the much richer and more exciting story of how discoveries are made – stories that involve enigmas, partial solutions, near misses, epic failures, and active communities of people frantically working in collaboration or in competition to solve problems —> Read More

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