This week’s post takes material from reviews of a book, specifically “The Limits of Genius: the Surprising Stupidity of the World’s Greatest Minds” by Katie Spalding. This was highlighted by Physics World, and no, I haven’t read the book, not the least because it is not available until May 25. So you can take this as a recommendation, or with a grain of salt, however you please. The information is second hand (and for you, third hand!): it starts with Katie Spalding and she had sources of whatever accuracy, then the reviewer had to interpret it correctly, and of course I have to interpret the reviewer’s comments. So beware. Getting the book might help because apparently the sources are well referenced. Anyway, here are some examples, plus some extra comments from me.
Mathematics is supposed to be the most logical of studies. Ada Lovelace was a mathematical prodigy and wrote the first computer program, in 1840. She was also addicted to gambling. Now you would think a brilliant mathematician would know how to win, or would know to avoid what was always loaded against her. But Lovelace apparently lost the family jewels, and when her mother-in-law bought them back, she lost them again. One could argue the mother-in-law was a little deficient in common sense; giving money to a compulsive gambler is not a sensible act.
Of course, losing is not always a sign of stupidity or incompetence in a mathematician. There is the story of John von Neumann, who was an extremely brilliant mathematician and who, with Oskar Morgenstern, founded game theory, an important mathematical approach to economics and decision-making. Apparently his students kept pestering him with challenges to play poker, and von Neumann kept refusing, until eventually he gave in. He played, and within 30 minutes he had lost all the money on him, and he left the game. Some of the students were somewhat derisive of his ability until one pointed out, “He really did not want to play poker with us.” He lost the money to stop the pestering.
René Descartes gets a mention for going to Amsterdam in his youth to smoke weed and get away from his father. Whether you call that stupid is up to you; sometimes in some families relationships are unbearable. However, and I don’t quite get this one, he is accused of becoming a fanatical supporter of a weird religious sect that did not actually exist. If there were a number of people sucking him in, surely it existed. Existence for a sect has a fairly low bar; all you need is a few people to call themselves whatever, and it exists.
Tycho Brahe was an incredibly clever astronomer, and despite having no telescope, eventually constructed the first “modern” star chart and catalogued a thousand stars. He was an assiduous worker, but apparently was also very argumentative. In his younger days he kept getting drunk, and sometimes ended up in duels. In one such duel he had his nose cut off at the bridge. Not exactly clever.
Whether this is stupid is a matter of opinion. James Glaisher nearly killed himself by taking multiple hot air balloon flight so high that he passed out. Nevertheless he recorded enough data that he could figure out details of the Earth’s atmosphere that revolutionized the nascent field of meteorology. Einstein enters as being stupid for loving sailing and not being able to swim. I could be accused similarly. For 25 years I spent my spring holiday (I am self-employed) catching whitebait (a local delicacy) on a small island. At the end I would have to paddle back across the tidal flow in a small boat with waders on. Swimming was not an option. But then again, sometimes you back yourself to do the obvious safely.
Some of what we would call “stupid” were really due to ignorance. Thus Marie Curie carried around radioactive materials in her pockets, which led to horrible skin lesions and her early death. Sigmund Freud used and prescribed liberal amounts of cocaine, but at that time the addictive nature of cocaine was not recognized. These are more ignorant than stupid.
Some lesser accusations were also made. Thus Lord Byron once took a bear to University. Stupid, but a show-off. Tesla is accused of “falling in love with a pigeon”. Here, “falling in love” is somewhat ambiguous. Thus I could be accused of loving Horatio, my pet cat, but hardly in the sense of a woman. Da Vinci is accused of being stupid for ruining a career through procrastination. Now, don’t you know someone who never gets things done on time? Certainly that is a character flaw, but hardly a sign of stupidity. Perhaps the most interesting accusation is against Thomas Edison, who was accused of trying to construct a phone to talk with ghosts. He failed, but is it really stupid to try something that nobody thinks will work. If it does, you will do remarkably well, and when it did not, Edison was at least honest.
So, to summarise, we have what appears to be an interesting book. If you want to know more, you know what to do. (Disclaimer: I have absolutely no financial interest in this publication.)