Earlier this month we posted Bill Katz’s reflections on “The brightness of the president.” One response Bill received to the piece was from Frank J. Tipler, professor of mathematical physics at Tulane. Bill forwarded it to us, thinking it might be of interest to Power Line readers:
In his Power Line post William Katz wrote:
Barack Obama, we were assured, is “bright.”
Now, let me ask you a question: You’ve all read about the great men and women of history. Do you recall ever reading that a major historical figure was “bright”? Of course not. No one would even think of describing anyone of significance that way. The issue is not whether someone is ‘bright.’ The issue is whether that person is competent and wise.
And yet, brightness has become its own virtue. We’re impressed by candidates who appear “bright.” I think this reflects the fact that this is the age of the college graduate, the age where “brightness,” or the suggestion of intellect, is considered a fundamental requirement for even getting up in the morning. In order to be taken seriously, one must show the kind of mental agility popular with college admissions officers.
No one debated whether Lincoln was “bright,” or Washington, or Franklin Roosevelt. And yet, in modern times, some pundits anguished over whether Ronald Reagan was “bright enough” to be president. They’d learned nothing from Harry Truman, who’d never graced a college campus.
Let me add Albert Einstein to the list of great men who were not “bright,” but whose achievements were extraordinary, whose accomplishments changed the course of human history.
Although his grades in subjects he was interested in — e.g., physics — were very good, Einstein completely failed to impress his professors. They did not consider him “bright.” Einstein was not offered any academic or research job after he obtained his Ph.D., but instead had to go to work in the Swiss patent office.
Then, in 1905, while still a mere government clerk, Einstein wrote a series of papers, at least three of which were worthy of a Nobel Prize. One of these papers, on the photoelectric effect, did in fact win him his Nobel Prize. One of his professors, Hermann Minkowski, who was one of the teachers unimpressed by Einstein the student, is reported to have said, “How could such an idiot write such papers?”
A friend of mine was himself a friend of Hans Einstein, Albert’s son, who later became a professor of engineering at Berkeley. Hans Einstein, who never saw Albert Einstein as the “great genius” but rather as “dad,” told my friend that he did not think his father was particularly bright. He thought his father’s insights into physics were not due to a superhuman intellect, but were instead due to his willingness to think for himself, and ignore established opinions. It is clear that such an attitude would not endear him to his professors. I am reminded of the title of a book by a man who has been called “the best mind since Einstein”: What Do You Care What Other People Think?
Richard Feynman, this “best mind since Einstein,” was just following Einstein when saying in 1966: “Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
By Feynman’s high school days, the Intelligence Test had been introduced to determine just who was really “bright.” Feynman, alas, was not one of these. His I.Q. was a mere 125, according to James Gleick in his biography of Feynman, Genius, which, according to his I.Q., Feynman was not. When Feynman applied for admission to Princeton, the graduate admission committee almost rejected him because his score on the Graduate Record Examination was so low. The GRE placed him in the bottom 7 percent on the Fine Arts part of the exam. Ironically, Feynman later became an accomplished artist.
Reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, we learn that Feynman never thought of himself as a genius. He thought of himself as an ordinary guy whose achievements were due to his having a “different box of tools.” That is, on physics problems, Feynman used techniques — tools — that he had developed himself, rather than using the techniques that other physicists had been taught.
Which is another way of saying that Feynman thought for himself, and did not care to follow the herd.
Which was the personality trait that all the great leaders mentioned by Mr. Katz had in common.
Feynman once told another friend of mine that he was worried there would never again be any great physicists, because now every physics student worldwide is taught exactly the same approach to physics, and so has exactly the same box of tools.
Mr. Katz was echoing Feynman’s thought when he pointed out: “And yet, brightness has become its own virtue. We’re impressed by candidates who appear ‘bright.’ I think this reflects the fact that this is the age of the college graduate, the age where ‘brightness,’ or the suggestion of intellect, is considered a fundamental requirement for even getting up in the morning. In order to be taken seriously, one must show the kind of mental agility popular with college admissions officers.”
The scientific and political great men of the future, if we have any, will not be those who are popular with the college admissions officers of today.
Professor Tipler refers readers interested in more on Feynman to this page.