I collected photos of the gadgets he built to play games (now in the MIT Museum) and put them on this list in boargamegeek.
That said, I always felt for the chap, as socially inept didn't begin to cover it (as someone who graduated school two years early I can say with surety that it wasn't solely the temporal displacement that fettered his sociality - it was definitely a factor for us all, but he couldn't/wouldn't communicate even with other maths geeks), and I could only see him pursuing a career in academia - which he is.
I also felt for him as as a mathematically brilliant Shannon expectations couldn't have been higher - I was going to cap this off by saying I'm sure he'll do great things, but instead, I'll say I hope he has a happy life.
I had the advantage of having always been tall for my age, so mostly hid the fact that I was young - Alex, however, was a fairly small chap and I think suffered for it.
Fond memories of celebrating my 18th at university, and the college bar being like "lol what, we've been serving you for a year".
Rather than having a number of classes for each year, they operated a set system for each subject, so if you were great at maths and sucked at Latin, you could be in the top set for maths and bottom set for Latin.
It seems obvious that people who are very famous in their field became "very intelligent" because of a combination of hard work and genetics. But it's as if these books capitalize on the faint hope of being a repressed genius of some sort. I highly doubt Einstein or Shannon (as the article implies) ever saw themselves as more than passionate. And the ego required to want to find your inner genius goes contrary to the enormous humility they seemed to display.
That aside, these books and articles all make the same mistake of studying a single person after the fact. It's similar to mimicking Steve Jobs: That's not how he became Steve Jobs. We literally cannot know how much luck was involved in his (or Einstein's) success. Might as well study the lives of lottery winners.
So if not that, how can we maximize our potential and generally better ourselves intellectually? Simply by referring to the very vast fields of learning, motivation and general cognitive science.
But "learn the science" doesn't have quite the same ring to it as "how to be Einstein", now does it?
I find no value in the hero worship myself. I find the notion of getting all excited because (name of person) said something kind of offensive.
Hard work and genetics aren't nearly enough. Saying "luck" doesn't even describe it either.
We often ignore the social element - the people that helped along the way, the parents that supported them dropping out of college, the professor or teacher that took a particular interest in them. When we do talk about it, it seems the usual message is "they were kind of an asshole"(e.g. Jobs).
We ignore the emotional element even more. I don't mean "they failed 3 times but their 4th startup was amazing, keep trying!". I mean the headspace that lets them do that. The little thing that lets Woz show his computer to Jobs and not just say "oh, it's a stupid little toy, meh". There are tons of setbacks in life for everyone, and it's not fair to say "well, they kept trying!" Things made that possible.
As you said, motivation is supremely important. If you get rewarded and acknowledged for playing with things, then you will. If you're struggling to find your identity and your parents want you to get a "real job", well...
Geniuses may have additional creative, productive, or other cognitive capacities, but they are still humans. Indeed, having greater capacity means geniuses can waste far more time than an average person can access.
Adjusting it closer to your comment, can we say that a chess genius is better than an information theory genius? Counter arguments would question the way I'm using "better".
I have to agree that the word "genius" is just too loaded and misleading. There are many ways an individual can excel and many ways they fail to; most people are a mixed bag.
Shannon was gifted with a powerful curiosity and love of discovery, something not shared by all (and I'm not making a value judgment here at all; simply stating a fact). He never chose to have those motivations, so he should not be overly credited with the consequence of having them.
There are known and measurable negative social effects that is strongly affecting people with high intelligence as measured by standard tests. Some fraction of highly intelligent people will certainly also be highly socially skilled - as skills really don't appear to be exclusive, a few will have an exceptionally strong drive to succeed, and some fraction will be in the right place at the right time. It is likely that those we know of have some measure of either, of those characteristics, and that the others simply never rose from obscurity however talanted they might have been. There are exceptions, as there is to all generalisations.
It's not always about fitting into broader society. Tesla fit into a small niche of people who were into the same things. That's very similar to Shannon's story.
One part is the claim that some people are fundamentally more intelligent than others. I agree that this is good to discard.
But another part is that some people can make quantum advances in a given field. I think that is worth considering. It seems reasonable to think that some advances in a field are incremental and require simple effort and that other advances involves a jump - either digging very deeply into a still unsolved problem or taking insights from entirely different fields. Here, the term "genius" is good. Not implying an average person can't achieve a "genius insight" but that such insight may require reflection, a willingness to go down possibly blind allies, a willingness to take a different point of view from a different field, a willingness to challenge consensus views within one's own field and so-forth.
And this is also to say that "following your genius" may indeed be a great gamble. Combining a variety of seeming deep relations may result in something great or it may just result in a large project that falls apart on close inspection.
And here, one might say taste and temperament enter into what could be a genius approach (or oppositely, could be a disaster).
"But you don't become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process."
They may have kept it to themselves, but they were certainly aware of their status.
Who are we to say what the author should or shouldn't study? Why is studying a genius a bad thing? (And they are geniuses, if it's possible to compare one person to another at all.)
You've made some good points about how someone becomes a genius: it's mostly luck, especially in genetics and upbringing. But there's no reason that studying this is inherently useless.
I've grown very disillusioned with the term "genius." Part of this has become because of how painfully obvious randomness plays in all of this, from a scientific perspective - not all, but a lot of it. Another part of it, though, is from seeing how social factors shape our labeling of geniuses from others, and the consequences that has. Maybe they're the same thing, but to me they're a bit different, in that you can ask "why is this high-ability person the way they are" but you can also ask "how is that this high-ability person becomes singled out"?
It's not so much that those labeled geniuses haven't made contributions. But in the couple of cases I'm aware of, it's almost as if there's a cult of personality surrounding them, that amplifies the apparent importance of what they did, far beyond the person's actual contributions. So that their mistakes, and the sometimes serious consequences of those mistakes are conveniently forgotten; also forgotten are others in the field who contributed the same ideas or findings, but at the wrong time or in the wrong outlet. There's dynamic patterns, too, in that the person who proposes the same things, but to the wrong audience or at the wrong time is literally discouraged and punished, and the other is encouraged and rewarded. Is a framework that includes the concept of genius even accurate then?
I think one needs to take very seriously in life whether or not they believe in a just world and why.
> Who are we to say what the author should or shouldn't study? Why is studying a genius a bad thing?
The authors can do whatever they want with their time. But people who buy books and read articles on geniuses would be better served buying and reading science-based books on intelligence. They mostly have all the same advice without the fluff of big names. Also they are actually empirical science, which can't always be said about studies on "famous" people (which to me seem more akin to profiling).
That's not to say you can't enjoy a good biography. But titles like these and what they imply just rub me the wrong way. We're not Einsteins, we'll never be geniuses, and that's fine.
Everyone's limits are at a different location for different tasks, and they can be pushed to some extent, but not indefinitely. (If nothing else, people eventually die.) Finding how far your limits in a useful or fun area can be pushed is a worthwhile task as well, and progress is measured by change relative to your past, not someone else's.
So we sit between two tragedies:
On the one hand, we have people who believe genius is magic, and unapproachable, who never work to find what their level is, and never work to push it out.
On the other, we have people who think any level can be attained through hard work, who work themselves into burnout or worse trying to reach goals their lives aren't long enough to attain, and who never appreciate the progress they have made.
I'd say they'd be even better served buying and reading actual science books. Suddenly they could realize they're smarter than they thought.
You first have to teach them analysis, how to break things down and recombine them. A good example here is teaching beginning computer science students how to divide a large, complicated task into a long list of small tasks. Or teaching derivations in basic physics. It's something that's not really formally taught outside of the sciences, and that's a shame.
Honestly I'd recommend the more complex puzzle games. Top recommendation there would probably be SpaceChem:
Solutions to each problem are readily available on youtube, and while it starts off extremely basic the mid and upper level puzzles force you to break things down into distinct parts and have them work together. Best part is there's theoretically thousands of solutions to every puzzle, so even if you crack and look one up, you can then challenge yourself to make a better solution in some way. In fact the game shows you metrics at the end of each puzzle, showing how your solution compared to other players in terms of time, number of parts used, etc.
It's also a lot more entertaining than a textbook as has a pretty awesome soundtrack. :)
If I hold this hope for someone who is a genius but sadly not a household name, I should probably hope the same for people who happened to become famous as well.
Hindsight is a bitch, and our heuristics tend to fail in the face of it.
>“He never argued his ideas. If people didn’t believe in them, he ignored those people.”
I think there's a connection here which reveals a common misconception about intellectual creation, namely that scientific theories are born in a legalistic fashion by criticism, argument and debate. In reality the role of criticism is to defend against ideas we don't like. Ideas we do like are shielded from explicit criticism, for instance by ignoring critics, and allowed to grow in our brains over time. It's a pleasure to return to such ideas again and again, while they remain interesting, so 'patience' isn't required either.
moving things to folders is... the definition of "inbox zero"?
Substance is overwhelmingly like a self-improvement article, cherrypicking details to support whatever point the author stands to posit.
Because many believe that if they just work or behave like a genius or successful entrepreneur they will be one as well. It's the mental equivalent of a trendy diet. It's not that there's not some interesting habits in the article, but people will focus on the easy bits and start riding unicycles, not reading their emails and leaving checks uncashed.
Like diets, people want to hear things like: Eat a lemon with every meal and only poop on Thursdays. Allowing yourself to be mentored is hard, if it doesn't come natural to you. Being patient and keep working on problem for years on end is equally hard. It's not bad advise, it's just really hard to implement.
Granted, a lot of that came after some of his groundbreaking work on information theory, which is what earned him his fame.
This little tidbit has always fascinated me from a What-If perspective, because of course because of the War and secrecy, Turing and Shannon did not discuss cryptography, the Bombe (Turing's Enigma-cracking machine) or the Colossus (arguably the first electronic computer, except its very existence remained a secret until the 1970s).
How would've things gone had they been able to talk freely?
That might be the biggest difference between smart guys who work jobs and geniuses who pave new paths. It is both sad and empowering because it means we simply get in our own way when we try to be "serious adults".
I find people with no stem background, even when they mean very well and work hard, just miss a lot when doing writing of this sort. They simply do not and in a real sense cannot understand the process of creating new scientific knowledge. Their impressions are merely metaphorical and not direct. Having the words 'genius' in the title...ugh. I suppose I am maybe not the target audience for this though.
I'm not sure what to do with this information, but it seems true.
My takeaway is that science is very incremental, and discoveries depend on what the state of scientific knowledge is at any given time, and not on particular smart individuals.
I also believe the same applies to social progress - e.g. if Martin Luther died as a child, someone else would start the Reformation; if Marx and Lenin decided to pursue art instead of economics/politics, someone else would invent communism anyway, etc.
It's very easy to dismiss all ideas as being incremental, but I think there exist real, rare sparks of genius which leapfrog the field forward, and these sparks of genius only get deeper and more mysterious the more you think of it. My only reaction to these ideas is a certain sense of awe.
Now, I think it's fair to say that there are "geniuses" and it's perhaps a little uncharitable to claim that we shouldn't look up to them at all - but there is certainly more than one dimension to progress.
That seems unlikely, no?
The thing about how engineering and the markets work - they are attracted towards local optimas. So I'd expect each iteration to e.g. have cars that are more-less like we know. I'd expect it to have soft drinks; maybe not Coca Cola, but something very similar and recognizable to us, etc.
At a history of biology colloquium, a sociology of science person, was trying to fit a narrative of new perspectives unlocking previously unconsidered questions. And the pushback was, no, the dominant effect was the cost of various tools dropping by multiple orders of magnitude. Which changed previously intractably (and thus uninteresting) questions, into potentially fruitful ones (worth pursuing).
One of the many problems with patents, is non-obviousness being incorrectly assumed time-invariant. Granting multi-decade monopolies for "you did it this year, that's cute - everyone else was waiting until next year, when it would be easy", which doesn't promote the progress of science and useful arts.
Consider that many of the examples, when examined carefully, fail to maintain the independence constraint. If the inventors were not in communication with each other but were consulting the same sources, or studying the same past failures (which was often) the case for independence becomes weaker. Nonetheless, one can still make the argument that since all the pieces were in place, that the inventor was less important. Three things stick a wrench in this: people who were truly ahead of their time, when there are many qualified yet with only a few succeeding and when there are outstandingly prolific individuals.
1) A notable example of someone ahead of their time is Hermann Grassmann, who toiled for many years in relative obscurity, quietly nursing a zoo of groundbreaking ideas. Gregor Mendel is another example. His discoveries took 30 more years to be independently rediscovered by 3 different individuals when the time was more ripe.
2) At each point in time, one can argue that many individuals met the criteria, from an intellectual and knowledge standpoint, to produce an invention yet only a handful do. There were plenty of people just as or even more intelligent than Einstein. Some even got very close to making the breakthroughs he did but none ever quite did. It seems genius individuals are able to grasp enough of a space to take steps that are locally suboptimal but end up escaping local optima for far better optima. There's a great deal of chance to this and it's not an issue of just out of the box thinking and high IQ (but sadly for the rest of us, it's likely still an innate quality).
3) It's difficult to look at the works of Gauss and Euler and not think there was something special about them. Genius individuals tend not to be one hit wonders and usually have something of an outsized effect on their field. While it's true that there is a rich get richer effect, the ability of geniuses to generate novel ideas and fields of investigation slightly outpaces their peers. And when advantages multiply, which is likely the case for productivity, these unique individuals end up dominating.
In the language of machine learning, geniuses seem able to sample more widely and are better at learning to learn. Even though it's likely that they're only a bit better at those things and they don't think qualitatively differently than the average person, it still ends up making a large amount of difference.
All in all, 2) impacts 3) which makes it so multiple independent discoveries can more readily occur. This doesn't mean the importance of environment can be discounted. Genius only appears under conditions of stability and sharing, the availability of gifted mentors and a rich set of freely shared and interacting ideas.
Without Einstein (and maybe Shannon and other geniuses), all of the results might still be here but might be summarized in a much more difficult and confusing fashion. Perhaps someone later would discover the compact formulation but quite possibly would not be able get it accepted due to the more verbose and confusing formulations already being established.
Maybe not exactly equivalent but some claim that using a constant tau, equal to 2 times pi, would simplify a lot of math - of course good luck changing that now.
Einstein had an especially productive 1905, publishing three groundbreaking papers among others .
His paper on Special Relativity certainly consolidated the work of Poincaré, Lorentz, Minkowski and others, much as you say.
His paper on the photoelectric effect, while building on Planck's work, outright contradicted the earlier work of Maxwell and was a crucial contribution to quantum mechanics.
His paper on Brownian motion, on the other hand, built on very little earlier work and provided the first work offering a method to count molecules; moreover, the paper was the foundation for Perrin's demonstration of the physicality of Dalton's atomic theory.
Each of these three papers had enormous immediate impact, and we still use much of the mathematical forms he introduced in each.
Einstein did not stop with these 1905 papers.
> be summarized in a much more difficult and confusing fashion
Einstein certainly proposed a number of write-downs that were neither easy nor unconfusing. General Relativity (GR) is perhaps a good example of one of those in a theory that has proven to be highly successful. Solving the field equations of GR requires solving a system of ten nonlinear partial differential equations (which in itself would exceptionally difficult even before confronting the explosion into the thousands of elliptical, hyperbolic and undefined terms in the PDEs' couplings in general coordinates). Indeed, we're still confused about how one can decide whether a given solution to the field equations is unphysical and derivative questions like whether a physically plausible solution to the field equations can always be studied using the initial value formulation or something similar.
The mathematical structure of GR is complete and self-consistent, and the notation Einstein developed was extremely concise, but it would be wrong to think that the tersest notation (omitting indices and constant factors) G = T makes GR only as complex as tersest notation (omitting constant factors and in coordinates in which momentum vanishes) E = m of Special Relativity.
 In 1905 he published more than twenty other papers too, several of which are only "lesser" in that they do not figure in the minds of non-specialists.
 People tend to underestimate the complexity of Special Relativity; with suitable choices of coordinates one can use it extremely liberally in flat spacetime, including where acceleration is non-negligible (i.e., where there is obviously non-uniform motion in the systems under study). It's only the presence of real gravity that wrecks the globality of Special Relativity; but even where there is real gravity -- which is never exactly uniform or linear -- Special Relativity is still valid locally).
Very few minds have done the work to come within reach of the conclusions that these guys have been able to draw. From there I suppose it ought to be possible to approximate the likelihood of a Eureka moment probabilistically.
I'd be interested whether future scientific progress is so complex that it cannot be attributed to a single mind (some indicators are rising numbers of contributors for influential papers).
Sure, "someone else" may have eventually written down much of the content of any one of these three papers, but probably not all three and not all in the same year.
Notably, he could have won the Nobel prize for any of those important 1905 papers (and did so for the photoelectric effect, rather than Special Relativity). In the same year he also had more than twenty other papers published, several of which were intersting, and all of which are eclipsed by the famous one on relativity.
In objectively quantifiable terms, the count, rate, and accuracy of his published papers over the years is simply exceptional.
A bit more detail here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14823796
My work is now (1859) nearly finished; but as it will take me
many more years to complete it, and as my health is far from
strong, I have been urged to publish this Abstract.
I remembered this quote, yet failed to recall the very next sentence:
I have more
especially been induced to do this, as Mr. Wallace, who is now
studying the natural history of the Malay archipelago, has arrived
at almost exactly the same general conclusions that I have on the
origin of species.
Whoops. That's some impressive integrity!
It's still pretty remarkable that Einstein/Shannon were the ones to discover their respective theories though. Can you imagine what it must have been like for them? I've always envied genius. Genius always know exactly what it's supposed to do and just does. Recently I'm wondering whether I'm truly cut out for my chosen field (programming).
Not sure what that does for you, but it also seems true.
It probably wouldn't have taken very long, either.
It actually could take decades, centuries, millenia. Think of all the discoveries lost to antiquity that had to be rediscovered. Think of Eulers findings that would take decades for some othe mathematician to figure out afresh
Any statement of the modern proof would require hundreds of pages and results not available to Fermat. So it's likely Wiles didn't rediscover the proof but simply discovered it.
There are so many people looking over so much of the idea landscape that this seems like the norm rather than the exception. And if it's the norm, that means for any given groundbreaking idea there are likely a few people within a few years of discovering it.
It's impossible to know for sure, but it has interesting implications if it's true. For example, publishing first is more important than being correct in every detail.
It's definitely true. Here's a proof (?):
1) The universe has a static (if high) and objective number of rational facts that can be stated about it.
2) Anyone can discover these facts via accident, intuition, trial-and-error, experimentation or direct observation.
3) We have a smallish but more or less constant percentage of people who are obsessed with discovering these various facts as their life's work and who are gradually teasing out these facts from the mountain of mystery that lies before us.
4) Therefore, if Shannon hadn't discovered some of these facts, eventually someone else would have.
If we assume that rational means "true", then it is clearly false:
If statements A and B are true, then the statement "A and B" is true. In fact, if the statement A is true, then "A and A" is true, so if there is at least one true statement, there are infinitely many.
If by "rational" you mean "true and meaningful", well, then we have to define meaningful.
The strongest definition of meaningful that I can muster is "contains information that cannot be logically deduced from previously known rational statements". But then by Godel incompleteness (assuming that we accept arithmetic as rational), there will always be a (true) statement we can make that is independent of our previous statements.
So while I think the discovery was more or less inevitable, there's certainly a flaw in your proof!
However, I address your concerns in the second part of my comment, as "A and A" is derivable from "A", and so is excluded.
Don't you think that's severely downplaying his role?
He invented the field of information theory, not just made several contributions. He founded digital circuit design. The entire concept of being able to use electrical circuits to implement boolean logic, and proving you can use those circuits to solve any problem that boolean logic can. He also came up with sampling theory, bringing communications into the digital world (as well as signal processing).
And then sure, he made several (extremely important) contributions to the field of cryptography
> get to be part of some pretty amazing stuff.
He WAS a lot of that pretty amazing stuff.
He, of all people, clearly embodied the idea of, "Get a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life." Of course, it doesn't help that he had an extremely tolerant employer, one who realized that letting him do things like play with the robots, would lead to such breakthroughs.
That's not my experience. What I have read is that in most cases people rates as "genius" just the visible face of a project and forgets about all the rest of the people that are as good, or better, just because they are not so visible.
Also, there is no genius without a lot of practice and study. And that has a lot to do with motivation.
A well-balanced team can outperform a "genius" as the complexity and size of the task grow. And that again requires practice and will to do the job.
So it is more about not allowing people to be "prima donna" and value everyone work.
But good stories always leave out at least as many things as they put in.