portraits of genius

In a recent Wired magazine post, neuroscientist/journalist Jonah Lehrer asks, “Where have all the geniuses gone?” Lehrer, a Columbia University grad and a Rhodes Scholar, posits that perhaps we have become less talented.

“Oh no!” you think. “Not in the grand era of American ingenuity!”

It turns out that the idea stemmed from Gideon Rachmann’s column in the Financial Times. If you look at the dominating list of great thinkers in history, it appears to trump those of today. In 1939, for example, Einstein, Keynes, TS Eliot, Picasso, Freud, Gandhi, Orwell, Churchill, Hayek, and Sartre were in their prime. Can you think of their modern-day contemporaries?

Rachmann and Lehrer acknowledge that it is unfair to judge without the perspective of historical distance. Moreover, many fields – science especially – are increasingly collaborative and interdisciplinary, thus why the most prominent studies published in the top journals are by a cohort of authors, and not single ideas championed by individual thinkers, as in the case of Freud’s theories or Darwin’s On the Origins of Species, etc.

Moreover, the “complexity of our 21st century problems” requires a thinker to master the field – which takes years upon years and is ongoing – before he or she can create new knowledge. Thus, while it was the case that da Vinci was most prolific in his 20s, nowadays, the average age for a Principal Investigator to receive his or her first grant is hovering around 40.

The era of the “lone genius” is coming to an end, Lehrer concludes. Lincoln, being hounded here by the paparazzi here circa summer 2009, is becoming an anomaly.

Shakespeare, sitting here outside of the Carnegie Museums, watches hundreds of bright young minds rush past him on Forbes Avenue…

As individuals, we find small moments of introspection…

… and cherish the opportunity to learn from mentors…

… to learn an art, which may be regarded as “virtuosic” …

… or encounter beautiful situations that challenge our traditional notion of “genius” and “virtuoso” …

“I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works.”
— Oscar Wilde

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