Has the academy browbeat genius?

Sometime last term, my physics professor mentioned to a bored class that the centennial anniversary of Einstein’s landmark publications was being celebrated around the world. Given the strings of equations cluttering the blackboard at the time of my professor’s comment, his remarks at the time probably deserved a better response than they got. Anytime we use our cell phones, watch a live football match or listen to a CD, we toast unwittingly to Einstein’s legacy. As someone once put it — perhaps a bit too hyperbolically — “it’s Einstein’s world, we just live in it.”

Over the last century, the name Einstein has achieved venerated status in many a scientific circle around the world. After working alone in a Swiss patent office, Einstein’s discoveries would come to completely revolutionize our understanding of the world. In a feat of singular genius, Einstein thought up key theories that would forever change the course of humankind, among them quantum theory, relativity and the photoelectric effect. From these three theories alone, we would have the end of a world war and the birth of a nuclear age. Few today would believe all this to have come from a man who had repeatedly been refused entry into university and forced to make a living from temporary teaching appointments before taking up his patent post.

But as the physics community around the world marks the anniversary of his annus mirabilis (or “miracle year,” as he liked to call it), we, the citizens of a world left in his wake, are often prone to ponder: Who will be the next Einstein? Is there going to be one? If so, where could he be? As Brian Greene, author of “The Elegant Universe” and a Columbia physics professor, noted in a recent AP article, “Maybe there’s an Einstein out there somewhere, but it would be a lot harder for him to be heard.” As an unknown patent clerk, Einstein had submitted papers to the prestigious physics journal Annalen der Physik with no footnotes or citations. “We all get papers like those in the mail,” Greene noted, “we put them in the crank file.” That’s because science today is a much more institutionalized system than it used to be in Einstein’s day.

I’m easily reminded of the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the self-made Indian mathematician. Unable to pass his college entrance examination, he could only continue working in isolation until G.H. Hardy of Trinity College, Cambridge caught wind of his work through a letter containing impressively rigorous mathematical proofs. Hardy invited Ramanujan over to Cambridge in 1914, starting what was to become a truly remarkable collaboration. In addition, Hardy gained access to the wealth of unpublished information contained in Ramanujan’s notebooks. For decades after both their deaths, mathematicians would continue to ponder the fascinating originality of Ramanujan’s equations with new revelations unfolding as recently as 1997.

Does truly original, independent genius thrive outside the established structures of higher education? Given the examples of history, I’m inclined to believe it does. Is today’s academic system open enough to provide such genius the needed platform to be heard? I’m afraid not. In a worthwhile quest to better organize the system of scientific enquiry, we have succeeded in needlessly bureaucratizing educational structure and deafening ourselves to the many voices of unsung prodigy around us.

Our system, nonetheless, does have its moments. Newton thought up gravity as a Cambridge professor. His chair, the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics and Physics, would later bequeath the world with a string of other luminaries: George Stokes, Paul Dirac and, even more recently, Stephen Hawking. To some physicists, the question of Einstein’s successor hardly seems a mystery. Many eagerly point to one Ed Witten, Fields medalist and physics professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, widely credited with super-string or “M” theory — an intellectually ambitious shot at unifying the twin theories of Einstein’s work (quantum theory and relativity) into a single “theory of everything.”

Prominent as he is in his field, Witten is yet another example of maverick-genius. Having majored in history as an undergraduate, it wasn’t until grad school that he actually started studying physics. Examples like his, Einstein’s and Ramanujan’s remind us of how limited formal education is in its ability to holistically assess an individual’s intellectual prowess. Inveterate defenders of our system would probably call an Einstein or a Ramanujan an odd exception to a well established norm. For every Einstein, they might argue, there are probably a zillion dimwits who flunked out of college without making any more impact on everyday life than the dumbest person to have managed a college degree.

The question then becomes: How many of those “dimwits” relinquished faith in their own intellectual potential, reluctantly accepting what the system had to say about them? Your guess is probably as good as mine. In a society blinded to the imperfections of a flawed academic system, a pass will always be a pass, and a failure, well, will always be a failure — unless, of course, you happen to be an Einstein. One hundred years after Einstein’s papers, humanity likely stands on the threshold of yet another rude, albeit insightful, intellectual awakening. It’s a prospect almost as frightening as it is exciting. For, given our current academic framework, we might just lose out on this next chance for a privileged peek into the books of nature. And who knows how long we might have to wait before luck smiles our way again?

Michael Nkansah is a junior in Calhoun College.