The nature of genius

Every so often, even at a place like Yale, we are reminded that some people are smarter than others. Someone, like Thomas Steitz — a Sterling professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and, as of Wednesday, the winner of a Nobel Prize for Chemistry — will come along and make us wonder what makes these people different from the rest of us.

Some people call them “geniuses.” But genius is just a label — a word for people who seem to have a natural talent for one thing or another, such as learning birdsong, investigating why elderly people fall or crystallizing cellular organelles smaller than we could even imagine.

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YDN
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“Genius is a useful human construct,” said music professor Craig Wright, who has taught the freshman seminar “Exploring the Nature of Genius” for three years. “It’s just an idea like justice or liberty.”

The label can come in the form of awards. Not only was Steitz given the Nobel, but three weeks ago Professors Richard Prum and Mary Tinetti were both awarded MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, popularly known as “genius” grants.

Even when called a “genius” by a board of authorities, it’s hard to get someone to say that he or she is one.

When Steitz was asked whether he was a genius himself, just a day after hearing he had won the Nobel for his work developing an exact model of a ribosome, he responded: “Genius? I don’t know. Einstein’s a genius. It’s hard to put that label on everybody.”

Despite his reluctance, it could be easy to call Steitz and his entire family geniuses. The Steitz clan has a pretty intimidating intellectual record. Thomas’ wife, Joan, is also a Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and was the first woman to matriculate at Harvard University’s graduate school program in biochemistry and molecular biology. His son, Jon, was drafted to Major League Baseball with a 97 mile per hour fastball, but after an injury, went to Yale Law School and now works at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Oh, and he also was a Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry major.

“Obviously how smart you are, just like other sorts of exceptional talents, comes from genes,” Joan Steitz said. “I’m a strong believer in genes.”

“Genius” can also appear in the arts. Case in point: Drama School professor and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, who won a MacArthur grant last year for her ability to “reflect the nature of the play” in the lighting.

But what makes society place the label “genius” on certain people? As exhibited by Yale’s recently anointed “geniuses,” genius is, combined with natural ability, simply the ability to take what’s right in front of you and deny that we have to take it at face value.

While genius is most certainly not quantifiable, there are some recurring traits exhibited in the people we call “geniuses” — people like Tinetti and Prum.

See for yourself.


Old people fall down. They fall in their homes, sometimes tripping over clutter. They fall because they lose their balance. Sometimes falling is no big deal. They are fine. But sometimes the result of a fall is much worse. One out of 10 times the fall results in serious injury, such as a head injury or hip fracture But still, it happens. They just fall. Nothing can be done about it. Right?

Not quite, says Mary Tinetti, the Gladys Phillips Crofoot Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology and Public Health and Director of the Yale Program on Aging.

For Tinetti, who won a MacArthur grant this year for her research, old people falling is not that simple, not something that should be accepted.

“Everybody thought it was something simple as your grandmother tripping on the sidewalk,” she said sitting in her office on the Yale School of Medicine campus, the walls decorated with both honors and messy marker drawings her children did when they were younger. “When it’s simple, we very often ignore the complexities underneath it. I would look at your grandmother and say, ‘Why did she trip on that sidewalk at that particular time when she might have walked on that sidewalk a thousand times and didn’t?’ So that’s when you take something that’s right in front of your face that everyone thinks they understand and look at it in a different way.”

Most recently, Tinetti has been researching clinical decision-making with geriatric patients with more than one disease.

Instead of treating all of the diseases equally, which may not be the best thing for the patient, she says, Tinetti advises finding out how the patient wants to live and choosing a treatment based on that.

Oh, and now there’s the little matter of having “genius” attached to her name for her work.

Tinetti is a smallish woman with a round face and a brown bob parted just off center that harshly juts out on each side. If Tinetti is a genius, she is a genius that looks like your mom, clad in khakis with sheer stockings and sandals, a beaded necklace against her bright orange T-shirt.

Tinetti does not only like old people, mind you. Old people, to her, are not people to be loved because of the great stories they tell, they are just like everyone else — “all different.”

“It wasn’t so much the patients, it was really much more the knowledge base,” she said. “It is really the content of the interactions.”

American medicine is good at treating diseases, Tinetti said, though she noted that this does not necessarily make a patient feel better. Geriatrics seemed to her a field where doctors could best match the actions of doctors to the desires of their patients.

But it wasn’t only that. She decided she wanted to work in geriatrics because it was a new field in 1981 when she was a third-year internal medicine resident at the University of Minnesota.

“The irony,” she said, “is taking care of older patients is one of the newest areas in medicine.” Tinetti, who received both her B.A. and her M.D. at the University of Michigan, was going to go into general practice when she realized that geriatrics offered a place for her to be a pioneer in a field. “It was really being able to be on the ground floor,” she said.

Tinetti becomes excited when she speaks about her research. Her arms sometimes flail about. She’ll shift in her chair sometimes facing the table, sometimes sitting sideways. Sometimes she’ll extending her legs and lean back in her chair as if preparing to take a nap. When she finds something funny, she’ll laugh. Her laugh is short and piercing, like a quick whirring, a cackle almost, but not sinister. Her tittering is more akin to Glinda the Good Witch than the Wicked Witch of the West.

She first decided to research falling after her mentor at the University of Rochester, T. Franklin Williams, suggested the field to her when she was completing her fellowship. Tinetti recalls that Williams felt that falling was something that had been ignored.

“Very often what you find is the thing that’s right in front of you, you don’t see,” she said. “We know a lot of older people fall; we know that they get a lot of trouble when they fall, but nobody thought it was something you could investigate and do something about.”

So after Tinetti came to Yale in 1984 she set about investigating falling. The first of her studies, started the year after she began, was observational. Tinetti and her team went into the homes of about 1,000 elderly people in the New Haven community and took note of their surroundings. Were they on medication? How was their vision? Was there clutter in their homes? She had every person record on a calendar every day for three years whether they fell or did not fall that day. By analyzing which people fell and which did not, Tinetti could then determine the likelihood of falling based on the characteristics she had originally detailed.

Her next study was interventional. She followed a different group of slightly over 300 elderly people over the age of 70 for two years, changing half of their situations to reflect her observations in the first study. The half with the intervention was much less likely to fall.

“So, we were able to go from saying falling is an inevitable thing that happens when people get older,” she said, sounding out the words to emphasize the point of her study, “to falling is predictable and preventable.”

The next step was taking those findings and not just leaving them published in dusty journals but incorporating them into clinical practice — going to doctor’s offices, physical therapy offices, hospitals and senior centers and talking about the research. To this end, Tinetti’s research team started the Connecticut Collaboration for Fall Prevention.

And basically, that’s why you might be able to call Tinetti a genius. It’s her ability to take a problem that is obvious — old people fall — and decide that it isn’t obvious, it isn’t something that should just be accepted.

The associate director of Yale’s Program on Aging Joanne McGloin, who has worked with Tinetti since the latter came to Yale, said Tinetti’s work is creative.

“I think Mary thinks outside the box,” McGloin said. “She’s not afraid to ask why. She challenges assumptions … I think there’s a visionary nature to that — not to just take things for granted.”

This ability to look beyond the obvious (falling old people) is what Tinetti herself said might have been the reason she got the MacArthur grant. But, Tinetti said she still does not feel like a genius.

Dorothy Baker, a research scientist in the department of internal medicine at Yale worked with Tinetti on her falling studies and emphasized the financial consequences of falling on families. In the current health care system, Baker explained, Medicare hospital insurance only covers hospitalization and skilled nursing care. Many people who fall need home care, but are ineligible to have it paid for by Medicare. If genius can also be determined by the impact one’s work has on the greater population, then perhaps Tinetti is a genius by this measure too.

“More and more families are experiencing not only the fall but the financial consequences,” Baker said, explaining how, based on the studies done by her and Tinetti, 30 percent of people aged 65 years and older and 50 percent of people aged 80 years and older are likely to have a fall. By showing that the fall can be prevented, Baker said, Tinetti is relieving the financial burden on people around the country and around the world. The world’s population is getting older, Baker explained, and Tinetti is preparing it for the “silver tsunami” in which every place is “going to look like Florida or Arizona.”

Tinetti herself said she hopes her research can influence the health care debate raging in the country by showing where money can be best allocated in order to benefit the elderly.

She approaches her work with a “multifactorial ideology,” Baker said, describing how Tinetti brought together researchers in medicine, nursing, rehabilitation, statistics, economics and social workers to look at all aspects of the problem. This, Baker said, was “a stroke of genius.”

Both Baker and McGloin said Tinetti has also stuck with her research even when it was difficult or not the “in” thing to do, but does that make genius?

The genius might just be that she studies the obvious and makes it not obvious.


Richard Prum dreams in birdsong. In dreams, he will be walking around the hills or fields of New England, perhaps in his hometown of Manchester, Vt., and he will hear woodpeckers drilling and blackbirds scolding and wood-warblers whistling. Or he will hear the song of a manakin, a compact South American bird he has studied since the beginning of his career. As he walks on, the music slides into his head like an oft-hummed song, always there but never quite acknowledged. In dreams, he catches birds’ songs note for note; awake, he can barely hear his students speaking in an auditorium.

“Sometimes you go through your regular life, and you wouldn’t even recognize that there’s music playing, but suddenly you recognize, oh,” he says and pauses, “I know that. It comes into my consciousness that way.”

In his office near Yale’s Peabody Museum one afternoon, three weeks after he has won a MacArthur “genius” grant, Prum is tilting his head to one side and looking up at the ceiling through spectacles as he imitates an indigo bunting — a small, brilliantly blue bird, about the size of a sparrow — “sweet-sweet, chew-chew, sweet-sweet, chew-chew. Zeep!” He raises his hands and waggles his prickly red eyebrows. His voice is not musical, but he leans forward and spreads his fingers as if performing an aria, or preparing to hop onto a branch.

It is the closest to real birdsong he will hear when conscious, for Richard Prum, a self-described “bird nut,” an ornithologist who spent 20 years learning bird songs, has been almost completely deaf for 14 years.

After the virus hit Prum’s right ear in the late 1980s, extinguishing most of that ear’s ability to sense high-pitched noises, Prum had to reinvent his birdwatching technique. Then Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder, struck his other ear, degrading its hearing over 15 years until he was completely deaf in his left ear, and he had to reinvent his way of life. He had a biology degree from Harvard, a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, years of birdwatching in every continent but Antarctica and an undiminished obsession with birds.

And, now, Prum has a hearing aid. “After being a lifelong bird nut, I had to figure out how to remain connected to my own life’s work, which is not only an incredible personal challenge but a great professional challenge. You invest a lot in your skill set and how do you go about …” he begins to explain, trailing off.

Actually, Prum is not averse to changing his skill set or interests. He is too hungry for knowledge. In the three weeks since he won the MacArthur grant, becoming one of the country’s latest “geniuses,” the normally gregarious Prum has found it difficult to talk to journalists because they ask him to tell them what it is exactly that he does. Even the MacArthur Foundation’s Web site struggles to discuss all Prum’s research endeavors and areas of expertise (“developmental biology, optical physics, molecular genetics, phylogenetics, paelontology and behavior ecology,” and, later, “applied mathematic[s]”) for 243 words before faltering and concluding, “and he continues to open new frontiers with each subsequent project.”

In truth Prum is both impossible to characterize and absurdly easy to place. He has never really studied anything but birds: he is an ornithologist and Yale’s only professor of ornithology. Though the onset of deafness, coming in the middle of his career, forced him to stop studying birds by just watching them, Prum wasn’t daunted. He was going to examine them from every angle, re-imagine them as highly evolved dinosaurs, compare the evolution of avian sexual ornamentation to the evolution of human aesthetics, reduce their feathers to a coagulation of protein and air bubbles, solve the mystery of why ducks still have penises and other birds do not.

“There have always been little pots on the stove, and when certain things became not possible, they moved from the back burner to the front burner,” he says, moving with ease into an analogy, as he often does with students and journalists alike. “This might have been a great thing, because maybe they were more interesting than what I was doing before. So I think in some sense the breadth of my curiosity really helped me out in that period.”

To explain what exactly it is that he does, Prum says he studies birds in the same way a Latin American studies scholar studies Latin America: everything from its geography to its culture. And yes, Prum says, birds do have culture. Today, he is most excited about his research on the physics of feather coloration, which required him to learn about not only feather forms and evolution but also optical phenomena. The blue feathers on a blue jay, the green on a hummingbird and all the colors of a male peacock shine because of the optical interactions of light with proteins and air bubbles in the feathers.

“We’re basically trying to apply fundamental principles of physics to all the things nature is already doing and doing better than us,” says Hui Cao, a professor of applied physics, of the import of Prum’s work. Cao says she thinks he is a genius because of his intuition in physics: “Rick is a biologist, but I learn physics from him.”

In the vast white room that houses the Peabody’s bird collection, where Prum is the curator, he opens one of many white, wide, shallow drawers and plucks out a stuffed manakin — the slender legs folded at one end, a short beak at the other.

“See that? Those are structural colors,” he says, stroking a feathery patch of robin’s-egg blue.

At one time, he studied manakins’ courtship rituals; now he studies the structure and colors of their feathers.

Of manakins, Prum says, “ ‘Manakins’ comes from the same root as ‘munchkins,’ actually — so, little people.”

To find the little men, Prum had to fly just about as far away from Vermont as Dorothy did from Kansas. Traveling to the Andes to document manakin behavior for his dissertation on the evolution of bird courtship, Prum found birds “who,” he says, were then unknown to scientists, and he learned their songs too. He has hours of tapes of their songs, but they are silent to him now.

Before he had tapes he recorded himself, Prum had vinyl records he used to play on his family’s stereo in their Manchester home, like Peterson Field Guide’s two-record set of the birdsongs of South America. Prum began devouring bird records when he was about 10, the same year he received his first pair of glasses. He was in fourth grade.

“I got this pair of glasses, and within a month I became a birdwatcher,” he says. “The earth came into focus, and in the distance around me there were suddenly details that were interesting.” Before that event, he had devoted his not inconsiderable powers of concentration and memorization to learning the Guinness Book of World Records by heart and abusing his siblings’ patience by forcing them to quiz him on various records. Some of them he still remembers. After the glasses arrived, he dropped the Guinness Book and began watching birds constantly, learning their chirps, peeps, warbles and skips like some people learn the radio’s top 40. His parents paid no particular attention to his interest in birds. It grew undisturbed, first into a hobby, then an addiction.

For Prum, birdwatching is a hunt, one conducted in quiet but barely contained surges of exhilaration, and with binoculars and ears.

“I realized that when you study with a prepared mind, when you went back outside you could actually find this stuff,” Prum says, eyes wide and darting back and forth. “That was such a buzz. It was incredibly addictive.” It was also, for some years, his social life: By fifth grade he had a gaggle of middle-aged and retired friends who brought him along on birdwatching excursions. There were, too, a couple of young men who served as birding mentors, and a hippie named Tom Will ’68, who had graduated from Yale and was hanging around southern Vermont teaching school to escape the draft. By seventh grade Prum was leading birdwatching walks every Saturday morning at the nearby Emerald Lake State Park. He enrolled at Harvard, where he discovered travel, went to Michigan for a graduate degree, taught at the University of Kansas for 12 years, and came, finally, to Yale.

Is Prum a genius? Well, with his early expertise in birds, it’s easy to call him a prodigy. But many people love birds. Anyone can listen to them, watch them, learn their habitats and culture: birdsong is all around us, if not in all of our dreams. But few people, or even ornithologists, treat birds both as a point of entry and as an intellectual end in the way Prum does. Louis Pasteur said that “chance favors the prepared mind”; Prum learns every scientific discipline he can find to decipher birds, then applies what he learns to still further rounds of research.

“There’s a great advantage to not being frightened by your ignorance,” Prum says. To make progress on complicated scientific systems, a scientist has to narrow in on just a few processes. But to make progress on a bird — the optical physics of its wing coloration, the way its feathers grow, how it learns to sing ­— Prum has pulled many disparate fields together.

“It ain’t genius,” he says, breaking into a smile as he surveys the Peabody’s masses of birds, his intellectual library of 100,000 distinct organisms. “I decided early on that I couldn’t suppress this aspect of my intellectual life because it was critical to pursuing happiness.”

There is no suppressing Prum, so much so that the label “genius” seems to limit him. He flits between his office in the Environmental Science Center and the Peabody collection several times a day, thinking endlessly of birds. And when he goes to sleep, birds follow him.

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So what is genius? And is it even possible to define it?

Even Immanuel Kant could not define genius — he only said it is “a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given.”

The prize-winning, honors-laden people interviewed do not call themselves geniuses. And that is only right: The people whom we call geniuses cannot, by their very nature, fit into one set of criteria. Their genius is no more than a passion for revealing the intricate behind the obvious.

When Mary Tinetti sees an ailing retiree, she knows he or she does not have to suffer, although society often says that is the norm. When Richard Prum sees a bird, he wants to examine everything from its family history to how its wings grew to how it learned to sing.

Tinetti and Prum see the everyday, in ways most people never even consider. So what? It’s a bird. So what? She fell down. She’s old. The same goes for Steitz. The ribosome is one of the central parts of cell biology, but no one examined it fully until Steitz and his colleagues.

In a way, their “genius” better fits Charles Baudelaire’s definition: “Genius is nothing more than childhood recovered at will — a childhood now equipped for self-expression with manhood’s capacities and a power of analysis which enables it to order the mass of raw material which it has involuntarily accumulated.”

Comments

  • =)

    way to write about yourselves.

  • Tanner

    Has there ever been a charting of the brain of a “genius.” Is the mathmaticians grain wired differently then the musical genius or the linguistic genius? From your article “we are all created equal” is a falacy, if we can take it out of the social and political argument. I can’t believe the 10 year old prodigys brain is no different then well mine.
    My life has been a long struggle of trying to understand the mechanics of Algerbra and Geometry, and being frustrated why I can not write a paper that reads like a great authors work. So often a genius will be said to have a natural talent, to me that says came easy to them when something comes easy it allows more research, expermintation and perhaps “genius.” Another thought? where would personality play in the genius mind? Ergh to many questions not enough answers.

  • 5
  • jhc

    It’s a very very thin line between genius and insane . YOU ALL READY KNOW. Sometimes just a small incident or word in a certain tone can break that thread booooy

  • yalie

    I don’t think the writers of this article were trying to write a treatise on the nature of genius. They were simply profiling Yale professors who won Genius grants, and I think they did a good job of that.

  • Yale ’08

    one of the better YDN articles I’ve read in quite awhile

  • 4

    #3 is the credited response.

  • JSB ’10

    Rick Prum is not only a brilliant eclectic – he is the greatest teacher I have ever known. To that extent his contribution to the world of science is one that even he may never be able to fully comprehend.