| Off the deep end

When scientific genius goes to extremes

The notion of the mad scientist, the one that goes beyond the morphological features of frizzy hair and messy desk, is a common one. Whether it’s Charles Darwin pursuing his theory in the face of social alienation or university students downing espresso and doing problem sets into the early hours of the morning, there’s something about being a little bit off that goes with intelligence. “I wouldn’t have had good scientific ideas if I had thought more normally,” said John Nash in an interview in 2005. Winning the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics for game theory, Nash also spent years trying to crack codes he believed were sent to him by aliens via the New York Times. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1959. In that same 2005 interview, he cites Vincent van Gogh as a fellow genius with a mental disability.

What’s the difference between ideas that are creative and ideas that are crazy? If Nash perhaps became great at mathematics by trusting his instincts, letting new, revolutionary ideas take hold and grow, could this have also been the trait that led him to trust the voice – his own – that told him about the alien cohorts?
In a story on the radio show This American Life, electrician Bob Berenz explains that Einstein was wrong: E is really equal to MC, not MC2. He hasn’t taken a math class beyond high school and is mostly self-educated, but he has this crazy feeling that he’s right, and spent 12 months working on his concept. University of Miami physics professor Brant Watson explains Berenz’s mathematical mistakes to him, and when Berenz still refuses to back down, Watson counters with a simple reality check: “If [Einstein] used MC, there would be no A-bomb on Hiroshima.” The conversation devolved into name-calling when Watson said, “One of the hallmarks of schizophrenics is that they get a good idea, and then they don’t investigate whether it’s right or not.”

Pursuing one’s ideas and pushing a hypothesis just a little bit further in the face of a set of contradictory data is not always a bad thing. Get a paper rejected for publication? Take another look, modify. It’s when one refuses modification of any kind that there’s a problem. A creation scientist starts out with the unmovable assumption that Noah’s flood is the reason for the Grand Canyon, and no amount of geology is going to meet that end. But luckily for Nash, there was a solution to the faith in aliens: medicine. And for Berenz, a time limit on his excursion into the world of physics: he gave himself 12 months.

There’s something about letting your mind run loose when you’re doing math homework or writing an English paper, throwing caution to the wind and putting a little faith in your instincts. Creativity – or completion of an open-ended problem set, or essay – requires departure from the normal: an alteration of a previous conception or train of thought, old ideas blended into a new breed. But not every conjecture, not every mutation on an old thought, not every extrapolation is correct – and in fact, the majority are not correct. After all, not every rebel has a revolutionary notion.

Shannon Palus writes every other week. Share your genius and write her at plusorminussigma@mcgilldaily.com.


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