Skip to main content

Genius – a very short introduction – Andrew Robinson ***

One of OUP’s pocket series ‘a very short introduction’ (books with a cover design that says ‘dull’), this title takes on the thorny topic of genius. It’s hard to say whether or not this subject is science at all. There is certainly some science in the book – when looking at studies of the way the brain works and the nature of intelligence – but the concept of ‘genius’ itself is such a fuzzy one that is probably more a media label than anything meaningful.
Apart from anything else, as Andrew Robinson makes clear, we can’t agree on what genius is, nor on who is a genius. There are a few exceptions – few people could argue about Newton or Einstein – but in many other cases the validity of the claim is open to question. What I found fascinating was that Robinson says that in some cases genius is disputed – for example Picasso – while in others it’s undisputed – for example Mozart. I was surprised that Picasso is questioned while at the same time (I know I’m in a minority) I really don’t see what the fuss is about Mozart, whose music seems mostly trivial to me. As another example of the subjectivity of this label, Robinson constantly refers to Virginia Woolf as a genius. What? Is he serious? More celebrity than genius I would have said.
The more I read this book, the more I thought that this thing being labelled genius is an entirely different concept between (say) science, art & music. However, for some reason this difference doesn’t come though in the text until very late in the book, and when Robinson does cover it, what he says is not very satisfactory. He never explores the thesis, for example, that art only has a value that is set by fashion – genius in art is inevitably going to be subjective – while science can have an objective assessment of value that makes it much easier to pinpoint genius (even if the collective nature of scientific work makes it harder to assign this genius to an individual).
All in all it’s a good little book in that makes you think about the nature of genius – but an irritating topic, because in the end it’s a subject that is so arbitrary. A work of genius? Probably not.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…