At the age of 14, in 1846, James Clark Maxwell published his first scientific paper in a learned journal, having already seen his poetry printed in the Edinburgh Courant. In 1864, he went on to write the classic A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, which gave a unified account of electricity, magnetism and light in just four equations. Einstein later remarked that he stood on the shoulders of not Newton but Maxwell. Almost everyone would agree that Maxwell was a genius. But what exactly does this mean? In the popular imagination, geniuses are a breed apart. They are capable of insights or artistic creations that no amount of training and effort could produce in mere ordinary folk. You can squander your genius or fail to fulfil it but, ultimately, you either have it at birth or you don’t. Four new books about genius all interrogate this powerful myth. At the very least, they show that the soil in which genius grows matters at least as much as the seed, which is why particular cultures produce particular types of genius at particular times in history. This is the implicit message of Peter Watson’s The German Genius and Robert Uhlig’s Genius of Britain, which look at collective as well as individual brilliance. In Sudden Genius? Andrew Robinson goes further in undermining the myths of genius, suggesting that virtually none of the common-sense ideas we have about it stack up. And in The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk claims the idea that genius is dispensed at birth is still based on discredited genetics.
more from Julian Baggini at the FT here.