Is Scientific Genius Extinct?
Feb. 14, 2012 -
Einstein's hair wasn't the only wild thing about him. The famous physicist also had numerous sexual liaisons during his two marriages. Einstein's first marriage was miserable. He and his wife, Mileva Marić, even formed a contract in which she became little more than a household servant, including the conditions set by Einstein that, “You will renounce all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons ... . You will stop talking to me if I request it.” After the inevitable divorce, Einstein married his cousin, Elsa Lowenthal, whom he was already sleeping with. But his second marriage didn't keep Einstein in line either. Six girlfriends were mentioned in letters to his wife. At least he was honest about it.
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Erwin Schrödinger You may have heard of the theory of Shrödinger's cat , a hypothetical feline that may be either alive or dead depending on the random decay of a nuclear particle. It turns out Shrödinger was quite the Tom cat himself. The physicist got physical with numerous lovers. His wife, Anny, knew all about it. She had a lover of her own. The swinging scientist even went so far as to hire Arthur March as his lab assistant because he lusted after March's wife, Hilde. She bore Shrödinger a child, though she remained married to March. Shrödinger's two-woman harem eventually cost him an appointment at Oxford, since the idea of a polyamorous physicist was outside the cultural acceptability of the day.
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Richard Feynman Compared to other famous physicists, Feynman was more of a stereotypical number cruncher. He loved numbers so much that his second wife considered them his mistress. She wasn't as forgiving of Feynman's dalliances with sweet lady calculus as Einstein and Schrödinger's wives had been with their actual sexual escapades. She divorced Feynman, a master of quantum mechanics, because of his love affair with math. Feynman's first wife had died of tuberculosis in 1945. But the third time was the charm for him. He married Gweneth Howarth and lived happily ever after in the beach house he bought with his share of the Nobel Prize award that he won in 1965.
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Marie Curie Famous for her pioneering study of radiation, this star-crossed scientist's love life was just as conflicted, tragic and scandalous as the history of the energy she studied. Her husband, Frenchman Pierre Curie, slipped on a slick street in Paris during a storm and died after a horse drawn carriage crushed his skull. Heartbroken, Curie buried herself in her work to deal with her grief, until in 1910 she found solace in the arms a former student of Pierre's, Paul Langevin. But Langevin was a married man and five years her junior. The affair scandalized the French and fueled xenophobia against Curie, a native of Poland.
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Stephen Hawking On his 70th birthday, Stephen Hawking commented that, to him, women were a "complete mystery." No wonder, since his personal history sounds like what would happen if Jerry Springer hosted Nova. Hawking divorced Jane Wilde, his wife of 25 years, and married one of his nurses. His nurse, Elaine Mason, divorced her own husband, the man who had designed Hawking's iconic speaking machine, for Hawking. But some of Hawking's former nurses claimed Mason psychologically abused and mentally manipulated the wheelchair-bound genius. In 2006, Hawking broke free of Mason and began to mend fences with his children from his first marriage.
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Alfred Charles Kinsey A sexologist with torrid tales surrounding their research...who'da thunkit? Kinsey faced allegations that he conducted his research on human sexuality to fulfill a personal kink, but was also praised for making sex a legitimate topic of discussion and bringing the study of homosexuality out of the closet. Sure, in the privacy of his attic Kinsey filmed some of his own sexual behavior with his fellow researchers. And he encouraged his staff to engage in amorous experimentation in order to gain the confidence of research subjects and more fully understand the topic they were studying. But Kinsey's work also helped to make one of the most basic aspects of human biology a respected area of study. The groundbreaking Kinsey reports accompanied the United States into the sexual liberation of the 1960s.
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Modern-day science has little room for the likes of Galileo, who first used the telescope to study the sky, or Charles Darwin, who put forward the theory of evolution, argues a psychologist and expert in scientific genius.
Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis, says that just like the ill-fated dodo, scientific geniuses like these men have gone extinct.
"Future advances are likely to build on what is already known rather than alter the foundations of knowledge," Simonton writes in a commentary published in today’s (Jan. 31) issue of the journal Nature.
An End to Momentous Leaps Forward?
For the past century, no truly original disciplines have been created; instead new arrivals are hybrids of existing ones, such as astrophysics or biochemistry. It has also become much more difficult for an individual to make groundbreaking contributions, since cutting-edge work is often done by large, well-funded teams, he argues.
What's more, almost none of the natural sciences appear ripe for a revolution.
"The core disciplines have accumulated not so much anomalies as mere loose ends that will be tidied up one way or another," he writes.
Only theoretical physics shows signs of a "crisis," or accumulation of findings that cannot be explained, that leaves it open for a major paradigm shift, he writes. (Creative Genius: The World's Greatest Minds)
This isn't the first time someone has predicted that science's most exciting days are over.
Before the arrival of quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of relativity, two theories physicists have not yet been able to reconcile, 19th-century scientists predicted that all major discoveries had been made, Sherrilyn Roush, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out.
Have scientific geniuses like Albert Einstein gone extinct?Corbis
"They didn't see the revolution coming, didn't even see the need for it," Roush told LiveScience in an email, adding, "Above all, revolution and genius, like accidents, are not predictable. You often don't even know you need them until they show up."
She did not find Simonton's argument persuasive, noting that geniuses aren't necessarily crucial for revolutions in thinking, and she questioned the importance he placed on the creation of new disciplines.
"People are dazzled by revolutions and have too little appreciation of 'normal science,' where we accumulate lasting, and often useful, knowledge," she wrote in the email.
Coping With Increasing Information
While he sees diminished opportunity for genius, Simonton says that the demands of science are increasing.
"If anything, scientists today might require more raw intelligence to become a first-rate researcher than it took to become a genius during the 'heroic age' of the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, given how much information and experience researchers must now acquire to become proficient," he writes.
Roush agreed, saying that nowadays reading all of the literature published in a particular field may no longer be possible.
Individual researchers, and human society, in general, may be adapting to the increasing demands by redistributing the work both to other people and to computers, she told LiveScience.
Given the increasing use of computers to process information, “who knows that the ability to see it all and abstract to new ideas is not increasing?" she wrote in the email.
This article originally appeared on LiveScience.com.
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