Today, I find genius puzzling. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I liked the movie Good
Will Hunting. But when I talked about it with
friends, many said they thought the central
character, Will Hunting, was unbelievable. They
said that no real person could be that smart.
Actually there really are people like that. Still,
I understand why he seemed implausible.
Will Hunting was a young man at war with his world.
He worked as a janitor at MIT, where he viewed the
professors and students around him with contempt.
When a math professor posted seemingly impossible
problems on a hallway blackboard, he solved them
anonymously at night. He bullied the intellectual
elite with his mind just as he bullied tough kids
in Boston's Back Bay with his fists.
So what's the reality behind troubled young Will
Hunting? The Academy-Award-winning script of the
movie was co-written by actor Matt Damon, who
played Will. The young man on the screen showed us
genius as both actor and real person.
But was the fictional genius too far-fetched? Try
the story of Evariste
Galois. Born in 1811, he set down the
foundations of mathematical group theory before he
got himself killed at the age of twenty. Galois was
a perfect real-life model for the fictional Will
William James Sidis, born
in 1898, could read at 18 months. He graduated from
Harvard at sixteen and went off to Rice University
as a math professor. He lasted eight months while
students ridiculed him. Sidis spent most of his
life collecting streetcar transfers, and he died at
the age of 46.
Srinivas Ramanujan, born
in India in 1887, was too poor for college. He
taught himself mathematics. When he died (at 36) he
left a body of math that mathematicians are still
mining. The movie mentions Ramanujan in its own bid
I recently heard 27-year-old Evgeny Kissin play all
the Chopin preludes. When Kissin was two, he'd come
downstairs in his diapers and climb up on the piano
bench to play Chopin. When he was thirteen, he
stunned the world by playing what was deemed a
definitive performance of the two Chopin concertos.
I don't expect to hear piano playing like Kissin's
again in my lifetime.
The list goes on: Like Ramanujan, Mozart died at
36. The troubled math prodigy Sonya Kovalevsky made it to 41.
Since Ben Franklin lived
to enjoy fame and respect as an old man, we tend
not to include him with Mozart, Ramanujan, or Will
Hunting. But he belongs there. Once every decade or
so, one rises up among us -- then, as often as not,
lives a troubled life and dies young.
Will Hunting was real enough. We need to know that
because a little of Will Hunting lives in each of
us. When we let that genius out of the box -- that
genie out of the bottle -- we're in trouble. The
world can only stand so much genius. When too much
of it turns up in one place, it can burn a hole in
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds