A FINE MADNESS:
SANITY AND CREATIVITY
for the Health Care and the Arts Lecture Series, "The Creative Response to Pain and Suffering,"
University of Texas, Houston, School of Public Health Auditorium, Noon, Tuesday, March 26, 1996
by John H. Lienhard
Mechanical Engineering Department
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204-4792
Years ago, after I gave a talk in Philadelphia,
I came back troubled by something that happened
there. I remember sitting in the airplane, trying
to sort it out. I'd been talking about
inventiveness. I'd told stories about creative
people. I'd said that strange stories follow
inventive people around because invention itself
parts company with normality.
I'd told them how Einstein used the same soap
for washing and shaving -- how he figured anything
more would've complicated his life unbearably.
I'd told them about Norbert Wiener, the father
of cybernetics -- how he came home from his office
at MIT one evening. He got off the bus in his
neighborhood. Wiener never had learned to drive a
car. He wandered down his street in a brown study,
thinking equations. Suddenly he stopped by a little
girl playing marbles. He asked, "Little girl, could
you tell me which is the Wieners' house?"
The little girl smiled and said, "Oh, Daddy, we
live right across the street."
I'd told the group that invention is revolution.
I'd said that, since invention is a trip into an
uncharted land, it has to be eccentricity. It can be
Afterward, during questions and answers, a
bright young man asked, "Do you mean I can't be
inventive and still live a normal life?" It was an
ingenuous question, but I couldn't take it lightly.
It was one of those questions that people ask when
they aren't looking for information.
This fellow saw the issues with perfect clarity.
I knew in my bones that he'd voiced the question
because he hoped he could get a new answer. He was
like the person who goes back again and again to the
opera hoping that, just once, Don José will have the
sense to walk away from Carmen.
His question was difficult and dangerous. He so
clearly wanted to be let off the hook. He wanted
the brass ring without having to reach out into
space to get it. He didn't want to risk
humiliation. He didn't want to step into the void.
I took a deep breath and answered. I said, "You
cannot be inventive and live a normal life." Oh, I
knew you could live a normal life, at least in the
outward markers of normalcy. But at some point you
have to go where others have not gone.
Perhaps the young man's question was best
answered by the Romantic poet Coleridge. Coleridge
ended his poem Kubla Kahn abruptly. He suddenly
broke off and, in one last verse, he told his vision
of the Creative Hero emerging out of his own
tormented dreams. Coleridge wrote,
I would build a dome in air,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair.
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of paradise.
That man in the audience saw what other
listeners hadn't understood. He knew why he should
"close his eyes with holy dread" at the idea of
drinking the creative milk of paradise. He knew
what the inventive genie could do for him once it
got out of the bottle. But he'd also caught a
glimpse of the size and power of the beast.
He asked the question again on the way out of
the building. He knew what was at stake. It
bothered him. But, by then, it was I who was
bothered. He reminded me that creativity is too
large a thing to advocate lightly.
Without creativity we are nothing. But, when we
step off onto those unexpected side roads that
intersect the main arteries of our thinking, we are
not welcome. Change is a threat to the world around
us. Function creatively, and the world will
certainly try to "weave a circle round [you]
thrice." The creative daemon within us poses a
threat that most people want to see sealed off.
The British once used a wonderful phrase to
describe a creative person. They would talk about
A Fine Madness. Well, I don't really know what
sanity is or where it ends. But I do know that the
abnormality that we call creativity does -- often
enough -- reach outside the line of acceptability.
Let me tell you about Richard Dadd. Richard Dadd
was mad, insane. That word is out of fashion these
days, but Dadd was mad, even by today's forgiving
Dadd was born in 1817. At the age of 26, already
an established painter, he took a long trip through
Europe and the Mid-East. He came back unbalanced.
His family took him to a doctor who dealt in mental
illness and its legal implications. Dadd, the
doctor said, was dangerous and no longer responsible
for his actions.
Just a few days later, as if on cue, Dadd murdered
his father. He fled to Paris, and there he killed a
perfect stranger. He was caught and shipped back to
England. He spent the rest of his life in asylums.
He finally died in one when he was 69.
Before the murder, Dadd had submitted two
paintings in a competition for historical frescoes
in the Houses of Parliament. They were hanging in
Westminster Hall when he did the murder.
One survives. It's a dreamy Arabesque painting
with camels and bearded Bedouins. The title is
Caravan Halted by the Sea Shore. It anticipated the
kind of Salon Art that would soon be so very popular
in England and France.
Floods of visitors came to see his work after the
murder. Journalists tried to diagnose his madness
from the pictures. For the next 43 years Dadd
painted and the arm-chair diagnoses continued. Of
course some of his work did deal frankly with
insanity. He made studies of madness. He called
them, Sketches to Illustrate the Passions.
Nineteenth-century asylums were meant to keep
patients out of the sight of proper Victorian
sensibilities. But, one way or another, Dadd's
paintings leaked out into exhibitions.
The Victorians were thrilled by what they saw. But
then they also thrilled to the supposed madness of
the Romantic poet and artist William Blake. One
writer said of Dadd and Blake:
[They] may be classed together as examples of painters in whom a disordered
brain rather aided than impeded the workings of a fertile and original fancy.
Well, Blake hadn't heard daemon voices
commanding him to kill, as Dadd had. But his
fertile mind, like Dadd's, had broken new ground.
And the Victorians, creative as they were, certainly
saw creativity as kin to insanity.
Dadd's most compelling work is a loving picture
of Sir Alexander Morison, the doctor at Bethlem
Hospital who nursed him back into painting after his
rampage. Dadd shows an angular older man with a
face that's gaunt, but open and compelling.
There's really no more madness in Dadd's art
than there is in your creative work. In 1974, the
Tate Gallery mounted an important exhibit of his art
-- not because he was mad, but because the work was
good. If Dadd was crazy in life that was one thing.
But in art, his focus was clear, and his passions
were set on the clean task of helping us see the
world around us.
By the way, Dadd escaped the death sentence
because England had just instituted an insanity
defense shortly before he committed murder. He was
also given liberty to paint because of recent
English reforms in the care of the insane.
Either earlier or later in the 19th century, he
would've fared much worse. But this was 1843, and
the Romantic vision had, for a season, given madness
a kind of sanctity.
Of course, you'll rightly tell me that Dadd's case
was too extreme an example. Well, sure. But I'll
tell you that the creative daemon is to be feared
nonetheless. I really do warn you to view him with
some measure of "Holy dread!"
Let me tell about another creative genius. This
one never saw the inside of an asylum. But maybe he
should've. He was John Fitch. Fitch was born in
1743 in Connecticut. That was 13 years before
William Blake and, like Blake, I believe Fitch was
a Romantic precursor.
Fitch's mother died when he was four -- his
father was harsh and rigid. A sense of injustice
and failure marked his life from the start. Pulled
from school when he was eight and made to work on
his hated family farm, he became, in his own words,
"almost crazy after learning."
He finally fled the farm and took up
silversmithing. He married in 1776 but soon left
his nagging wife, who couldn't bear his manic-depressive extremes. For several years he explored
the Ohio River basin. He spent time as a prisoner
of the British and Indians.
He finally returned to Pennsylvania, afire with
a new obsession. He wanted to make a steam-powered
boat to navigate the Western rivers.
In 1785 and 86, Fitch and a competing builder
named Rumsey looked for money to build steamboats.
The methodical Rumsey gained the support of George
Washington and the U.S. Government. But Fitch found
private support. Then he rapidly reinvented a sort
of Watt engine, moving from mistake to mistake until
he produced America's first successful boat, well
ahead of Rumsey.
It was a strange machine. Talk about a Romantic
vision -- Fitch's boat was propelled by a row of
Indian-canoe paddles. It really did sail out
of the American wilderness and out of the Romantic
inner recesses of Fitch's mind.
Yet, by the Summer of 1790, Fitch was using it in
a successful passenger line between Philadelphia and
Trenton. He logged some 3000 miles at 6 to 8 mph
that summer. Still, in the end, it failed
People just didn't take Fitch's boat seriously.
What they saw was a curiosity -- a stunt. And
Fitch, probably because of his personality extremes,
couldn't sustain his financial backing.
The failure broke Fitch. He retired to
Bardstown, Kentucky, and struck a deal with the
local innkeeper. For 150 acres of land, the man
agreed to put him up and give him a pint of whiskey
every day -- while he drank himself to death.
When that failed, Fitch put up another 150 acres
to raise the dose to 2 pints a day. When that
failed, Fitch finally gathered enough opium pills to
do himself in.
They'd called him "Crazy Fitch" in life. Now
they buried him under a footpath in the central
square. In 1910, the DAR finally put a marker over
the spot, identifying him as a veteran of the
American Revolution. It says nothing about his
And, I tell you, I am haunted by the picture of
this six-foot-two figure in a beaver-skin hat and a
black frock coat -- stumbling the streets of
Bardstown -- the butt of children's jokes.
Fitch had been unable to see that his dream had
not failed. History honors Fitch far better than he
honored himself, for it was he who set the stage for
Robert Fulton. Fitch made it clear that powered
boats were feasible.
Fitch is, for me, a powerful -- and typical --
example of the person who functions creatively and
who, necessarily, also functions at risk. Watt and
Fulton took risks and won big -- but not before
they too had suffered failure.
The trick, of course, is to risk big, lose one
day, and come back to win the next. That's what
happens when we take a healthy pleasure and
confidence in our creative processes. But God help
the creative person who has no tolerance for
At any rate, stories like Fitch's really start
accumulating in the mid-19th century. Next, I'd
like to tell you about two European doctors who
lived in the near wake of the Romantic movement.
The first was the German doctor, Robert Mayer: In
1840, when Mayer was 26, he shipped to the East
Indies as the surgeon on a Dutch vessel.
Afterward, Mayer came back to Germany, married,
and settled down as a town doctor. It might seem he
was done with adventure. But something had touched
Mayer in Java, and it changed his life.
A powerful insight came on him while was letting
blood from sick sailors. Nineteenth-century doctors
did that by lancing a vein. Now you're all well
aware that venous blood carries less oxygen than
arterial blood -- that it runs darker. The first
time Mayer opened a vein in Djarkata, blood ran far
too red. He thought he'd hit an artery.
He soon learned that that was normal in the tropics.
Then he realized: People burn less of the food they
eat in a hot climate. They generate less heat.
People knew that food fuels our power output. Now
Mayer realized that it also fuels our heat supply.
And we need a lot less heat in Djakarta than we do
But this was 1840, and we didn't know that heat and
work can be traded back and forth. We didn't yet
have any first law of thermodynamics.
Mayer thought about that red blood on the long
trip back. And he tumbled to the truth of energy
conservation. He realized that work and heat were
Mayer had identified our most important physical
law. But he didn't know classical physics. He
didn't know formal math. He wrote a clumsy paper
about the idea, and the editor ignored it.
So Mayer went back to study physics. He wrote a
better paper in 1842, and it was published. But
meanwhile, a young Englishman, James Joule, was
measuring how many foot-pounds of work made a Btu.
By 1847 Joule had honed his accuracy to 99 percent.
And there the plot thickens.
Mayer had spun a correct theory for the number of
foot-pounds per Btu. But no one would believe it
until measurements were more complete. Physicists
sorted through Mayer's theory and Joule's
experiment. When they finally resolved the whole
business, they overlooked Mayer. By 1850 Mayer was
so angry and frustrated that he attempted suicide.
For years after, he was in and out of asylums.
Finally, in 1863, the Englishman John Tyndall
wrote an important text on Heat: A Mode of Motion.
It began and ended with Mayer. Mayer was
Twenty years before, insight had touched him in
Java. His vision of bright blood and heat really
did change history. But first, professional
scientists -- people untouched by visions -- had to
put that vision into familiar terms.
Mayer had undergone a blinding insight, a mental
leap in the dark that took him all the way to the law of
conservation of energy in a single step.
It was a leap that preceded method and logic. That
in itself is insanity, isn't it? Of course, it
almost drove Mayer mad. Mayer calls to my mind a
couple of powerful lines by the poet Rilke:
... if you set this brain of mine on fire,
then on my blood I yet will carry you.
Now, you may say, what about that perfectly sane
James Prescott Joule who really put the first law on
solid footing soon after Mayer? Well, Joule was
never institutionalized. But he had his own streak.
Joule married late in life, and he went off to
honeymoon in the Swiss alps. He was met there by
another upper-crust Englishman who spotted his new
bride in a carriage beside the road.
Where was Joule? He was, as it turned out,
skulking about the base of a waterfall below with a
huge thermometer. He was trying to measure the rise
in temperature of the water after it'd fallen
several hundred feet and converted its potential
energy into a fraction of a degree Fahrenheit.
Mad? No. But certainly eccentric.
I began today by quoting the Romantic poet
Coleridge. That was no accident. Madness really
did permeate the Romantic view of things. And as it
did, the 19th century became an epic of truly
unequaled creative output.
Intensity was sanctioned in a way we do not
sanction intensity today. That kind of Romantic
intensity is at the heart of the story of another
highly creative 19th-century doctor -- a
contemporary of Mayer's.
He was Ignaz Semmelweis. In 1847, Semmelweis's
close friend Jakob Kolletschka cut his finger
while he was doing an autopsy. Kolletschka soon
died of symptoms like those of puerperal fever.
That got Semmelweis's attention. Puerperal fever
was killing 13 percent of the women who gave birth
in his hospital. The death rate was driving him
nuts. He couldn't figure it out.
Something else also got his attention. A nearby
obstetric hospital, run by midwives, was losing only
two percent of its patients to fever.
No one had yet connected germs with disease. The
first hint of that connection would come out of
England six years later. Lister wouldn't show us
how to kill germs for another 18 years.
Semmelweis was a Hungarian doctor teaching
medicine in Vienna. He noticed that students moved
between the dissection room and the delivery room
without washing their hands. On a hunch, he set up
a policy. He ordered doctors to wash their hands in
a chlorine solution when they left the cadavers.
When he did that, mortality from puerperal fever
promptly dropped to two percent.
Now things grew strange. Instead of reporting his
success at a meeting, Semmelweis said nothing.
Finally a friend published two papers on the method.
By now, Semmelweis had started washing medical
instruments as well as hands.
As outside interest grew, we begin to understand
Semmelweis's silence. The hospital director felt his
leadership was being criticized. He was furious.
He blocked Semmelweis's promotion. The situation got
worse. Viennese doctors turned on this Hungarian
Finally, he went back to Budapest. There he
brought his methods to a far more primitive
hospital. Yet he cut death by puerperal fever to
less than one percent.
He did more. He systematically isolated causes of
death. He autopsied victims. He set up control
groups. He studied statistics.
Semmelweis wrote a book on his methods in 1861.
The establishment gave it poor reviews. Semmelweis
grew angry and polemical. He hurt his own cause
with his rage and frustration.
In 1865 he suffered a mental breakdown. Friends
committed him to a mental institution. There -- as
though to close the circle on his brief 47-year life
-- he cut his finger.
Within days, he died of the very infection that'd
killed his friend Koletschka -- that'd started him
on his campaign. He died from the same kind of
infection from which he had saved thousands of
The same year Semmelweis died, Joseph Lister began
spraying a carbolic acid solution during surgery to
kill germs. In the end, it was Lister who gave our
unhappy hero his due. Lister finally said, "Without
Semmelweis, my achievements would be nothing."
One of my favorite case histories of creative
madness comes from just a little latter in the 19th
century. This time we meet the Russian
mathematician Georg Cantor, born in 1845. That was
just as Mayer and Semmelweis were hitting their
Cantor catches my fancy because of something that
touched me when I was in grade school. Time
magazine ran an article calculated to snatch my
imagination. Someone proposed a new number called
the googol -- a one followed by a hundred zeros.
Later I learned that the googol wouldn't be much
help in counting real objects, because we'd be hard
pressed to find that many real objects in the whole
universe -- even atoms. But still, what curious
child hasn't wondered where counting ends and
And we have good reason for asking about
infinity. Every engineering student knows that
infinity isn't just the end of numbers. If we ask
how real systems behave when velocities, or time, or
force become infinite -- if we ask about the
character of infinity -- we get some very
unexpected, yet useful, answers to questions about
real system behavior.
Georg Cantor also wondered about infinity. He
was born in Russia and was taught by a father who
wouldn't let him become a violinist and then didn't
want him studying mathematics, either.
But when he was 17, his father died. Cantor went
on to finish a doctorate in mathematics in Berlin,
while he was still only 22.
His career wasn't long. He burned out before he
was 40 and spent the rest of his life in and out of
mental illness. But what he did do was
spectacularly important, and it arose out of an
innocent counting question. He began with an idea
we find even in mother goose. Do you remember:
1-potato, 2-potato, 3-potato, 4
5-potato, 6-potato, 7-potato, more. ?
Counting is like matching one set of things with
another -- in this case, numbers with potatoes.
Cantor asked, "Is counting all the infinite number
of points on a line like counting all the points in
To answer the question, he had to invent
something called transfinite numbers -- numbers that
go beyond infinity. And to do that he had to invent
set theory. And set theory has become a basic
building block of modern mathematics.
Cantor fell into an Odyssey of the mind -- a
journey through a strange land. He had to overcome
the resistance of his father, of the great
mathematicians of his day -- even of his own doubts.
When he was 33, he wrote:
The essence of mathematics is freedom.
To do what he did, he had to value freedom very
highly -- freedom coupled with iron-discipline --
freedom expressed through the driving curiosity of
a bright child -- freedom to think thoughts that
looked like madness to other people -- freedom to
pursue innocent fascination until it finally touched
the world we all live in.
But what a price Cantor paid for his freedom! He
lived his troubled life until 1918. And, perhaps,
this is a happier story than the others I've been
telling you. For he lived long enough to finally
see set theory accepted.
In the end, Cantor was vindicated for his soul-scarring voyage of the mind.
But he still calls to mind that young man who came to me in Philadelphia.
"Can I be creative and still live a normal life?"
It's out of fashion to be driven as these people
were. The question I mean to put to you today is,
"Do we accomplish as much in 1996?"
No epoch in human history ever provided scientific
advances like those in the Victorian era. Mid to
late-19th-century physics was a remarkable edifice
and -- I tell you -- it is littered with stories of
the kind I've been telling today. I'll finish with
just one more such story. This is the story of
On September 5th, 1906, the then 62-year-old
physicist Ludwig Boltzmann slipped a noose around
his neck and hanged himself. Boltzmann, more than
anyone, had shown us how to predict the behavior of
gases by describing moving molecules.
But he'd always lived at poor peace with himself,
and now he despaired of being understood. He
probably committed that irreversible act because
scientists attacked his ideas about irreversibility.
I need to explain that: When molecules collide,
they bounce off one another's force fields with no
friction, no energy loss. If time ran backward, the
collision would reverse itself perfectly. But that
sets up an absurdity:
Suppose you open an air tank and air molecules
begin rushing out. Then suppose the motion of each
molecule could somehow be reversed. Wouldn't
history itself run in reverse? Wouldn't the
molecules rush back into the tank?
That's as silly as it is logical. Time looks
directionless on the molecular level, where motion is
perfectly reversible. But nothing is so perfect in
our larger scale of sensory awareness. Here in the
visible world the past cannot be undone. Time's
arrow flies from past to future. Air never flows
back into the tank.
Boltzmann turned superb mathematics on the
question. He showed how rules of averaging won't
let such a reversal occur. In any large collection
of molecules, disorder continues increasing after
you reverse the motions. The gas must keep flowing
The trouble is, his math didn't say why reversed
molecular motions won't reverse history. Classical
physicists, who hadn't bought his molecular
mechanisms, attacked Boltzmann.
Soon after he died, quantum mechanics took shape,
and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle said it isn't
possible to specify reversed motions accurately. In
a quantum universe, Boltzmann's math still makes
perfect sense, and the idea that you can reverse time
Boltzmann was brilliant, but he had a history of
depression and mental illness. Now he couldn't
answer his critics, yet he knew he was right. Here's
something he said, and -- I think -- something that
offers a key to the kind of mad intensity that gave
us so much good science a century ago.
[theory, said Boltzmann] fills my thought and action ... no sacrifice for
it is too much for me ... [it is] the content of my whole life.
Boltzmann's theory became the hill he chose to die
upon. He despaired and committed his terrible
irreversible suicide just as Einstein and the new
breed of physicists were taking him very seriously.
Had he waited just a little longer, he would've
seen his genius triumph.
His belief faltered. Yet he'd put irreversible
change in motion. Time's arrow was in full flight.
His ideas continued moving outward and, by now, they
have touched the whole of 20th-century physics.
Despite all that, Boltzmann died, deranged by his
own intensities. One more casualty of his own huge
creativity. I'll stop here and simply leave you
with the question I offered when we began -- the
question that young man asked me. I leave you with
the question: "Is it possible to be creative and
lead a normal life?"
MacGregor, J.M., The Discovery of the Art of the Insane, Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1989, Chapter Eight, "Victorian Bedlam:
the Case of Richard Dadd."
Allderidge, P., The Late Richard Dadd, 1817-1886, London: Tate
Gallery Publications, 1974.
Flexner, J.T., Steamboats Come True, Boston: Little Brown, and
Lindsay, R.B., Julius Robert Mayer: Prophet of Energy, New York:
Pergamon Press, 1973.
Turner, R.S., "Mayer, Julius Robert," Dictionary of Scientific
Biography, Vol. ??, (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scribner's Sons,
1970-1980. pp. 235-240.
Deickmann, F., "Vor 150 Jahren: Robert Mayer und die Erhaltung der
Energie," Lufthansa Bordbuch, March, 1991, pp. 52 and 54.
Rukeyser, M., Willard Gibbs, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, and
Co., 1942. (Poet Muriel Rukeyser begins her biography of the
thermodynamicist, J.W. Gibbs, with an account of Mayer's recognition
of the conservation of energy in the year after Gibbs was born.)
The Correlation and Conservation of Forces: A Series of Expositions,
(E.L. Youmans ed.) New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1865.
Tyndall, J., Heat Considered as a Mode of Motion, New York: D.
Appleton and Co., 1863.
Today, Mayer is once again largely forgotten in textbooks. We give most of the credit
to Joule. However, the building block of Mayer's theory was that the conversion
factor, J ft-lb/Btu, (or dyne-cm/cal or N-m/J) could be obtained from,
J = R/(Cp - Cv)
R is the ideal gas constant expressed in work units. Cp and Cv are the specific heats
at constant pressure and constant volume. They're expressed in heat units.
Our textbooks simply write, R = Cp - Cv, and we presume that students know how to
convert heat and work units. One problem with Mayer's work was that he had an accurate
value of R, but Cp and Cv data were flawed. Therefore his value of J was far less
accurate than Joule's.
We call the law of conservation of energy, the First Law of Thermodynamics. It says
energy is conserved over its many forms -- potential, kinetic, thermal, and so on.
Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. In 1850 another German, Clausius, codified
the law in the words, "Die energie der Welt ist Konstant," where we take the word
Welt to mean universe, not world.
Today, of course, we amend the First Law to acknowledge that matter and energy are also
interchangeable in nuclear reactions.
Risse, G.B., "Semmelweis, Ignaz Philipp," Dictionary of Scientific
Biography, (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980.
(See also, the Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Semmelweis.)
Dauben, J.W., Georg Cantor: His Mathematics and Philosophy of the
Infinite, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1979.
Tien, C.L., and Lienhard, J.L., Statistical Thermodynamics, (rev.
printing) New York: Hemisphere Pub. Corp., 1971, 1979. See
especially, Section 12.3 on the Boltzmann H-theorem.
Coveney, P., and Highfield, R., The Arrow of Time: A Voyage Through
Science to Solve Times Greatest Mystery, New York: Fawcett Columbine,
The theoretical apparatus that Boltzmann put in place was truly immense. He took James
Clerk Maxwell's ideas as a starting point and showed how to describe macroscopic
behavior from the behavior of molecular movement. He built the bridges that connect
the kinetic theory of gases to continuum thermodynamics.
He directed that his tombstone have carved upon it his equation relating entropy to
molecular probability. That reflected justifiable pride in his most important
The demonstration that I refer to in the text is his so-called H-theorem. It proves
that increasing entropy is inevitable in any spontaneous process in an ensemble of
molecules. In other words, the second law of thermodynamics is derivable from
molecular considerations, with minimal assumptions.