REAL GENIUSES: What are they Like

Recently I had lunch with a former colleague from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. This is a large research and engineering facility built on a hillside in Pasadena, California, less than a mile from the Rose Bowl stadium and sports park. We fell to chatting about our favorite movies and TV programs, among them Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory. Both of which we find still funny the Nth time around, unusual among sitcoms and movies.

Big Bang Theory follows four geniuses who work at CalTech, the California Institute of Technology. It manages JPL and thus we ourselves had shared the same rarefied intellectual and physical space of the four characters. We tried to recall examples of the brilliant scientists and engineers we’d known who were similar to the four. We had only small success, despite having known some fairly colorful characters.

The reason is simple. Real geniuses usually don’t resemble their stereotypes. What ARE they like? Here is the answer.


Bright and brilliant people come in all shapes and sizes and looks. A statistical diagram of most measures (such as height, strength, weight) would show the bell-shaped curve familiar to most of us. Most curves of geniuses lean slightly toward the right, associated with greater height, muscularity, and healthiness.

In other words, geniuses are slightly more fit than the average population. The reason is obvious once you give it a bit of thought. The brain is one of several organs; it’s part of a whole. If it works well, it’s partly because it’s (for example) well supplied with blood. Major advances in any art or science also require their creators to work hard and long, and that’s helped by a strong, healthy body.

Don’t despair, however, if you cherish the belief that “nerds” and “geeks” look weird and scrawny and maybe downright ugly. Statistics ensures that your prejudice can find SOME examples. But beware using those epithets around brilliant people. Some of them are quite large and easy to offend!


The principals of The Big Bang Theory are all emotionally stunted, childlike. Which is why so many of their antics are funny. (The same is true of A Modern Family; some of the children are more mature than the adults.)

Again, this is unlike most geniuses, who show the same distribution of most emotional traits as the rest of us. But there are several ways the stereotype approaches truth.

To achieve greatly in any field you have to be fairly optimistic, at least about the chances of success in your field. Where success might yield any of several rewards: money, fame and respect, sex, freedom.

You have to be open to change and newness. Though like most of us geniuses often resist it at first. But if you suggest a change or a new idea, AND THEN LEAVE THEM ALONE, often after a time the suggestion will sink in and the next thing you know they are enthusiastically selling the idea to you.

You have to be stubborn. Great success depends on Edison’s “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

You have to like or even need solitude. A genius needs a dearth of distractions to get their best thinking done.


“Nerds” are stereotypically socially inept. Again, more often geniuses have a wide distribution of social skills. But here the bell-shaped curve leans more to the right, to great skill.

Because bright people better understand the need for others to their success and happiness. And they better understand how to get it, whether “it” is funds for their work, permission to get and use equipment or aides or material, or any other resource. You will never meet a more charming con artist than a scientist who wants more time on a multi-million-dollar particle accelerator!

Geniuses can be social magnets. They are often powerful in their fields, witty, and able to bend their minds to understanding you. Which can be immensely attractive. But also dangerous, because they can be very manipulative. They also bore easily. Many a beautiful woman or gorgeous man have had their hearts broken by a suddenly cold lover.


The intellectual side of genius is where they are most misunderstood.

Madness and genius

Madness and genius are sometimes said to be alike. Studies have shown there is some truth to this idea. But what the studies rarely show is that the two are also very un-alike. And how they are different.

Both schizophrenics and creative people may have visual and auditory “hallucinations” and a feeling of disconnection from the present reality. But there are two big differences between the mad and the dreamers.

One, the creative artist or scientist or engineer knows that their experience comes from within, rather than from God or other supernatural source which is giving them commands or esoteric knowledge.

More important, the highly creative are in control. They learn to squelch or amplify their fantasies and direct them to suit their ends. An artist or writer “seeing” a scene that does not exist can paint or verbalize the scene. They can also use several scenes to make a larger whole, such as a tapestry or a story.

They can increase the flow of imagery and sound using several techniques which artists and knowledge workers have invented over the years. Or suppress it if needed. Or re-direct it as needed.

Memory and Genius

Stereotypes of brilliant people assume they have perfect memory. Wrong. A perfect memory is a handicap. Someone with a perfect memory literally may not recognize their son in the evening because in that short time the son grew noticeable stubble. This made him look like a stranger.  (This is an actual not a made-up example.)

Geniuses instead have an excellent “forgetter.” This improves their ability to see the shape of important matters because it suppresses unimportant details. This process is called abstraction, because it abstracts out the unimportant matters. All good thinkers know this process. This is why smart people may put aside a problem overnight or longer, because the fading of memory often gives us a better perspective on the problem.

A study of chess masters showed that they do not have superior raw memory. Instead they almost literally see patterns of pieces such as “forks”: where a piece threatens two opponent pieces, forcing the opponent to sacrifice one of them. Chess masters also sense larger patterns, as when a match has gone from the begin-game to mid-game to end-game. Different tactics are required in those different phases of the game. This ability to find general patterns is crucial for anyone doing intellectual tasks.

What bright people do have, rather than a superior memory for information, is a superior ability to FIND information. They are virtuosos in the library and on the internet – and when questioning people about some matter. Great detectives have this ability to great degree.

Math and Genius

Another myth is that highly intelligent people are more often “instant calculators” able (for instance) to multiply two 20-digit numbers in a fraction of a second in their heads. In fact, this ability is randomly distributed, giving rise to the label idiot savant.

Nowadays most knowledge workers such as scientists and engineers don’t value this ability very highly. There are a couple of reasons why.

Most obviously, machines are much more capable of calculation than any organic intelligence. Your average smart phone can do over a million such calculations in a second. And does when you use it to play video games.

Your average engineering workstation or high-end desktop computer is easily a hundred or even a thousand times as fast.  And modern supercomputers capabilities are measured in petaflops: a MILLION MILLION floating point number calculations per second.

The second reason is that knowledge workers value much more the ability to see patterns in numbers.

Most of us have this ability to some extent. You likely would notice in two columns of numbers if pairs of them were either both low or both high, and the in-between pairs intermediate in value. And you’d not be surprised if you were told they represented heights and weights of people.

And when the sets of numbers go in opposite directions, you’d likely guess that one set is something like the price of an item and the other set is how many of them sell in a time period.

When the number of sets goes beyond two most people, no matter how bright overall, depend on various visual and math tools to analyze and report on them. Weather reporters use maps where parts of an area are labeled with colors, “cooler” colors such as blue for cool temperatures, “hotter” numbers such as red for hotter temps. Scientists, engineers, business analysts, and so on may use calculus and matrix maths to find patterns.

IQ and Genius

IQ tests have been a field of research for more than a century. They’ve caused a good deal of angry and excited argument by those whose pet oxen have been curried and/or gored.

Here are the basic facts. They are easily given and scored attempts to measure intelligence. They are useful if the users understand their limitations, and use them as only one of many ways to measure people.

The standard IQ tests are pretty narrow.  A good deal of research has gone into measuring other kinds intelligence, such as creativity, critical thinking, social intelligence, practical intelligence, and other kinds of smarts. The resulting tests (like IQ tests) are all pretty crude, but are useful as long as the users understand their limits.

The best “tool” to measure intelligence in someone is still to give a very wise and experienced person a good chunk of time with that someone. Unfortunately, this tool is very hard to procure. It’s even harder to use when you get your bloody ruthless organizational paws on them. They tend to leave that organization in bleeding and burning ruins!

Creativity and Genius

Most of us personally experience creativity, and its nurturing and problems.

Oftentimes it takes two or more creative thinkers to accomplish important endeavors.  This it the case of authors and their agents and publishers, who must also have a mind creative enough to recognize creativity. (The “it takes one to know one” principal.)

In my specialty for 40+ years, engineering, I’ve found that most engineers are creative to some degree; indeed, it’s a basic ingredient. Engineers go back millennia to when some people were especially needed to create and build engines of war, such as makeshift bridges over water or an abyss. Today an engineer might create a new kind of kitchen appliance, or an especially creative version of an already existing one. Or a piece of software – such as Angry Birds!

In the general public and in SF it’s a common idea that a brilliant new idea will automatically and instantly achieve success. Alas! Knowledge workers know well this is not so. The new always encounters resistance, some of it hostile but most of it simple laziness. They also know that no new idea is perfect, and it always costs time, effort, money, and more to make it real.

A perfect example of what it takes to bring a genius idea to reality is PostIt notes. Today it’s a billion-dollar industry. Different versions of PI notes are so common it seems it would be obvious to even dummies that PI notes are a great idea. But this is not so. Sometimes you might want to read how they came into existence.

The basic story is simple. A chemist trying to make a better glue instead made an inferior one. His stroke of genius was that this inferiority could have merit: he’d created a glue which could make undoing its bonding effect easy.

He struggled to sell this product idea for five years. Luckily a colleague of his finally agreed with him and took over the effort of selling it. He persuaded a group in their company to launch a cheap trial effort by selling PostIt notes in a few stores and giving free samples to some residents in a large city. PI notes proved popular. But it took a few more years for the product to catch on and go big.

Which might be a lesson to struggling authors. So you’ve created a brilliant and entertaining book or series of books. Don’t expect instant success. Most of those “instant” success stories we read about took time for the snowball to become a juggernaut.

This means what to writers?

Stereotypes both capture and badly distort essential truths. Thus they make us believe that geniuses are somehow not human. The reverse is true. They are as much part of the human race as the rest of us. In fact, in the above descriptions chances are that any number of times you have recognized some of the traits of genius in you yourself.