Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Intelligence Vs Genius

What is the difference between intelligence and genius? Walter Isaacson writes about this in his article that was published in the NY Times's Sunday Review. Issacson has written a bioghraphy of Steve Jobs that was published last month. I am nearly reproducing the article here mainly because I enjoyed reading it and hope to share it with Yeshee someday. Tried reading it to him the other day but it was late in the night and he was exhausted after a long day at school. So he just said, "let me go back to my book."

While answering the question, how smart Steve Jobs really was, Isaacson recounts having dinner with Jobs and his family a few months ago when "someone brought up one of those brainteasers involving a monkey's having to carry a load of bananas across a desert, with a set of restrictions about how far and how many he could carry at one time, and you were supposed to figure out how long it would take." Isaacson says, " Jobs tossed out a few intuitive guesses but showed no interest in grappling with the problem rigorously. Bill Gates on the other hand would have gone click -click -click and logically nailed the answer in 15 seconds."

Accordnig to Isaacson, Jobs may not have beeen convetionally smart but he was a genius. "His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical. They were sparked by intuition, not analytic rigor. Trained in Zen Buddhism, Jobs came to value experiential wisdom over empirical analysis. He didn't study data or crunch numbers but like a pathfinder, he could sniff the winds and sense what lay ahead."

Jobs told Isaacson that he began to appeciate the power of intiution, in contrast to what he called "Western rational thought," when he wandered around India after dropping out of college. "The people in the Indian countryside don't use their intellect like we do." Jobs said. "They use their intuition instead....Intiution is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That's had a big impact on my work."

Isaacson says Jobs's intiution was based not on conventional learning but on experiential wisdom. He also had a lot of imagination and knew how to apply it. Here Isaacson mentions Einstein's famous quote, " Imagination is more important than knowledge."

This was a deja vu moment for me as it is Yeshee's favorite quote. Last year he had to do a class project called 'People who made a Difference'. He chose to do it on Einstein. During his on- line research he came across this quote and loved it so much that he used it as a take-off point to make 4 posters to explain Einstein's theories. I've uploaded one of his posters elsewhere on this blog- need to upload the remaining three.

Back to the article... Isaacson says, "Einstein had the elusive qualities of genius, which included that intiution and imagination that allowed him to think differently." "Although he was not particularly religious, Einstein described this intuitive genius as the ability to read the mind of God. When assessing a theory, he would ask himself, Is this the way that God would design the universe? And he expressed his discomfort with quantum mechanics, which is based on the idea that probability plays a governing role in the universe by declaring that he could not believe that God would play dice."

I'm quoting this passage about Einstein extensively here with the hope that it might help me understand Einstein's theories a little better. When Yeshee was doing his project, I got deeply involved in it along with him. And even though I was able to somewhat understand the special Theory of Relativity, which he tried to explain by drawing a plane flying in the sky and showing how the speed of the plane would appear to be different to someone viewing it from the ground below and to someone sitting inside that plane or if someone could magically hoist themselves in the sky next to that plane, I still cannot fully fathom what Einstein said about time and gravity- "There is no such thing as absoulte time and that gravity is a warping of the fabric of space-time-"??? I have read many explainations of this...still can't figure out what it means.

Perhaps, if I can start thinking on the lines of how God would've designed the universe, it will help me understand what Einstein is saying. Or if I fall short in my thinking, at least I can encourage Yeshee to start thinking on those lines (that is if he ever agress to sit down with me and read this).

Isaacson says, both Einstein and Jobs were visual thinkers. "The road to relativity began when the teenage Einstein kept trying to picture what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam. Mr. Jobs spent time almost every afternoon walking around the studio of his design chief and fingering foam models of the products they were developing."

But Jobs's genius, "wasn't in the same quantum league as Einstein's." Isaacson calls it ingenuity. "Bill Gates is super smart, but Steve Jobs is super-ingenious." The primary distinction according to Isaacson is the ability to apply creativity and aesthetic sensibilities to a challenge. In the world of invention and innovation, that means combining an appreciation of the humanities with an understanding of science- connecting artistry to technology, poetry to processors."

"I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics, " Jobs said. "Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Poloroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and science, and I decided that's what I wanted to do."

"The ability to merge creativity with technology depends on one's ability to be emotionally attuned to others" Issacson writes. According to him, "In the annals of ingenuity, new ideas are only part of the equation. Genius requires execution. Between conception and creation T. S. Eliot observed, there falls the shadow."

In some ways, Jobs's ingenuity reminds Isaacson of Benjamin Franklin, one of his other biography subjects. "Among the founders," Isaacson says, "Franklin was not the most profound thinker- that distintion goes to Jefferson or Madison or Hamilton. But he was ingenious."

"This depended in part on his ability to intuit the relationships between different things. When he invented the battery, he experimented with it to produce sparks that he and his friends used to kill a turkey for their end of season feast. In his journal he recorded all the similarities between such sparks and lightening during a thunderstorm, then declared, "Let the experiment be made." So he flew a kite in the rain, drew electricity from the heavens, and ended up inventing the lightening rod. Like Jobs, Franklin enjoyed the concept of applied creativity- taking clever ideas and smart designs and applying them to useful devices"

In the last paragraph Isaacson says, "China and India are likely to produce many rigorous analytical thinkers and knowledgable technologists. But smart and educated people don't always spawn innovation. America's advantage, if it continues to have one, will be that it can produce people who are also more creative and imaginative, those who stand at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences."

I am a little curious to know why Isaacson chose to mention India and China in an article about Steve Jobs and intelligence and genius. It is very unlikely that an accomplished biographer of his stature would make the mistake of forgetting what he wrote at the beginning of his own article namely that Jobs's ingenuity or his faith in the power of intuition had nothing to do with his American education or upbringing. He picked that up from villagers during his travels through the Indian countryside, which in turn had a great impact on his work.

If any country has an advantage in producing people, "who know how to stand at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences"- that country in my opinion then, would be India. The age-old wisdom of its people combined with the rapid spread of western ideas and opportunities through its countryside is more likely to produce the next Jobs or even Einstein than any other country. Hopefully!!!

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