James Gleick on the Common Character Traits of Geniuses

Author and Science Historian

This video is part of a series on female genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.

The personalities of Isaac Newton and Richard Feynman were, on one level, extremely different. Biographer and former New York Times reporter James Gleick says Newton was argumentative, had few friends, and likely died a virgin. Feynman, on the other hand, loved dancing and going to parties, and had many friends in the scientific community. But in regards to their working habits, both men were solitary and had the ability to concentrate with a sort of intensity that is hard for mortals to grasp. At bottom, Gleick says geniuses tend to have a yearning for solitude which, though fruitful for their professional work, made the task of daily living more burdensome.

  • Transcript


James Gleick:  I’m tempted to say smart, creative people have no particularly different set of character traits than the rest of us except for being smart and creative, and those being character traits.  Then, on the other hand, I wrote a biography of Richard Feynman and a biography of Isaac Newton.  Now, there are two great scientific geniuses whose characters were in some superficial ways completely different.  Isaac Newton was solitary, antisocial, I think unpleasant, bitter, fought with his friends as much as with his enemies.  Richard Feynman was gregarious, funny, a great dancer, loved women.  Isaac Newton, I believe, never had sex.  Richard Feynman, I believe, had plenty.  So you can't generalize there.

On the other hand, they were both, as I tried to get in their heads, understand their minds, the nature of their genius, I sort of felt I was seeing things that they had in common, and they were things that had to do with aloneness.  Newton was much more obviously alone than Feynman, but Feynman didn’t particularly work well with others.  He was known as a great teacher, but he wasn't a great teacher, I don't think, one on one.  I think he was a great lecturer.  I think he was a great communicator.  But when it came time to make the great discoveries of science, he was alone in his head.  Now, when I say he, I mean both Feynman and Newton, and this applies, also, I think, to the geniuses that I write about in The Information, Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, Ada Byron.  They all had the ability to concentrate with a sort of intensity that is hard for mortals like me to grasp, a kind of passion for abstraction that doesn't lend itself to easy communication, I don't think.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton