James Gleick
Author and Science Historian

James Gleick on the Common Character Traits of Geniuses

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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.

James Gleick

James Gleick was born in New York City in 1954. He graduated from Harvard College in 1976 and helped found Metropolis, an alternative weekly newspaper in Minneapolis. Then he worked for ten years as an editor and reporter for The New York Times.

His first book, Chaos, was a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist and a national bestseller. He collaborated with the photographer Eliot Porter on Nature’s Chaos and with developers at Autodesk on Chaos: The Software. His next books include the best-selling biographies, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman and Isaac Newton, both shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, as well as Faster and What Just Happened. They have been translated into twenty-five languages.

In 1989-90 he was the McGraw Distinguished Lecturer at Princeton University. For some years he wrote the Fast Forward column in the New York Times Magazine.

With Uday Ivatury, he founded The Pipeline, a pioneering New York City-based Internet service in 1993, and was its chairman and chief executive officer until 1995. He was the first editor of the Best American Science Writing series. He is active on the boards of the Authors Guild and the Key West Literary Seminar.



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