Thursday, June 17, 2010

Power Line: Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman were not “Bright”

It is rare when we disagree with our good friends at Power Line simply because it is rare for them to be wrong. But when they are wrong, they can be as wrong as Ron Gardenhire trying to fill the number two spot while Orlando Hudson is on the disabled list.

On Tuesday they had just such a post: Frank Tipler: Was Einstein "bright"?

I expected the post to be short, something like:
“Yes indeed, Albert Einstein was bright. He was indisputably very, very, very bright.”

Bizarrely, Power Line’s correspondent, Tulane Physics Professor Frank Tipler, took the contrary view:
“Let me add Albert Einstein to the list of great men who were not "bright," but whose achievements were extraordinary, whose accomplishments changed the course of human history.”

We are agreed that Albert Einstein’s accomplishments were extraordinary and changed the course of human history. But he was not bright? Explain yourself, Professor Tipler.

“Einstein was not offered any academic or research job after he obtained his Ph.D., but instead had to go to work in the Swiss patent office.”

“One of his professors, Hermann Minkowski, who was one of the teachers unimpressed by Einstein the student, is reported to have said, ‘How could such an idiot write such papers?’”

Professor Minkowski had the man who would soon upend the foundations of physics studying under his very nose and he sees him as an “idiot”. I submit that it is Professor Minkowski who is lacking in the “brightness” department.

“Hans Einstein, who never saw Albert Einstein as the ‘great genius’ but rather as ‘dad,’ told my friend that he did not think his father was particularly bright.”

Wait a minute; a son doesn’t think his father is very bright? Why, yes, that would explain why he would never lend Hans the car on Friday nights.

Professor Tipler’s case for Einstein’s lack of brightness is weak indeed. To compound his error, he sets his sights on another accomplished, but supposedly not so bright physicist, Richard Feynman:

“By Feynman's high school days, the Intelligence Test had been introduced to determine just who was really "bright." Feynman, alas, was not one of these. His I.Q. was a mere 125, according to James Gleick in his biography of Feynman, Genius, which, according to his I.Q., Feynman was not.”

Obviously that particular test was inaccurate and James Gleick agrees, or presumably he wouldn’t have titled his biography of Feynman “Genius” (an excellent book, by the way).

“When Feynman applied for admission to Princeton, the graduate admission committee almost rejected him because his score on the Graduate Record Examination was so low. The GRE placed him in the bottom 7 percent on the Fine Arts part of the exam.”

I can see the admissions interview now, “Well Feynman, I see you’ve recently been awarded one of the five Putnam Fellow awards in mathematics and you also have unprecedented prefect scores on our math and physics graduate entrance exams [according to Gleick]. Your M.I.T professors say that you are the finest undergraduate they’ve had in a number of years. I think you will make a fine addition to the Princeton Graduate Physics program … uh oh, wait a minute – it says here you placed in the bottom 7 percent on the Fine Arts exam. I’m afraid we’re going to have to give this some more thought.”

No, I think not.

The context of this preposterous downplaying of the “brightness” of Einstein and Feynman is an examination of the “brightness” of President Obama. Power Line argues that “brightness” is not really enough. The likes of Einstein and Feynman achieved greatness because they, unlike President Obama, could think outside the box and look at things in ways that hadn’t occurred to the supposedly “bright” people.

This is true enough. Einstein and Feynman would not have accomplished what they did without their ability to look beyond the conventional viewpoint. But it is equally true that they would not have accomplished what they did had they not been “bright” enough to do the math.