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It takes brains to spot Einsteins

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The great scientist Albert Einstein comes across in photos as a dishevelled grandfather. His hair has just returned from shock therapy, his chest is draining away in his waistcoat and his moustache desperately needs weeding.

In short, here's a guy with an IQ well over 200 -- double the average person's -- and, if you didn't know who he was, you'd be searching the room for his nanny.

Yet, in his school-masterish book Divine Fury, a history of genius from ancient times, intellectual historian Darrin McMahon of Florida State University labels this deceased little man the "genius of geniuses."

Which means, for most of us lunkheads, we can only spot the real thing when somebody in academia or authority rightly or wrongly tells us they are, or -- in the case of physicist Einstein -- history also declares it.

Sadly, an easier read than McMahon for Mr. and Ms. Average is probably something like The Pathology of Dengue Fever in the Republic of Upper Gabon. And for those who think Mensa is a male deodorant, don't even try.

But Divine Fury (McMahon's third book) is rewarding if you're willing to frequently stop and ponder what you've just read.

In ancient times, McMahon explains, genius was a religious notion, binding us to the divine, and it assumed superhuman abilities and god-like powers.

Today, genius is defined differently as an individual of exceptional creativity and insight, a visionary, helped along by a quantitative system labelled IQ.

But McMahon writes that identifying genius in terms of reason and science alone strips it of its mystique and ignores the religious-like piety considered a prime characteristic of genius for most of recorded history.

McMahon is most readable when he's talking about specific geniuses, especially Hitler and Napoleon.

He says there are very few (true) geniuses around anymore, although he suggests history may prove him wrong. Anyway, he says the distinction doesn't mean as much today thanks to overuse and inflated claims.

Athletes are called geniuses, as are rock stars, coaches, entrepreneurs, scientists and computer geeks, whereas what they are is simply good, sometimes exceptional, at what they do, he says.

McMahon explains the difference by the work of the late master marketer and Apple Computers founder Steve Jobs. He says a genius is an original creator, whereas Jobs wasn't one because, by his own admission, he adapted the ideas of others, albeit brilliantly.

In the realm of the bizarre, says McMahon, there's a pseudo-educational industry devoted to turning precocious tots into budding Mozarts, as if a visionary can be created, and created so easily they make it sound like all it takes is to add something to the little darlings' cereal.

He concludes that because of our strong social demand for equality, we no longer prostrate before intellectual greatness. We are instead wary of it and have cut it down to size by now believing there is a bit of it in all of us.

So what we've got today is a paradox -- more genius and fewer geniuses.

But McMahon is undisturbed. While he's sure genius is immortal, he seems to say that humanity -- the act of being human -- could be the greatest genius of all.

Who'd argue with that?

Retired Winnipeg journalist Barry Craig's favourite brains are Herman Melville and Dylan Thomas.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 2, 2013 A1

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