Genius, society and the state

Srinivasa Ramanujan, a child prodigy, was born 135 years ago on 22nd December. As his birth anniversary approaches, let us ponder over the question – What is genius? Is one born with this trait or is it hard work and focussed efforts that produce a genius? Do the society and the state have a role in the flowering of a genius? The layman’s belief is a muddled mixture of all of these factors topped by another that the geniuses tend to die young, after all that we have heard of some genius or the other who died at a prime age. Jesus Christ was crucified at 33 and Alexander the Great and Eva Peron, the charismatic First Lady of Argentina also died at that age. Mozart, the musical genius, left this world at 35. Nearer home, both Adi Shankaracharya, the greatest sage in living memory and Srinivasa Ramanujan, the mathematical genius, passed away at 32. Vivekananda, whose birthday on 12th January is designated the National Youth Day, lived for 39 years. Such examples led to the popular belief in the short lifespan of geniuses. The truth is quite to the contrary. The layman’s belief is based on a false cause and effect relationship. The fact that these notables were geniuses was not a cause of their early demise.

Research conducted over decades has established a direct correlation between intelligence and life span. The prestigious Scientific American published in 2015 a clear finding of studies that higher intelligence on an average means a longer life. The University of Edinburgh tested 11-year old school children in 1932 for their IQ. Then 65 years later in 1997, they tested the survivors of the group. The results showed that a person with 115 IQ was 21% more likely to be alive at the age of 76 than a person with an IQ of 100. (An IQ of 100 is the average for the general population). Contrary to popular belief, 20 studies in subsequent years have shown that socio-economic factors including poverty and deprivation contribute less than one third to early demise as compared to IQ. It appears that higher IQ enables a person to take better lifestyle decisions based on the available information. An interesting study shows that when health risks of smoking were unknown, there was no correlation between IQ and smoking. When the risks became known, people with higher IQ were found, on an average, to be more likely to quit smoking.

Who wants a long but troubled life, as has been the fate of geniuses like the famous painter Van Gogh or author Ernest Hemmingway? Yet again, the common view that high IQ makes one a social misfit or that practice or focussed effort is key to high performance is not borne out by research, making examples like Van Gogh or Hemingway exceptions to the rule. A huge study of 5000 gifted children, titled Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, founded in 1971 at Johns Hopkins is being continued at Vanderbilt University. An article in the year 2016, in Nature magazine, summed up the findings, “The kids who test in the top one per cent tend to become our eminent scientists and academics, our Fortune 500 CEOs and federal judges, senators and billionaires.” The study clearly indicated that while geniuses are born, improper handling by the society and the state could prevent their full flowering. The genius has to be nurtured and the children have to be enabled to skip classes to remain at their appropriate mental level. The study found that such efforts resulted in 60% more likelihood of earning a PhD or a patent. Johns Hopkins has a Centre for Talented Youth to smoothen the swift rise of such precocious youth. The efficacy of such efforts can be judged from the fact that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin had passed through this centre.

Coming nearer home again, Ramanujan had a tough time studying in college. His sole interest was in Mathematics while he was forced to study English, physiology and Sanskrit. Without a degree, he could not get a job and lived in poverty till he came to the notice of some mathematicians in India who put him in touch with Professor G. H Hardy of Cambridge. Thus the malnourished genius landed in cold England in 1914. In spite of his poor health, he became, in 1918, the first Indian to be elected a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge but died two years later. Had his genius been recognised when he was churning out theorems at the tender age of 13, the world of mathematics could have been richer. The poignant story of Vashishtha Narayan Singh, another mathematical genius, is similar in its essentials. Born in a lower middle class family in Bihar, he showed signs of being extraordinary while studying in a school in Ranchi and college in Patna, much to the discomfort of his mathematics teachers, one of them reported him to the principal for putting on airs. That was a God-sent opportunity as the principal, himself a mathematics professor, moved him immediately from first year of BSc to final year. Later, the principal put him in contact with Professor John Kelley of Berkeley who took the 19-year old to California. With a PhD under his arm, Singh returned to India, had short stints of employment, a failed marriage and rapidly deteriorating mental health. He spent 11 years in the psychiatry ward and then walked off a train unnoticed in 1989. He was found four years later eating out of garbage bins. Ironically, this news finally got recognition and help for him but he was beyond repair and died ten years later.

The society and the state systemically failed to recognise the genius of both Ramanujan and Singh. There were no IQ tests, no mentoring in schools, and an encounter with a mentor only by sheer chance. Neither of them got adequate health care and family life stood in their paths. There will be a few even today, unrecognised, mocked by their “average” peers for their “unintelligible” utterings and writings, despised by their defensive teachers, who fear exposure of their own mediocrity. We speak of our great heritage and have dreams of a great future. Yet, there seems to be no sign that the Indian society is ready to identify our geniuses when they are still young children. Nor is the state or the corporate world enlightened enough to set up, as Johns Hopkins did, a centre for talented Indians, where an Indian Zuckerberg could achieve his full potential without being dragged down to the level of the “average”.

Source : Daily World

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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