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Ben Picks Ten: Geniuses August 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben has always beeen fascinated by genius, or rather, by that kind of genius whose mind embraces everything, whose curiosity leads him or her to explore many avenues, to excel in many things. It is our friend Ben’s view that these are the happiest, luckiest people on earth, people who live in a perpetual ecstasy of thought, delighted by the world around them, thrilled by its possibilities, fully alive. “Boredom” is not a word these people would understand. “Limitations” is not a word that could apply to them.

So who are, or were, these people? Who were the greatest of them all?

Obviously, our friend Ben had to set some limitations in order to bring the number down to 10 (plus, of course, one). Here are the categories that didn’t make the cut:

High IQ. The intelligence quotient (IQ) may measure genius potential, but IQ alone doesn’t cut it as far as our friend Ben is concerned. Marilyn vos Savant is supposed to have the highest IQ of anyone living today; her IQ is 218, when 200-210 is generally regarded as the upper limit and only 1% of the population have IQs over 135 (“normal” is 85-115). So what has Marilyn done with her phenomenal gift? Written columns for Parade magazine? Use it (for the betterment of mankind and/or the world) or lose it, lady.

Prodigies. Folks like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Bobby Fischer, and the brilliant Indian mathematician Srinavasa Ramunajan may have gone to the top of their class in music, chess, math, or what-have-you from the day one, and their genius may still create awe in their respective fields to this day. (And/or continue, as in Mozart’s case, to bring pleasure and joy to us all.) But these people were not what you’d call well-rounded, and their lives outside their sphere of genius have often been pathetic or (as in Fischer’s case) worse. No one could doubt their genius, but no way are they making my top ten. (Though if I were ranking great composers, Mozart would be #2 behind Bach.)

Writers. Yo, our friend Ben is a lifelong writer and poet, and I’m not about to put down folks like Homer, Shakespeare, Yeats, and the Greek tragedians, who often understood human nature and the human condition better than anyone else alive. And, of course, put them into a form that allowed the rest of us to understand them as well. Writers and poets have given our friend Ben more pleasure than anyone, with the possible exception of musicians and composers. So why am I ignoring them? Easy: There are simply too many contenders. And again, getting back to my ultimate criterion, their achievements tend to be one-dimensional. But God knows, I love them anyway.

Religious figures. Our friend Ben has no doubt that great religious leaders like Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammad, and their great followers, people like St. Thomas Aquinas and Mother Teresa, were geniuses. But our friend Ben has no interest in ranking the Divine and the divinely inspired. Let others determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; our friend Ben is sticking with mere mortals in this list.

One-dimensional genius. As noted, what interests me is the type of genius that is engaged with everything. One- or even two-dimensional genius is therefore outside the scope of this list. Justly revered geniuses like Nikola Tesla, the Croatian-born inventor described as “the genius who ushered in the age of electrical power,” and Stephen Hawking, the great British physicist and cosmologist, fall into this category. So does Bill Gates, who has probably done more to change the parameters of our world than any person living. Sorry, Bill.

So who does that leave for our top ten list? Still too many contenders, and that’s not even including the many geniuses our friend Ben is too ignorant to be aware of! As you look through the list, you may be outraged to find favorites like Michaelangelo, Bacon, Goethe, Liebniz, Pascal, Descartes, Darwin, and Copernicus absent. It killed our friend Ben to omit some personal heroes, like the great linguist and explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton and the two-time Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling. And what of the great architects, like Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright? Where are the great philosophers and psychologists like Confucius, Voltaire, and Karl Jung, the great anthropologists and archaeologists like Louis Leakey and Heinrich Schliemann?

So many geniuses, so short a list. That’s why our friend Ben invites you all to submit your own lists. It’s open season on geniuses! I’m sure we’d all be fascinated to see who you choose, preferably with the rationales behind your choices. So don’t be shy! If I can stick my neck out, so can you! Which reminds me, I’d better get to that list. So without more ado, here are the top ten (plus one) that qualify for my One-Ben Awards in the “universal genius” category:

1. Leonardo da Vinci. This guy had it all. His inventions dominated every field, and on top of that, he was the greatest artist who ever lived. It doesn’t get more impressive than this.

2. Benjamin Franklin. My personal hero, Ben Franklin, has been acclaimed in our time as the greatest diplomat who ever lived. In his own time, he was the greatest and most famous scientist of his day, and he was, incidentally, also the greatest inventor, possibly of all time. He put his enormous genius to use for the good of all mankind, and to this day, the institutions he developed continue to benefit humanity and his practical, homespun maxims remain words to live by.

3. Sir Isaac Newton. It’s hard for us today to imagine the influence Newton had on his peers, especially given the old apple-on-the-head story that’s about all we’re ever told about him. We’re more likely to think of Fig Newtons than Sir Isaac. But back in the day, he towered over everyone, laying the foundations for modern science, making huge strides in physics, mathematics and optics (besides discovering gravity, he invented the telescope), and, like Einstein after him, continually searching for something more, for the Ultimate. Even now, it is stated unequivocally that Newton was “clearly the most influential scientist who ever lived.” That’s good enough for our friend Ben.

4. Aristotle. We can all thank Aristotle for bringing Europe out of the Dark Ages (his rediscovery by Aquinas and the mediaevals paved the way for modern science). Aristotle was the best kind of genius, interested in everything, determined to investigate everything. Aristotle is said to be “the last person to know everything there was to be known in his own time.” Our friend Ben would add that he was almost certainly also the first. Aristotle was a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great; the first to codify logic, and one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. His studies and discoveries extended into the realms of physics, biology, and medicine as well. It was he who discovered the circulation of the blood, 2,000 years before Sir Joseph Priestley was credited with the achievement. No wonder his name lives on. Thanks, Aristotle!

5. Avicenna. Avicenna, aka Abu Ali Sina, was a Persian scientist and philosopher. Though remembered today principally for his medical treatises, which formed the basis for modern medicine, Avicenna was what’s known as a polymath—someone who excels in many fields—and his achievements included being an (our friend Ben is quoting Wikipedia here) “astronomer, chemist, geologist, Hafiz, logician, paleontologist, mathematician, physicist, poet, psychologist, scientist, Sheikh, soldier, statesman, and Islamic theologian.” He was also a great admirer of Aristotle. ‘Nuff said!

6. Galileo. Galileo Galilei may be best known today for his ultimate triumph over the Inquisition, which claimed that the sun circled around the earth and that the earth was flat. Galileo championed the Copernican view that the earth circled the sun, but his genius and vision extended farther, to the extent that he has been called “the father of modern science.” Physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, Galileo spearheaded the scientific revolution that has enabled us to reach the scientific achievements of our own day.

7. Pythagoras. The first philosopher, Pythagoras is better known to us as the father of mathematics. Though our friend Ben still struggles with geometry, I can appreciate Pythagoras’s contributions to music theory and the philosophy of Plato, and thus to Western civilization.

8. Queen Elizabeth I. Let’s get a woman on the list, shall we? Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, was no slouch mentally, but it was through her mother, Anne Boleyn, that Elizabeth inherited her genius. Like Anne, Elizabeth had an effortless aptitude for languages, music, and academic subjects, but unlike her brilliant but ill-fated mother, she had a far better grasp of human nature. It allowed her to hold the reins of the English Renaissance, becoming the greatest ruler England—and perhaps the world—has ever known. Not too shabby!

9. Al-Biruni. Abu Rayham Biruni, aka Al-Biruni, is extolled as “one of the great scientific minds in all history” and “the father of anthropology.” This Persian polymath first popularized the experimental (as opposed to theoretical) scientific method, bringing science into the modern age over 1,000 years ago. And, as “polymath” implies, he was also a physicist, astronomer, mathematician, chemist, sociologist, historian, pharmacist, geographer, geologist, linguist, psychologist, theologian, and Islamic philosopher. Among other things. If you live in the West, as our friend Ben does, the name of Al-Biruni may be unknown to you. But East or West, we all owe this great genius a huge debt for his discoveries and scientific legacy.        

10. Albert Einstein. Einstein defines “genius” for our time, and deservedly so. Despite our friend Ben’s high-school struggles with his equation, E =mc2, and his theory of relativity, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize Albert Einstein as the father of modern physics. Einstein was honored with a Nobel Prize in 1921, and Time magazine named him “Person of the Century” in 1999.

And the bonus:

11. Sherlock Holmes. Yes, of course he’s not real, but Holmes is our friend Ben’s favorite fictional genius, so I’m including him in my list. So there!   

That’s it for me. Now it’s your turn! If you have a favorite our friend Ben has overlooked, let us all know your selection. Convince me. We could all use a few more role models!



1. ceecee - August 27, 2008

My addition isn’t really an all-around genius, but one that changed human life and death. Dr. Michael DeBakey–I guess he was more of a pioneer, but genius none the less. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_E._DeBakey

I am a highly dismayed to find that I can’t think of even one woman that fits the bill. 😦 I can think of many great women in history, but genius doesn’t fit the bill for any of them. Madame Curie? Helen Keller? Why do you suppose that is? I found a quote that seems to hit the nail on the head.

The failure of women to produce genius of the first rank in most of the supreme forms of human effort has been used to block the way of all women of talent and ambition for intellectual achievement in a manner that would be amusingly absurd were it not so monstrously unjust and socially harmful.

Woman’s Share in Social Culture, 1912

Thanks, CeeCee! I think you’re right, Helen Keller must have been a genius to overcome all her handicaps and become wise in the bargain. Madame Curie got quite a few votes on the genius websites as well. I should have included Hildegard of Bingen, who was clearly a great genius, on my list, as well. Shame on me for neglecting her! Ms. Spencer’s quote touches on the core of the issue: Until very recently, women weren’t allowed to be leaders in any field (at least for the past 3,000-odd years), so how was their genius to be shown? Imagine if Leonardo or Ben Franklin had been women!

2. sjones71 - August 27, 2008

This post is a keeper. I’m a genius lover also. I’d likely add Darwin, but it is hard to say who he would supplant. As for women geniuses within your parameters I think I would want to add Emilie du Chatelet.

Thanks! I don’t know Emilie, and will have to look her up posthaste!

3. avi - October 7, 2008

Da vinci, Jefferson, Franklin, Einstein, Newton, Tesla, Edison, Galileo, Hawking, Darwin.

Good choices, Avi! I don’t think you’d find many who would argue with them!

4. avi - October 7, 2008

never really heard of al-biruni.

I hadn’t either, until I started researching geniuses for this post. I was so impressed! Makes me think of all the great minds we’ll never know about!

5. avi - March 21, 2009

new list:Da Vinci, Jefferson, Franklin, Newton, Galileo, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Tesla, Edison. HMs:Einstein, Darwin, Bell, Curie, Kepler, Freud, Pasteur, Marx, Madison.

Very interesting, Avi! And thanks for giving this more thought. Nobody could deny that everyone on your list was a genius! (Except, maybe, Madison. He might have been a genius, or he might just have been very, very smart. Wish I could go back in time and find out!)

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