Pockets of Genius
Culturally, we have always had periods in history, going from one stage to the next in a linear timeframe. Think of all of the discoveries in every field imaginable. Each having a snowball effect, paving the way for further advancements until we have built the big fluffy snowman of today.
The timeline of science is a great example here. Beginning right back in the 4th century BC, the ancient Greek Theophrastus described a treatment of wounds. Not very sciency by today’s standards granted, but this would have been a real humdinger of an actual applied science back in the day.
From there we can see a timeline of discoveries that lead up to the modern-day and beyond.
In the 17th century, Isaac Newton took the credit for inventing the telescope – which he actually didn’t 1, which led Galileo into all kinds of hoo-ha with the Catholic Church for his observations of the solar system. Then Newton went on to actually discover things for himself; the spectrum of light, the laws of motion, the effects of gravity amongst other things.
This gave rise to the birth of ‘Classical Physics’ which was then used as a foundation for centuries of further advancement. Then along came another big brain in the form of Albert Einstein who took things to a whole new level with his theory of general relativity.
Einstein laid the path for others to discover new things which came the technology we have today, quantum theory, space travel and your toaster.
So we can see a related chain of events going all the way back to the ancients Greek Philosophers.
This pattern plays out in all aspects of life; the reigning periods of Royalty, fashion and everything else.
However, there are also small pockets of intense growth with very particular subjects, usually the arts but science as well. What is weird with these and worthy of scrutiny is the fact that they occur over very small timescales and within a very specific geographic regions.
“Yup, I started the whole sciencey ball-a-rollin” – Theophrastus
Think of the insane talent of Leonardo da Vinci. The 15th century artist was responsible for the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, The Virgin of the Rocks and at least 19 other fancy paintings. A true Polymath, his interests also spanned anatomy, being the first to accurately draw a child in the womb, bone structures and their associated muscles, all by dissecting his own subjects.
He was also proficient in architecture, music, science, mathematics, engineering, literature, geology, astronomy, botany, paleontology, cartography and geometry. The latter giving us The Vitruvian Man, laying the foundations of our understanding of the ratios present in the human body.
da Vinci’s talents doesn’t stop there, however. It seemed this bad boy wasn’t content with mastering pretty much every field available to him, he also invented a thing or two. Not being a man to be put off by silly inconveniences such as living in the wrong century, he went on to invent things that were somewhat out of place in the late 1490s and their current understanding of physics.
The predecessor to the helicopter – da Vinci.
The predecessor to the machine gun – da Vinci
Parachute – da Vinci
Diving suit – da Vinci
Armored car – da Vinci.
I could go on but it’s getting boring now. It’s pretty safe to say that da Vinci wasn’t the average dude.
So what are the odds of someone like him existing? A million to one? A hundred million to one?
Personally I don’t like statistics, as statistically, every person on the planet has one testicle, but I would think someone like him existing is pretty rare.
“Just some quick sketches I knocked up” – da Vinci
Now. Think of another dude with talents greater than the average Joe. Michelangelo.
His statue of David is the finest example of any statue ever created. Ever.
Michelangelo is often regarded as the greatest artist of all time. Which is kind of odd as Michelangelo himself didn’t consider himself an artist at all but rather a sculptor.
In 1505, the pope Julius II insisted that Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
Not being a fan of painting big fancy ceilings by candlelight, Michelangelo didn’t want the gig and preferred to spend his days chipping away at some block of marble.
As he also didn’t want to piss ol’ Julius off and the whole ‘you shall do this under pain of death’ thing wasn’t too appealing either so he duly accepted.
And look at the result.
Laying on his back on homemade scaffold, 13.5 meters in the air, Michelangelo painted the entire 41×19 meter ceiling.
Working so close to his canvas, we can only imagine how many trips down and back up to his 13.5 meter platform he had to make to keep things in perspective but look at it!
“Damm, I missed a bit” – Michelangelo
And THAT was created by someone who A, didn’t consider himself a painter and B, didn’t want the job to begin with and so it was probably done half-arsed.
And again the same question. What are the odds of someone with his insane talent ever existing?
Of course, both Michelangelo and da Vinci did indeed exist and humanity has been enriched by both men. And here is the point of this article …
Why did both men exist at the same time?
In fact it goes deeper than this – much deeper.
da Vinci and Michelangelo are only two examples of a period that spanned a few hundred years. The Renaissance.
When we throw in the likes of Donatello, Raphael, Botticelli, et al we can ask, why did these men all live in the same time period and equally puzzling, why were they all within the same geographic region centering around Florence?
“Ha. I could paint that laying on my back” – Michelangelo
The same is true with music. Think of all of the great composers. These guys weren’t jumping on the bandwagon of the latest fad in town, but each was a truly gifted, insanely talented individual whose work goes beyond time. Wolfgang Mozart, Beethoven, Boccherini, Schubert, Bach, Haydn, Gluck, Clementi, Paganini, Weber, Spontini, Salieri, Rossini, Cherubini, Hummel and actually, the list goes on.
Again, as with the Renaissance example above, these composers of music and opera all lived within a 90 year time period; around 1730 to 1820 and they also lived a, geographically speaking, stones throw from each other.
They were either German, Austrian, Italian or someplace else within that region. Mozart, Beethoven, Salieri, Schubert, and Gluck all worked out of one and the same city, Vienna.
If we look at Mozart individually, or Beethoven, or Bach. As with da Vinci, each of these men had individual talent that is to such a level that it should be hard to equal.
But they were kind of equaled – by each other, and in doing so, watering their talents down to be ‘kind of normal’ for that time period and hence, then taken for granted.
If just one of these men existed on their own without the others I believe he would be held in even more high esteem. But by existing in a group their talents and gifts are normalised – for that time period.
The ancient Greek philosophers are another example. The musings and arguments from those of that time period still stand up today. Aristotle, Plato, Pythagoras, Democritus and a couple of hundred others. 2 Although the movement as a whole spanned a few hundred years, most of the big players knew each other and everyone lived in, well, Greece.
Then we have the Age of Enlightenment. Same deal. A small group of people all centered around one area and a time period with magnificent, society-changing ideas.
In modern times the quantum theory has also thrown a bunch of super-brained individuals together; Einstein, Schrōdinger, Heisenberg, Planck, Bohr, Fermi …
The greatest scientific minds ever lived – together, at the same time, in the same place.
Front row from left to right: Irving Langmuir, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin, Charles Eugene Guye, Charles Wilson, Owen Richardson
Second row: Petrus Debye, Martin Knudsen, William Lawrence Bragg, Hendrik Kramers, Paul Dirac, Arthur H. Compton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr
Back row: Auguste Piccard, E. Henriot, Paul Ehrenfest, Edouard Herzen, Theophile De Donder, Erwin Schrodinger, J.E. Verschaffelt, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Ralph Howard Fowler, Leon Brillouin
So whats going on?
Why do we have these pockets in history where a group of individuals not only excel in a subject but would still beat most efforts today?
Why are they all from the same region and all within a usually short set time period of each other?
And why does extreme genius manifest in not one but many people within the same field and even often know each other? Yes, I am talking about you Mr Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert or da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli and the like?
I would be interested in your thoughts below.
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