Stunning news! I've discussed this topic previously, but I've just learned from Dr. Penny Smith that the famous 20th-century mathematician, Paul Erdos, was a student of the same László Rátz of the same Lutheran High School in Budapest that graduated Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, and Edward Teller in the early years of the last century. Add that to the "Italian School" that included Enrico Fermi, Bruno Rossi, Bruno Pontecorvo, and Emilio Segre and you've accounted for about half the world's leading physicists in the first half of the 20th century. These geniuses came from two locations and were obviously inspired by two men: László Rátz, and the Chairman of the physics department at the University of Rome. It has been known since time immemorial that high intelligence is synonymous with works of genius. However, it's also clear that intelligence is a necessary, but by no means sufficient condition for works of genius. But here, we might have the germ of an answer. Somehow, these two men breathed the afflatus of genius into their charges. László Rátz held math competitions, published a math newspaper, and gave little prizes to has students. Eugene Wigner said that "no one else could evoke evoke a subject like Rátz". Mihaly Csikszentmihaly in his book "Creativity", , pg. 174, says,
"What made these teachers influential? Two main factors stand out. First, the teachers noticed the student, believed in his or her abilities, and cared. Second, the teacher showed care by giving the child extra work to do, greater challenges than the rest of the class received. Wigner describes Rátz as a friendly man who loaned his science books to interested students and gave them tutorials and special tests to challenge their superior abilities."
(It sounds as though Rátz may have been an unsung pedagogical genius in his own right.)
What's striking about this is that there's no way that the Lutheran High School in Budapest had all or Europe's brightest between 1912 and 1931. There would have been equally intelligent teenagers in Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Brussels, Madrid, Lisbon, Paris, London, St. Petersgurg, Athens, and Vienna, to name only European capitol cities. This underscores the fact that high intelligence is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for high achievement in physics and mathematics. (Paul Erdos discovered negative numbers when he was four. John von Neumann was highly precocious.) This is not the outcome I'd have sought, but this is the outcome we've got.
Bottom Line: Can we today produce outstandingly capable adults by nurturing very-bright teenagers? Society has known for centuries that its geniuses tend to be extremely intelligent. Hans Eysenck, in his book "Genius", concludes that the typical genius has "an IQ some three to four standard deviations above the mean." "In the long run such precision does not matter very much; the main point is that high IQ is one of the features of genius, and apparently a universal, and hence probably a necessary, one." On the other hand, it's also agreed that intelligence is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for genius. Even Sir Francis Galton agreed with this assessment. So the question becomes: "What does it take to inspire an extremely brilliant individual to produce great works?" Many hypotheses have been advanced, including unhappy childhoods and personality disorders. However, the experiences with Lutheran High School and with the physics department at the University of Rome suggest that another way to arrive at this happy outcome may be inspired teaching of the hyperbright in the watershed high school and college years
I had noticed this with the mathematical prodigies in the Johns Hopkins SMPY (Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth) program. Many of them drop away during their teenage years when crises such as the switch to adult expectations of productivity, and gender and conformity issues reach critical stages. Shepherding adolescents past this Scylla and Charybdis might do great things for their adult lives. It also fits Ellen Winner's and David Feldman's description of the need for coaching and special training at this point in life if a music, chess, or athletic prodigy is to make it into the front ranks. It might be exciting to try an experiment to see whether genius can be coached and cultivated in hyperbright adolescents. (I have always been of the opinion that geniuses shouldn't have to starve in garrets to deliver their gifts to a belatedly grateful world.)
I feel it should also be stressed that genius is certainly not required of the hyperbright. From the standpoint of the people we're trying to encourage, it should absolutely be fun--should be honored and applauded. They should do what they love and love what they do, without our expecting anything from them other than what spontaneously flows forth. Like many of the rest of us, these individuals love to learn and love to solve problems. But the fountain will flow far more freely if it's based upon "want to's" rather than upon "shoulds". Any significant enhancement of productivity over what might be had without special coaching would make the cap well worth the game. Someone certainly doesn't have to become a genius to be worthy of society's special attention and appreciation.
What do you think? Click here for a further discussion.
I think this may be a momentous realization.
9-Year-Old College Prodigy Sho Yano
Pat Byrnes, author of the syndicated cartoon strip, "Monkey House", has forwarded an article about 9-year-old Chicagoan*, Sho Yano, who has just enrolled as a freshman at Loyola University in Chicago. I want to thank Pat even though he's threatened me with eternal damnation for introducing him to the Mega Test. (He doesn't have time to work on the Mega, and it just sits there and taunts him from the other side of the room. But hey! what can you expect from a guy who collaborates with James Finn Garner, author of "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories"**?) (Heh, heh. Just kidding. Thanks, Pat!)
It amazes me that major universities don't seek out prodigies like Sho Yano, Michael Kearney, and Greg Smith. Instead,our very brightest find it difficult to receive scholarships, and tend to be blocked from the best schools. (One bright exception to this is Caltech's Chris Hirata, who was put on a fast track by his wise and supportive Deerfield High School faculty, and by Caltech.)