Are Geniuses Made, Not Born?

The Punch Line:
    In the early 1900's, one teacher, László Rátz, at the Lutheran High School in Budapest, and one physics department chairman at the University of Rome were responsible for a substantial fraction of the leading physicists, and one leading mathematician of the 20th century! The physicists were Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, Bruno Rossi, Bruno Pontecorvo, Emilio Segre, and others. The mathematician was Paul Erdos. These geniuses, although undoubtly innately highly intelligent, must have been inspired to genius by the two pedagogical geniuses who must have somehow illuminated the teenage lives of these boys.

    Because of its crucial importance to our lives, much attention has been given to the subject of genius. Psychologists in the early 20th century thought they had struck the mother lode with IQ testing. Louis M. Terman labeled as "genius, or near-genius" any child who scored at or above 140 on his 1916 Stanford Binet revision of the Binet Simon Test. He thought that genius would well up among the 1526 gifted California schoolchildren (the "Termites") identified in his 1921 screening of 250,000 California schoolchildren. But it didn't happen. Although the Termites did well in life and were moderately productive, none of them became the "paradigm-shifters" that the world associates with genius. To add insult to injury, two of those California schoolchildren, William Shockley and Luis Alvarez, grew up to be Nobel Prize-winning physicists, and they didn't quite make the cut in 1921!
    It was noted that the "Termites" seemed to be too well-adjusted and family-oriented to make the sacrifices necessary to produce workd os genius. Or perhaps they weren't willing to be stubborn mavericks.
    Later studies have revealed that once the iQ exceeds about 120, there isn't much correlation between genius and IQ except, perhaps, in extremely mentally demanding fields, such as physics and mathematics. Grady Towers discusses this in depth in his essay, "The Broken Promise". To quote Grady quoting Dr. Lewis M. Terman,
    "Finally, in the 39th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education Part I, pp. 83-84, Terman made a most astonishing statement. 'Our conclusion is that for subjects brought up under present-day educational regimes, excess in IQ above 140 or 150 adds little to one's achievement in the early adult years.' A little farther on he says, 'The data reviewed indicate that, above the IQ level of 140, adult success is largely determined by such factors as social adjustment, emotional stability, and drive to accomplishment.In other word, an extremely high IQ conveys no practical advantages at all.
   "For a man who had devoted most of his life to the study of gifted people, this was a painful admission for him to make."

   Correlations between IQ and success run between 0.20, in a given profession, to 0.30 to 0.50, taking into account different occupations. To quote Grady quoting E. E. Ghiselli,
    "In fact, E.E. Ghiselli says, 'The correlation between IQ and job success in a given occupation is only about .20; this should be compared with the correlation of .50 typically found between IQ and occupational attainment -- taking into account different occupations.'
    "In short, after job training or formal education, IQs become relatively ineffective predictors of success."

    So what can we do with this? Plenty! A high IQ is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for genius. But this gives us an exciting lead to a missing element in the equation: an inspiring dominie in the critical teenage 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. 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.

    As mentioned above, four of the leading physicists of the "golden age" of modern physics during the latter 20's and early 30's, Leo Szilard (1898 - 1964), Eugene Wigner (1902 - ?), John von Neumann (1903 - 1957), and Edward Teller (1908 - ?), and one of the 20th century's leading mathematicians, Paul Erdos (1913 - 1996) came from the Lutheran High School in Budapest. There were the "products" of an inspiring high school science teacher named "László Rátz". I also happen to know that the Italian contingent of leading early-20th-century physicists, including Enrico Fermi, Bruno Rossi, Bruno Pontecorvo, Emilio Segre, and others, came from the Physics Department of the University of Rome, which was also headed by an outstanding pedagogue (who was an Italian Senator). This is extraordinary news, with extraordinary implications. Apparently, about half of the leading physicists of the "new physics" came from these two creches. It's possible, particularly with respect to the Lutheran High School, to estimate an upper bound upon the IQs of these geniuses. The fact that this was a high school suggests that students were not drawn from all over, but lived in the neighborhood. In the years from 1912 (when Szilard presumably began high school) to 1926 (when Edward Teller presumably would have graduated from high school.), they would have had to have been bussed, to have walked to school, or to have taken the streetcar. So we're probably talking about a modest-sized neighborhood. Budapest in those years would have been one of the glitzy poles in the former Austrio-Hungarian Empire, so there might have been an enriched group of people living in the neighborhood. Presumably, the boys who attended the school were Lutherans. So how many students might László Rátz have taught in a ten-year period? I'm going to guess that it wouldn't have exceeded ~2,000. If the number became larger than that, he might no longer have time to give individual attention. His classes would probably have drawn the brighter students in the high school. What kinds of IQs might they have had? The Terman Study (with a somewhat-enriched population) revealed children with ratio-IQs above 170 (deviation IQs above 156.6) with a frequency of about 1 in 3,000, or about half again as many as expected. The study found children with ratio IQs of180 (deviation IQs above 162.6) with a frequency of about 1 in 10,000. (With a deviation IQ of 162.6, one would normally have expected to have found a frequency of occurrence of only about 1 in 22,000 rather than 1 in 10,000.) John von Neumann and Edward Teller might have fallen into this category. However, for Wigner and Szilard, the odds would seem to favor ratio IQs in the 160's or 170's, corresponding to deviation IQs of 150+ to 157+. It seems unlikely that the smartest boys in Budapest would have been found in Mr. Rátz' class in the Lutheran High School between 1912 and 1931. And yet, two of these boys were among the world's leading theoretical physicists later in the century, and Paul Erdos became one of the century's most productive mathematicians. This squares with the idea that, given a high entry-level IQ, personality, drive, and enthusiasm then become the determinants of relatively great productivity. This is the idea of range restriction at work: if everyone is more or less equally intelligent, small differences in IQ aren't going to matter as much as major differences in diligence and originality.

Bottom Line: Inspired teaching of the hyperbright in the watershed high school and college years can spell the difference between a world-class genius and an also-ran. IQ is only one variable in achieving professional greatness. An inspiring teacher or mentor can be extremely important.
    So this approach (inspired secondary and tertiary-level teaching) might play a key role in boosting the "creative" outputs of our most productive individuals!