Thursday, February 2, 2012

Peculiar

Genius, James Gleick

When Paul A. M. Dirac, the British quantum theorist, visited the University of Wisconsin in 1929, the Wisconsin State Journal [publised an article on him]. An American scientist the reporter said, would be busy and active, “but Dirac is different. He seems to have all the time there is in the world and his heaviest work is looking out the window.” Dirac’s end of the dialogue was suitably monosyllabic. (The Journal’s readers must have assumed he was an ancient eminence; actually he was just twenty-seven years old.) [..]

The genius was otherworldly and remote. More than the practical Americans whose science meant gizmos and machines, Europeans such as Einstein and Dirac also incarnated the culture’s standard oddball view of the scientist.

“Is he the tall, backward boy ... ?” Barbara Stanwyck’s character asked in The Lady Eve about Henry Fonda’s, an ophiologist roughly Feynman’s age.

—He isn’t backward, he’s a scientist.—Oh, is that what it is. I knew he was peculiar.

“Peculiar” meant harmless. It meant that brilliant men paid for their gifts with compensating, humanizing flaws. There was an element of self-defense in the popular view [..].

Health Apocalypse Now

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