The thin line

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 August, 2006, 12:00am

Genius is not a trait I associate with journalism. I have worked with many capable journalists: one former editor could, scarily, glance at a computer screen for a split second and remark that the sixth word in paragraph 12 was misspelled. But none had, as the dictionary defines the term, 'extraordinary intellectual and creative power'.

I sense the same is true for office jobs the world over. Anyone with the mental capacity to solve problems that perplex humanity is unlikely to participate in idle gossip around the water cooler - or attend staff meetings where the subject of concern is lost property in the ladies' toilet.

Nor, as a rule, do geniuses stand behind counters in shops, wait on your table in a restaurant or ask - as you settle into the back seat of their taxi - where you would like to go. Most definitely, they are not entertainers, who are driven more by narcissism than great intelligence.

No, geniuses are most likely to be found the way Russian scholar Grigory Perelman was the other day.

Instead of being in Madrid receiving the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize - the Fields Medal, from Spain's King Juan Carlos - he was locked in his tiny St Petersburg flat doing his reclusive best to avoid people.

He has been there since January 1, unseen by neighbours and colleagues, since quitting his job at a mathematics institute.

Dr Perelman's claim to fame is that he solved a conundrum that has puzzled the maths world since it was first posed in 1904 - the so-called Poincare conjecture. This is something to do with explaining what happens to three-dimensional shapes when they wrap around each other.

A theorem could be instrumental in giving us an idea of what the universe looks like. But my head hurts just thinking about it, so enough said.

Twisting brain cells into knots is not a problem for Dr Perelman though, as he devoted eight years of his life to finding the answer.

This obviously identifies him as a smart guy; where the label 'genius' kicks in relates to his attitude towards the achievement. Apart from turning down the Fields Medal and the associated US$13,400 prize money, he has also shown a lack of interest in claiming the US$1 million award put up by an American institute for solving the Poincare conjecture.

Geniuses are, after all, interested more than anything else in their work. If that sidelines less important matters such as finding a job, money, relationships, exercise, bathing and eating, then so be it.

The main defining factor of genius is the intelligence quotient, or IQ. If you score 140 or above in an IQ test, you are in the elite company of people with names like Leonardo da Vinci, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, James Joyce and Bill Gates.

But chances are, given that most geniuses are also somewhat eccentric, you will have a low EQ, or emotional quotient.

This means you have difficulty dealing with people - which is why journalists, whose job involves doing just that, cannot be geniuses.

The late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was typical. A master of the keyboard - particularly when it came to works by Johann Sebastian Bach - he could not stand being touched by other people, so avoided social functions. No matter what the weather, he wore heavy clothing and gloves.

At concerts, he insisted on using a wooden chair his father had made for him, even after he wore the seat out. While playing, his body jerked hither and thither and he usually hummed loudly - a nightmare problem for recording engineers.

Because geniuses usually keep to themselves and only make their presence known when they have solved a problem, their eccentricities generally do not worry the rest of us. But imagine the chaos that would ensue if a genius slipped under the wire and were elected to public office.

Thankfully, that is never likely to happen, so we will simply have to make do with the mediocre, hum-drum politicians that have been thrust upon us.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor.