Nautilus

What to Do When Genius Fails

Isaac Newton’s diagram of the Philosopher’s Stone, a substance that could supposedly turn base metals into gold.

Geniuses, however we define the concept, often evoke particular strong feelings. Many of us develop personal affection for them, defending them from criticism as fiercely as we would friends or family. It’s not enough for them to be brilliant scientists or artists; they must also be admirable people. When those heroes inevitably prove to be flawed people, we rationalize, we ignore, we feel betrayed.

Think, for instance, of the foundational figure in physics, Isaac Newton. His role in establishing calculus and what we call Newtonian mechanics is so important that we ignore or downplay the fact that much of his life work seems misguided

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