The myth of the lone genius

One of the reasons why Stephen Wolfram's crankery is taken seriously by reviewers is the myth of the lone genius: the idea of some brilliant man – and it is always a man, of course – who spends years toiling in seclusion to come up with a theory which changes the world.

The exemplar of this is Einstein: didn't he work, alone, on relativity while doing a day job as a patent clerk, only to publish the theory out of the blue in 1905? Well, he did work as a patent clerk, but that's the sort of thing people did, then and now, when they didn't have funding for a full-time position. We don't say that everyone doing a PhD part-time while holding down a job as a barista is a lone genius: it's just what people do. Well, OK, but didn't he work alone? No: he corresponded extensively with other physicists and mathematicians and met many of them. Between 1905 and the publication of General Relativity in 1916 Einstein collaborated extensively with other people, notably Grossman1.

Was Einstein a genius? Certainly he was. Did he work alone: no. He was somewhat isolated by today's standards, but everyone was somewhat isolated by today's standards at the turn of the 20th century.

OK, so perhaps not Einstein then, but someone else. What about Andrew Wiles, who locked himself away to prove Fermat's last theorem? Well, I will leave you to read about this – there is a good popular book on the subject, but no, he was not a lone genius. He did spend a lot of time working alone at some points but this was mostly because the sort of work he was doing required intense concentration, and also because he wanted to get there before other people did, which is perfectly understandable given how much time he had devoted to the problem.

Perhaps there are real examples of lone geniuses who changed the world, but they are few and far between, and Wolfram is almost certainly not an example.

The myth of the lone genius is, in fact a myth: a story which is not true.

  1. Indeed, Einstein's collaboration with other people is often used by vile people to perpetrate antisemitic lies that he 'stole' his ideas from these people, which he absolutely did not do. The people who claim this are bigots and liars. 

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