This essay is part of our on-going series on Cultural Astronomy, which will address cultural and historical themes in science and astronomy with the hope of developing open and informed discussion on the complex, historically-rooted challenges facing our community.
History loves its fathers. I do not mean biological fathers, but rather the idea that certain innovations have “fathers.” Chalk it up to a society obsessed with paternal lineage, but pick a subject and it is certain to have a Dad. Father of the computer? Why, that’s Charles Babbage of course. Of the car? Henry Ford! Rocketry? Goddard or Tsiolkovsky, depending on if you are American or Russian. With some inventions, however, determining the father can be a little tricky, requiring a historical paternity test.
Take, for example, the radio. Usually, Guglielmo Marconi receives the title, given his invention of the wireless telegraphy system. This has led to him being immortalized in songs such as “We Built This City” by Starship, which reminds us: “Marconi plays the mamba, listen to the radio…” But the historical record is not as certain about Marconi’s invention as 1980s pop stars are.
After the discovery of “Hertzian waves” in the mid-19th century, there was a boom of invention and several scientists and engineers developed ways in which to send and receive radio signals, including Nikola Tesla and Aleksandr Popov. Marconi obtained the patent, however, and being an astute businessperson, his telegraphy system became the most commercially viable. As a result, Marconi is generally credited as the Father of the Radio.
As is often the case in the history of science, sometimes the conditions of the world are ripe for a particular invention or discovery. For example, one could not conduct Very Long Baseline Interferometry without the invention of the atomic clock. Once that happened, scientists in the US, Canada, and the Soviet Union all independently began to experiment with the idea of conducting aperture synthesis with disconnected telescopes. When this type of serendipity occurs, historians of science call it “simultaneous invention”.
Today, historians often consider social and cultural factors in writing the history of science and technology, precisely for this reason. We are wary of writing histories of “great men,” which center and valorize the accomplishments of individuals while neglecting the conditions that allowed their breakthroughs to occur. In other words, fathers of invention have fallen out of fashion.
Yet this approach to history has not yet been translated into mainstream culture, which remains obsessed with the idea of “geniuses.” In popular culture, figures such as Einstein, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking, and Nikola Tesla are often upheld as archetypal geniuses. When covering the history of science, popular culture tends to focus on the “genius” of these figures, using their individual brilliance or talent to explain the development of significant inventions or discoveries.
There are two big problems with this approach to history, which I aim to address here. First, this elevation of individual scientists impedes us from seeing the real conditions in which certain sciences and technologies developed, which as noted above, were often far more complicated than a single person’s great act. The second problem is with the concept of “fathers”—the archetype of genius in the history of science is invariably white and male.
To address the first issue, let us start by interrogating the definition of genius. Some might assert that being a genius is equivalent to being “really smart”—in other words, genius is synonymous with exceptional intelligence. This definition of genius might also be expanded upon by referencing the theory Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner published in his book Frames of Intelligence (1983), in which he argued there are eight types of human intelligence, including categories such as Body-Kinesthetic Intelligence, Musical Intelligence, and Interpersonal Intelligence. Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences was an attempt to broaden what was considered intelligent; in his framework, for example, someone like Lebron James might be considered a Body-Kinesthetic genius, Mr. Fred Rogers an Interpersonal genius, and Albert Einstein a Logical-Mathematical genius.
But an exclusively talent-based understanding of genius still neglects the fact that “genius” has also been used as an archetype, in addition to a descriptor. It is a way of thinking about people, not simply a way of being. An archetype is a collectively inherited idea; We have cultural tropes and conventions that our society associates with being a genius. For example, as an archetype, geniuses might be a little odd, eccentric. Mysterious. Great. Brooding. Perhaps even “mad”, as in the archetype of the “mad scientist.”
A perfect example of someone who we might consider an archetypal genius would be Nikola Tesla. Consider, for example, this image (Figure) created by Tesla for publication in 1899.
Upon first look, it is an incredible image. Tesla, the lone genius, appears in his laboratory, too deep in his own—probably brilliant—thoughts to be bothered by the deadly lightning machine he has invented. The image makes Tesla appear brave, nonchalant, and nearly mystical; it is a striking depiction of many of the attributes we typically assign to our collective conception of genius.
Of course, the image also happens to be artificially constructed. It is an example of what art historians call a composite photograph, created by double exposure. If Tesla was actually sitting there, under the lightning, he would likely experience electrocution or death. How do we know the image is faked? The primary reason is that Victorian era cameras would not be able to simultaneously record a bright foreground object and a small dark background object in the same exposure.
Therefore, we know that Tesla deliberately constructed this image to give the impression that he was so obsessed with his craft that he put his own life on the line without a second thought. But of course, he was not actually sitting under lightning. In other words, the image was performative, promotional. Because of the archetype, Tesla could assume his audience would understand and interpret the symbols he created and took advantage of these tropes to represent himself as the archetypal genius. In other words, genius was not just a characteristic he intrinsically possessed, it was also an appearance he purposefully cultivated.
Tesla had a good reason for trying to promote his genius. In the late 19th century, he was in competition for recognition over fellow scientists and engineers, especially Thomas Edison and Marconi, with whom he often battled over patents, business patronage, and public support. These competing “electrical wizards” had incentive for appearing to be the “true” genius, and so they crafted their personal images to seem larger than life.
Lest I be accused of bullying Edwardian scientists, I will note that the phenomenon of trying to appear exceptionally brilliant is not limited to science. Mozart, for example, allegedly crafted symphonies when he was only 5 years old. He became a child prodigy who toured around Europe playing for royalty and nobility. When one examines the historical record to look at the symphonies allegedly written by the toddler Wolfgang, however, they would appear written in his father’s hand, who was also a brilliant composer and guided Mozart’s budding talent. Founding father Alexander Hamilton also lied about when he was born to make himself appear more precocious and brilliant for his age.
Why would people like Tesla, Mozart, and Hamilton, who already clearly possess immense talent and success, put in great effort to artificially enhance the perception of their smarts? It all has to do with how our society perceives genius.
As a society, we want our geniuses to be lone heroes, with nearly supernatural or religious qualities. Human beings are prone to hero worship and want their idols to be larger than life figures. There is something fascinating about the idea of innate brilliance and this fascination influences our perceptions of exceptionalism. It is part of why our culture loves superhero movies about figures with unearned, intrinsic talent, like Tony Stark or Superman. This association with genius and spontaneous innovation stems from as far back as Ancient Greece and their muses, supernatural beings bestowing inspiration and heavenly brilliance. Today, instead of muses we have “lightbulb” moments.
But to quote Isaac Newton, geniuses all “stand on the shoulders of giants,” meaning that knowledge is rarely (if ever) produced by the lone genius, but rather depends on the contributions of previous scholars, technicians, infrastructure, culture, and many other factors. The archetype of the lone genius therefore supports a superficial way of understanding how knowledge production works.
Historians of science have long tried to combat individualist reductions of the production of scientific knowledge. Thomas Kuhn, for example, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) first posited the idea that scientific progress moved in “paradigm shifts” rather than by the gradual accumulation of knowledge and facts by individual practitioners, decentering the scientist in the production of knowledge.
Other historians of science have advocated for a methodology called “social history,” which centers society and social relations and their effect on science. For example, Historian Steven Shapin wrote an article in 1989 called “The Invisible Technician,” which argued that the scientific process is in part the product of the labor of laboratory technicians and their relationships with the gentleman scientists who led them. Shapin’s work highlighted class systems in the production of knowledge, noting that it was often the wealthiest, not necessarily the most brilliant or hard-working, who received credit for scientific genius. By shifting methodologies, historians hope to gain a more complete and authentic understanding of how scientific knowledge is produced.
Another important reason to question the validity of “Fathers of Invention” is in the name itself: Fathers. All too often, our cultural perceptions of genius are male. This begs a question: who gets to be a genius, rather than “very smart”?
Historians have shown us that, all too often, people who do not fit the genius stereotype get left out of the narrative. The popular book and film Hidden Figures (2016) highlighted the previously unappreciated labor and contributions of black women like Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson to the Space Race. Similarly, Rosalin Franklin, whose data was key to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, often does not receive credit in the way Watson and Crick did.
The fact that many women and people of color have not been recognized as geniuses sometimes leads to an uncomfortable question: why not?
Biological determinism has long been an answer to this question. This is the idea that your characteristics, such as personality or intelligence, are determined exclusively by biological factors and heredity. This approach argues that those who have not accomplished great things have not done so because they lack some inherent brilliance or drive. In many ways, this is the easiest approach to answering the question, but it is also the least rigorous.
In the early 1970s, some historians began pushing back against the archetype of genius and the cultural assumption that geniuses benefit solely from innate talent. Art historian Linda Nochlin, for example, famously asked the question, “why have there been no great women artists?” The question was designed to be inflammatory; of course there have been excellent women artists, such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Frida Kahlo, and Berthe Morisot. But Nochlin argued that there have been no female (or Black) artistic “geniuses” like Leonardo Da Vinci or Picasso.
Nochlin noted that, in asking why there have been no great women artists,
“the feminist’s first reaction is to swallow the bait, hook, line and sinker, and to attempt to answer the question as it is put: i.e., to dig up examples of worthy or insufficiently appreciated women artists throughout history; to rehabilitate rather modest, if interesting and productive careers; to ‘re-discover’ forgotten flower-painters or David-followers and make out a case for them…But they do nothing to question the assumptions lying behind the question ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ On the contrary, by attempting to answer it, they tacitly reinforce its negative implications.”
Rather than fighting to recognize the talent of artists left out of the historical record, Nochlin proposed a reframing of how we approach the accomplishments of the historically disadvantaged or oppressed. Women in early modern Italy, for example, were barred from leaving their homes. They could not use nude models in their artistic training, preventing a deep understanding of anatomy. They were often kept illiterate and uneducated, and were subject to violence from men. In such circumstances, to become a “genius” artist was practically impossible. It was this truth Nochlin implored historians to recognize: some populations have been shut out of genius. She argued:
“…As we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male. The fault, dear brothers, lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education—education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs and signals. The miracle is, in fact, that given the overwhelming odds against women, or blacks, that so many of both have managed to achieve so much sheer excellence, in those bailiwicks of white masculine prerogative like science, politics or the arts”
Nochlin’s essay implores us to consider: What if we replaced the question “what does it take to be a genius?” with “who is allowed to be a genius”? Her approach raises further questions: Is genius a useful metric of talent, or does our valorization of individual talent obscure the wider systems of knowledge production and neglect to celebrate talent in marginalized communities? Is it worth celebrating talent that was born of privilege and access, or talent that managed to blossom even in the most dire of circumstances?
These questions don’t have easy answers, and I don’t pretend to answer them here. But clearly, in disciplines such as astronomy, which are now reckoning with their roles in benefiting from and upholding systems of power, it is worth taking time to carefully consider our inherited perceptions of genius.
Even today the archetype of genius remains powerful. Our culture continues to celebrate the perceived brilliance of certain individuals, such as Elon Musk (whose company is aptly named after the Edwardian “genius”, Tesla). But we are also starting to push back on this formulation of hero worship. Works such as Hidden Figures prescribe to Nochlin’s perspective on “greatness” by showing talent in individuals not previously recognized as “genius” and highlighting the many and varied barriers to their success.
Many of us have fascination with genius because we also aspire to be great. Surely, at the Center for Astrophysics this is especially true—we are fortunate to be surrounded by colleagues who possess astounding minds, passion, and drive. We hope to learn from the stories of geniuses so that we might emulate them and find the secret to achieving stunning breakthroughs, to the betterment of our collective scientific knowledge.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this; after all, scientific achievement has brought many gifts to the world, as evidenced this year more so than ever, with the development of the COVID-19 vaccine.
But we should not let hero-worship obscure the true path to scientific greatness. And as evidenced here, allowing archetypes to influence our perception obscures the truth of knowledge production and limits our understanding of human talent. As is often the case, including with the COVID-19 vaccine, breakthroughs are the product of decades of research, public investment, the labor of technicians, and international infrastructure. Furthermore, as much as this system of knowledge production benefits the world, it also relies upon oppression and labor and resource exploitation. All of these aspects of knowledge production, positive and negative, make up the giant’s shoulders that Newton claimed we stand upon.
It is time to put a rest to the exorbitant celebration of fathers of invention and instead explore the rich, complex, and fascinating ways in which talent and achievement manifest in the world. In doing so, we will gain a more rigorous understanding of how the production of knowledge shapes our lives, as well as begin to come to terms with the ways in which we have historically shut out certain populations from this system.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Charles Seife, Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity (2021).
Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Woman Artists?”, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/retrospective/why-have-there-been-no-great-women-artists-4201/.
Lorraine Daston, “The History of Science and the History of Knowledge.” KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 2017).
Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (2016).
Steven Shapin, “The Invisible Technician.” American Scientist Vol. 77, No. 6 (November-December 1989).
Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (1981).