A Magnificent Mind

It would have been so, so easy to dismiss him as useless. And many did, at first.

His father died when the boy was still in the womb, and his grieving mother gave birth to him early. He was a runty little thing whom nobody expected to survive.

He lived, but when he was three his mother remarried and trotted off to start a new family, leaving the toddler in the care of his grandmother for years.

The boy wasn’t a good student, and when he was a teenager, he was sent to work in the fields of the family farm, where he nearly drove everyone mad with his ineptness.  There were whispers that he was not quite right in the head. Unable to concentrate on the simplest tasks, he would wander the fields, staring at nothing, or fiddle with piles of rocks, allowing the sheep he was tending to escape.

It’s safe to say, in other words, that no one would have guessed that 350 years later, the brightest scientists in the world would still be referring to the boy’s mental gifts as “divine.”

*******

I’ll be honest. I tend to swoon a little, when it comes to smart-ies.

Don’t be fooled by their ginormous eyeglasses and their disheveled hair and their utter lack of social skills – scientists rock, hard core. They are bad a**. And they were treated as such through the ages, until the last century or so, when musicians and movie stars started poncing around capturing all the press.

So I was intrigued, recently, to discover that the person who is widely considered to have had the greatest scientific mind in human history is not named Hawking (though I love him) or Einstein (ditto) or any of the other brilliant theorists on record (love them all, even the ones I’ve never heard of), but was in fact the failed shepherd in the above story: a certain Sir Isaac Newton.

Wait – the dude who had the apple fall on his head?

Ah, yes. Which is precisely all that many of us learned about Newton, in school.

But let’s return to the story.

By the time Newton was 18, he had rallied in school, just enough to be sent off to Cambridge University. He languished there for three years, earning a degree but absolutely no distinction. But in his free time, he was reading everything written on philosophy and mathematics, and somewhere along the way, a professor recognized an astounding truth.

The boy’s life-long distractedness was the byproduct of a mind that whirred like a ticker tape on steroids. Isaac Newton was a genius of the highest caliber.

Once Newton hit his stride there was no stopping him, and it was best if you just got out of his way, popped some corn, and watched the maestro at work. I don’t have time to list all of his “you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me” accomplishments, but here are some of his Greatest Hits:

  • He discovered binomial theorem, new methods for expansion of infinite series, and direct and inverse method of fluxions (and no, when I put it like that, it doesn’t make any sense – you have to see it in context.)
  • He invented calculus.
  • He discovered, in his work with optics, that white light is composed of many colors.
  • He combined the particle and wave theories of light.
  • In his spare time, he “dabbled in” history and theology, ultimately writing over a million words on the latter subject.
  • And, oh yeah, he wrote the simple, elegant laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation, which he published in his masterpiece Principia, arguably the most important and influential (and indecipherable) scientific treatise ever published.

In fact, the man single-handedly and significantly advanced every mathematical branch he dabbled in.

It has been said that Newton, after sitting up in the morning and putting his feet on the floor, would sometimes remain there for hours – so lost in thought he’d forget to stand up.

(When I shared this tidbit with my husband, while he was lying in bed playing a video game, he looked at me a moment and said, “Well…I’ve never had that problem.” 22 years, people, and the man can still make me guffaw.)

*******

I didn’t give birth to an Isaac Newton, of course – but my youngest  boy was cursed blessed with the biggest curiosity streak I’ve ever seen in a child (and there’s no prize for guessing where he got that from.) Being fascinated by everything is all fun and games when you’re 40, but when you’re 2, it tries every scrap of patience your Mommy possesses.

At least a dozen times a day, I find myself pulling toys out of the toilet, or wiping up lotions and toothpaste, or retrieving sticks from the heater vents, or yanking DVD’s out of the VCR, or cleaning up the results of his latest hydro-propulsion experiment in the sink, or generally hollering “CONNOR!” over and over, because sometimes he is so absorbed in whatever has captured his attention, he truly doesn’t hear the words that come out of my mouth.

It’s exhausting – and I imagine this is only the beginning.

Still, I try to tamp down my irritation, because the truth is, I believe that every human has been given a beautiful mind, whether it is simple or brilliant or serene or troubled, or some lively combination thereof. I have no idea what my son will end up doing with his time on this earth. But I know that my job is not to decide which talents he should have. My job is to nurture the ones he’s got.

If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t judge a boy’s usefulness by his complete inability to herd sheep.

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26 Responses to A Magnificent Mind

  1. Tiffany says:

    I love hearing histories like this! It just shows us how much we shouldn’t judge children and what we could call their “strange ways”. I can’t wait to see what Riley does with his curiosity. He likes to see how things works and his newest phrase is “what kind of…” even if it’s a blueberry 😉

    • It’s fantastic…but sometimes I have to chant to myself “he might discover a new galaxy someday…”

      It might not be true, but it helps me stay sane! It beats all I’ve ever seen…I can’t wait until he starts reading.

  2. Score one for the space cadets!

    I had no idea Newton was such a “misfit” as a child, though it shouldn’t be that surprising.

    Great post, as always!

  3. You are my hero. I absolutely loved this. I totally missed that he had invented calculus, though I probably learned that at some point. I can’t herd sheep either, so maybe I’m a genius? Actually, I’ve never tried, so I can’t say.

    • I have never tried to herd sheep, either.

      Newton is generally credited with co-creating calculus, along with Leibniz. Newton did it first…but in typical fashion, he was too busy discovering things to actually publish them, and he didn’t tell anyone about calculus for 27 years. Love this man.

      One of my fav Newton stories: He was visiting with Dr. Halley (as in, Comet) in 1684, and Halley mused about what the curve of planets would be (in relation to the Sun), and Newton said, Oh, it’s an ellipse. Halley looked at him like he had horns growing out of his head, and cried, But how do you know? And Newton said, Oh, I’ve calculated it.

      When everybody clamored to see it, Newton looked through his papers but couldn’t find it, so he re-wrote it out.

      Evidently, that was like someone discovering a cure for cancer, and then forgetting where they put it.

  4. Nikki says:

    Seriously, you make history and scientific stuff fun to read. 🙂 Don’t like History or Science or anything of the like as I’ve got my head firmly planted in the clouds and in the entire realm of the unseen and philosophical…but I actually have learned a thing or two and might even retain it for longer than 2.5 seconds after reading your stuff. 🙂 Awesome. 🙂

    • This THRILLS me, because that is PRECISELY the reason why I write these posts.

      Science is so unutterably fascinating, but in school, it’s generally presented as being dull as dirt. I want to change that.

      Thanks a million for telling me that. 🙂

      • I thought it was math that was presented as being as dull as dirt. Maybe science is “as dull as” and math is “more dull than” dirt?
        You do make the stories interesting. I knew that Liebniz and Newton had a bit of a rivalry over who came up with what in Calculus, but I had never really thought of it as “invented Calculus”. Doing a mathematical proof is one thing, but inventing a whole new branch of mathematics is pretty mind boggling. Though if you’re going to theorize how gravity works, trying to figure out the slope of a curved line is relatively simple.

  5. Yvette says:

    I loved this post. Shared it on my Facebook page. 🙂

    While reading this and agreeing with everything you say and liking the tidbits of Newton’s life heretofore unknown by yours truly – I immediately thought, I’ve always felt this way about genius. This explains my falling in love with Nero Wolfe when I was a teenager. I mean, really. 🙂

  6. Robin says:

    Favorite sentence of all-time: “I believe that every human has been given a beautiful mind, whether it is simple or brilliant or serene or troubled, or some lively combination thereof.” – Cathy LaGrow
    I absolutely love this post! I did giggle for a second when I read that he invented calculus. I have a young friend who is experiencing that now and would love to choke this brilliant Sir. Ha!!!

  7. Brooke Dixon says:

    Cathy, I’m with Nikki- you make science fun! 🙂 I have only recently started reading your posts and can definitely see I need to go back and start at the beginning! I really look forward to them! Thanks!

  8. I love your history posts too. You make science interesting and very readable, but I love history.

    I am curious (and by no means critical) but what about Hawking do you enjoy? I ask because, as someone not really into scientific reading, and given all of the “christian” sources I read and listen to, Hawking is usually not mentioned in a positive light. As a theoretical scientist I am sure he is brilliant, but I’m curious about your take on him.

    • Well…I love theoretical physics, and he is a very good writer (as far as making a VERY difficult subject understandable.) I still sometimes have to read a paragraph a few times before I grasp it (’cause I’m no genius), but he makes it pretty straightforward. I don’t think he caught nearly as much flak from Christians until very recently, when he stated that a “God” was not necessary (from a physics standpoint) for the creation of the universe.

      At least, I think that’s what he said…I didn’t read the book, and have no plans to.

      I find it sad and weird that he’s an agnostic/atheist (I’m not sure which), but I would love his brilliant mind even if he spouted off more about his cock-a-doodie theology.

  9. Drew says:

    Read it – check. 😉
    Ultimately, we would not have fiber optics without his experiments/discoveries with light either…

  10. Jerry says:

    I will use this for my teachers inservice in Sept. (prayerfully my last) I have always believed EVERYONE has a Magnificent Mind, I have certainly always believed you did.
    Your Dad

  11. Pingback: Blogs you need to read, part 1 | The Screaming Kettle at Home

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