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.