Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How important is talent?

Increasingly more often, I get emails from graduate students sending their CV and research interests, explaining they are looking for somebody to work with. Most of these emails seem to come from India or China. Usually, the student explains their interest in a topic that with high probability I have never worked on, and their inquiries inevitably start with "Dear Sir". 

The first couple of times this happened, I took the time to write back they should please apply through the website like everybody else and good luck. These days I just delete such emails. I am trying to understand the situation these students must be in, writing to complete strangers in the hope to become part of the international research community, but still I have little sympathy for such mass emails. Why should I take the time to read somebody's CV if that somebody didn't even take enough time to figure I'm not a Sir.

Another type of emails I seem to receive more often the longer I managed to stick around are questions for advice. Usually high school students, and more often from Germany than not, they will ask what studying physics is like in reality, what it takes to become a physicist, what their chances are. I try my best to be answer their questions, but I honestly don't think I can give meaningful advice to people I don't even know. 

Last week, I got an email from somebody explaining his talent seems to be more in the languages, but his interest more in physics, and what I think how relevant talent is for success in physics. I replied without hesitation that interest and the ability for self-motivation is more important than talent, because the latter can be replaced to a large extend by hard work, whereas the former is a prerequisite for everything. It occurred to me later though that this reply comes from somebody who never really had to work much for maths and physics at school, so that's easy to say for me. I have also met the occasional case of somebody who has been dedicated to physics and invested a lot of time and effort into learning, but just didn't get the most basic things straight.

However, I believe many people are actually pretty bad in knowing where their talents are, especially while still in their teenage years, and school performance in particular isn't very predictive. Doing research simply is a completely different story. You won't find out until you have tried, and if physics is where your interests are, you definitely should try.

I for my part was never very good in English. But then, how excited can you get about endless  interpretations of George Orwell's 1984 and essays about the capital punishment in the USA. Ten years later, friends and relatives abuse me as a living English-German dictionary.


  1. I don't know. I guess I never really believed in the importance of talent. Maybe because I have none? :-) Anyway I believe that in a large degree this notion of talent is a remnant of an old ideology of the ruling class that was used to categorize and exploit people. According to this fabrication, people were slaves because it was in their nature to be slaves. Poor people were poor and illiterate because they were born inferiors. More or less everyone has the potential to be whatever he wants to be if the society provides the necessary environment.

  2. Haha yes I know many profs who systematically delete any emails they receive from either Chinese or Indian students. I don't know what's with them ! But seriously I pity them a little bit, Chinese and Indian students are pretty much required to have perfect physics GRE if they want to go to grad school in the US, this seems a bit unfair ...

    As for the talent, I personally don't really believe in it. The thing is, yes it can make a difference, but a pretty small one compare to the motivation part which seems to be much more important. This is why I really don't like when known physicist tell "publicly" that they have a talent for physics when motivation and passion is so much more important (For example, I recall L. Smolin saying he's a quick study in one of his book, E. Witten keep saying he has a natural talent for Math in several interviews ...). Those bragging statements seem to be there just to discourage other people and to maintain the false believe that you have to be a genius in order to be a good physicist.

  3. I think talent is quite important for one simple reason: It can be very frustrating to study a subject where there's a lot of other people far more talented than you.

    In university, most of the people who study math or physics had no difficulties there. My experience is: even if you think you're not bad at what you try to do, sitting in a lecture hall with a bunch of math competition champions who are already familiar with the lecture content of the next 5 semesters still can be a bit depressing.
    Not being talented in these areas means having to struggle for years and still achieving only mediocre results. If you can handle this and still keep your interest and motivation, that's great, but I'm not sure how many students can say this about themselves.

  4. Bee:However, I believe many people are actually pretty bad in knowing where their talents are, especially while still in their teenage years, and school performance in particular isn't very predictive.I think here, as a mother/father, we told our children again that if your marks do not prove to us that what you want in the future is an education, why should we invest thousands of dollars if you do not aspire and prove to us with your marks through high school?

    If you struggle and are trying, that's a different story. There will have to be some deliberation here as to whether this is a choice that will suit your efforts and cost. Some children reveal their inclinations "as to how easy it is for them" for what is given to them in curriculum. They need to be "challenged then" with a step forward.

    They had a choice then once high school is finished, education, or your off to make a living however this is determined by you. If these things are known beforehand( the rules) then how are we to set the rules when the time comes?

    The financial situation then becomes a sidelined "life choice" knowing full well that the career path might not be there even after the education. The amount of spaces that are needed to be filled. So you must choose to support yourself while you do this on the side for want of continuing. This is where motivation is revealed as to the future of that career.

    Outreach from institutions is very important then. Information resources, as if a student is in the field, outside the field.

    I thought the education system in Germany and other places were able to identify some of these excelling factors in students in the school system?


  5. Hi Bee,

    I would just ask if anyone is ever truly interested in something they haven’t a talent for. As for a career there’s a distinction to be made between just doing something you can tolerate or something you have a real passion for. So I would say that no matter what one does in life, it is in one way or another an expression of your talent(s), as revealed by you interests. Also, as you say hard work plays a larger part of any success, yet will seldom ever be put forth without first having some interest and passion.



  6. Talent perhaps has a lot to do with confidence and approach......if by chance one gets the first few things right, confidence goes up and one maintains some minimum level of performance. Hence, kids doing well at math when younger tend to keep doing well....not so many break the math barrier later in life.

    I think not doing well despite a lot of work has a lot to do with not internalizing the modes of thinking that each particular field needs. And I like to believe that everyone can mould their minds - if they are open minded enough - to do this for any field. Breaking down mental barriers to new ways of thinking constitutes learning a new discipline.

    Given this, I think then interest and love become the sole determinants of ones choice of career (apart from economic considerations and so on of course). with enough interest and enthusiasm, an open mind an da certain amount of confidence I like to think that there is nothing too difficult for anyone to be reasonably good at.

  7. Talent is definitely a plus :)

    I'd say that there are some people who are just born into it. Einstein just had that way of thinking that suited him perfectly for example.

    In high school I sort of knew that I wanted to do physics but wasn't really sure and now I really love the subject. Now that I'm here I love every minute of it. In my spare time I'll read books about physics simply because it's so fascinating and stimulates the mind. Now I don't know if I have a natural talent for this but I just love what I'm doing. I think I got really lucky in the sense that I didn't have to jump around in different majors to find what I really loved.


    I can imagine some truth to that. I was always pretty good at mathematics and got stuff very quickly. Many of my friends in high school weren't that interested in math as kids and calculus was very difficult for them.

  8. Hi Phil,

    I would turn your question around. While I believe one can be truly interested in something one doesn't have a talent for (think of art, music, literature etc, plenty of people who spend their life on discussing and criticizing and are in some way experts, yet have never produced something relevant themselves), I find it much harder to believe one can be genuinely not interested in something one has a talent for. Best,


  9. Hi Bee !

    Ordinarily a silent reader of your blog, i this time feel compelled to share my (different ?) experience on the question...

    I'm a French graduate student in mathematics at the university, very passionate, but neither talented nor hard-worker. I never had good grades and i nearly always flunked maths in school !
    The reason why i didn't sink is that i sometimes came across a particular class i really enjoyed (generally thanks to an exceptional teacher), and in which i worked harder than i used to. So then i got very bad grades and a few good ones so that eventually it compensate (never by much)...
    But now i lack the knowledge and mechanisms needed to work on some more advanced topics, so i have to work double more. It's not impossible (i know i'll do it, because i never quit), but i progress only very slowly, and i really wish i was more talented !

    And i am only on the slow lane of the two-tier educational French system (university versus elite higher education institutes), so it's quite frustrating to be more interested, loving and concerned about science than the far more talented people i see everyday...

    But enough about me already, now in general, i think ANYBODY can have a great idea. Not necessarily one nobody had before, but maybe one nobody drove in that particular direction (question of backgrounds). So anybody can disguise himself into someone talented, by means of appreciated realizations.

    I vote for resourcefulness rather than talent...


  10. Low Math, Meekly Interacting10:32 PM, April 14, 2009

    That's a tough problem. Seems to me that if one aspires to be a theoretical physicist, an exceptional talent is simply a basic requirement, for which no amount of work can adequately compensate. Of course one must work very hard to apply their talent productively, if they expect to be a successful theoretical physicist, but the harsh reality probably doesn't affirm an egalitarian ideal. It's not easy to be realistic and encouraging, but I can't imagine that those who have what it takes to succeed in such a rarified field haven't been made aware of their potential by the time their approaching university age. Some people apparently like to comfort themselves that they could maybe be like Einstein, who, according to the myth, was a poor excuse for schoolboy, but came from out of nowhere to rock the world of science. The ultimate "late bloomer". The truth is he was recognizably brilliant, knew this on some level, but chose not to apply himself in a manner that complied with the conventions of his time and place. Who else could have pulled it off?

  11. Alex,

    You said "In university, most of the people who study math or physics had no difficulties there. My experience is: even if you think you're not bad at what you try to do, sitting in a lecture hall with a bunch of math competition champions who are already familiar with the lecture content of the next 5 semesters still can be a bit depressing."

    Please don't get too discouraged by this. Those people are probably talented for sure, but probably got to their advanced state in part through luck of growing up in environments that actually actively nurtured their talent -- the right families, schools, teachers, or wealth enough for private schools, etc. In the USA there are huge disparities in availability of educational opportunity in mathematics at the high school level and in the cultural value placed on mathematics. Real research progress in mathematics does not come free out of thin air for anyone -- it comes from hard concerted work. Yes, the tortoise can beat the hare.

  12. Profess-Sir Bee has a nice ring to it :)

    Psmith - do we have a P.G. Wodehouse fan here?

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. Hi Bee,

    “ While I believe one can be truly interested in something one doesn't have a talent for (think of art, music, literature etc, plenty of people who spend their life on discussing and criticizing and are in some way experts”

    Yes good point, yet I would say there is a difference between being one who appreciates a talent and one that actually has it. That is those you mention I would call patrons, which are the ones that reinforce there exists something known as talent; for although they can talk about it and dissect it to some degree, they often cannot understand how those that do whatever they are fascinated with, manage doing it.

    The thing I find most interesting about all this are the statistics . When one imagines that when Newton was born there where less then 600 million people and then still only about 1.6 billion when Einstein and then Bohr along with the Quantum bunch came into the world. Now when you were born that number had risen to nearly 5 billion and yet though there are many times more educated persons, it appears that the subject hasn’t progressed as much as one would suspect it should have. I’ve been always under the impression that extraordinary talent is much more extremely rare then most believe, yet further seems to defy even predicting it's frequency of occurrence.



  15. Concerning the statistics mentioned by Phil Warnell. I believe the explanation is
    the fact that knowledge is stratified and has the form of a steeper and steeper mountain of (perhaps) infinite height.

    The most important and elementary facts are at the base. Higher up, there is a longer approach, less air and progression is more difficult. The overlooked stuff at the base is probably of more limited and more specialized interest. This explains in my eyes why there are so many good and famous scientists in the 19th (and beginning of the 20th) century.

  16. Hi Roland,

    Yes there is something definitely to be said for the stratifaction of knowledge, particularly in science.Yet for instance mathematics in recent years has seemed to be enjoying a acceleration, rather then a slow down. Then when one turns to art and literature it like science seems to be slowing for a while. Your hypothesis may be correct, yet I feel like in the past we are hampered by some fundamental insight waiting being realized that will lead to another resurgence in physics.

    This I attribute to be what those rare and few talents are able to do. It took a Newton to assemble the compilation of the smaller insights of many to see the common thread and make the leap. Likewise we had Maxwell after that with the first concept of field and then Einstein to tie Newton and Maxwell together by imagining time as a dimension rather then simply a convienant and arbitrary measure of action.. With quantum however I feel what we have is mainly a phenomalogical construction, which still awaits that one unusual person to come along to find that new insight and subtle connection. I also think that it better for many to wander with little firm direction then many thinking they have found one and perhaps this also plays a role.



  17. Physicists dealing with unquantifiables, unmeasureables qualities like talent and motivation!

    Given that more than any other animal, the human has the capacity to make itself unhappy, it is not surprising that physics is also turned to that purpose.

    Progress as far as you can, change course when you find you cannot get ahead. You will not starve, the pursuit of physics involves a lot of valuable skills that can be turned to other purposes.

    As to Phil's speculations, I've always wondered what Einstein would have come up with had he been born fifty years earlier.

  18. As Indian students we know that the best research is carried out 'out there' in the US of A. So for most students, who have the means to afford the cost of taking GRE s and applying to US institutes, US is like the ultimate dream.

    Now we had been told by our college seniors who'd been admitted to US institutes to write to the professors and learn about the research programmes of the institutes. However when we'd reached the stage of applying to US uni s we found that all the information was available on the websites already. I suppose some people never notice, or don't care, or just copy the addresses from other students.

    And I can believe Chinese students not knowing the distinction between Sir and Madam, but not Indians.

  19. Hi Tiger,

    Well, glad I got you to unlurk :-) You are making a good point there. I would agree that everybody can have good ideas, but having good ideas is not sufficient (it is actually not even necessary). The hard part is not having an idea, but making it work. And that's why I believe self-motivation, interest, and hard work is more relevant than talent.

    I've spend enough time watching this game, and it usually looks like this. Somebody has an idea. There is a slight chance this idea will immediately appeal to other people, and they will enthusiastically work on it. This is unlikely, but happens. In this case however you can bet that that idea isn't a particularly big shot because it fits very nicely into the prevalent mode of thinking, which is exactly why people immediately like it. If you have a somewhat unusual idea however, people might nod politely, or shrug their shoulders, but otherwise not want to waste their time even thinking about it. It's then up to you to spend years over years trying to convince them it makes sense. This is why I keep saying if positions are too short-term we'll never make any progress, because people will cling to the topics that fit in immediately and move them forwards. Best,


  20. As Indian students we know that the best research is carried out 'out there' in the US of A. Your local blogger is an European living in Canada and objects on this statement. I can't give you numbers quantifying 'best,' but the impression I got from talking to people from various fields of the natural and life sciences, in some sectors the Americans are slightly ahead, in others the Europeans, but all and large, quality and quantity of research seems on the average pretty close. Problem with that statement is however that the EU itself is very inhomogeneous. Canada also isn't limping behind their neighbors to the South, not even half a step. You might reconsider your statement.

    I am sure Indians and probably also Chinese know the difference between Sir and Madam, I just think they collect some hundred email addresses from websites of physics institutes and don't even look at a websites of the people they are writing to.

  21. Phil wrote: With quantum however I feel what we have is mainly a phenomological construction, which still awaits that one unusual person to come along to find that new insight and subtle connection.One could take the other point of view. Newton's and Einstein's physics are phenomenological. Quantum is fundamental and that is why it is so hard. Newton's and Einstein's mechanics emerge in some not so well understood way from the fundamental theory. If we did understand quantum, we would not use classical rulers and classical clocks in Newtonian mechanics or in our derivations of special relativity, and the quantum nature of space-time, if any, would be apparent. We would not have to look to Maxwell's equations as inspiration for the Lorentz transformations, nor adhoc build Lorentz invariance into our quantum field theories. The classical appearance would follow from the quantum, not precede it.

    As per this argument: It is precisely because quantum is not phenomenological that it is so hard. It is typically at least one layer removed from the phenomena accessible to us.

  22. Hi Low Math,

    regarding the myth: as far as I know Einstein was pretty good at maths. Though I can't be entirely sure where this story of his bad school-performance comes from, one can suspect is came with his move from Germany to Switzerland. Both Germany and Switzerland use a grading system with numbers from 1 to 6, but in Germany 1 is 'very good' and 6 is 'insufficient', whereas in Switzerland it's the other way 'round. Anybody looking at his grades not taking into account his moving across the border would come to completely wrong conclusions. Best,


  23. Bee, you told of your arrival at PI with pink hair. That is the neutral metric! All physicists must have pink hair. Bald guys retire or do their beards. APS meetings will improve.

    A professional must consistently perform, often drowning in mediocrity while doing it. Fools and managers exclude the sporadic exogenous "AHA!" moment. Barnett Rosenberg insubordinately pursued a chemical explanation for a cell culture electrical experiment outcome, discovering cisplatin. Embezzlement of laboratory funding!

    A physicist without maths might be another Ernest Rutherford if any low-hanging fruit remains to be plucked from ground level. OTOH, Rutherfored had his maths.

  24. Alex, Tiger and other kids here, don't even dream that you may have the slightest idea about what real scientific endeavour is about, let alone the crazy notion of (genuine) scientific talent. And first of all, don't confuse it with much more limited notions of (professional) abilities/capacity and resulting skills (as many here tend to): yes, these are the necessary “technical” components, close to indispensable instruments of scientific inquiry, but are very far from talent, which is closely related to the (great!) result of that inquiry.

    It's natural that you're mainly living in the world of capacities and skills at this baby stage of your future (let's hope!) professional adventure. But digesting your standard baby food they provide you in your universities, it's better to start knowing the great and terrible truth about real science activity involving that always escaping miracle of talent. What you see now as students is a stockpile of knowledge and related skills you are supposed to acquire, at least in some key parts. Go on, of course, but already that standard stockpile is so huge that you can consider it infinite with respect to your limited (best) possibilities. And above that huge stockpile is a yet much greater, always quickly growing universe of all its possible and impossible (mostly useless but no one ever knows!) applications to study, understanding and modification of so-called “real world” (which everybody tends to interpret in his own way, from another infinite and growing range of possibilities). And yet above it you have an artificially reduced but still huge universe of so-called “well-established” knowledge (just never believe its title!) constituting the decadent body of official science (exclusively and generously supported in all great and medium and small places of science, awarded with all their top prises, absolutely dominating in the media, etc.). Think it's all you have to deal with? Forget it! Because that top-most universe of official science is already dead (stagnating for decades), totally misleading, incredibly lying (because of artificial reduction), demonstrating a catastrophically growing series of contradictions and “unsolvable” problems (just recall all their supernatural “mysteries”, “dark” matters and “hidden” dimensions/universes) and is actually reduced to a self-destructive and totally subjective (but always artificially imposed!) mythology that has nothing to do either with the real world and its problems, or with any truly objective, provably consistent form of knowledge (today's official science approaches most closely a very esoteric, closed and wicked sect of absolutely subjective and practically destructive beliefs).

    See now where you are really getting involved, in which ultimately desperate and dangerous den of thieves hardly covered by its officially “solid” façade?! But don't be scared, kids, you should just know where you really are, but the real world and real, objective truth about it within the true, truly consistent scientific knowledge also exist, far beyond artificially limited constructions of official science and do exceed by infinity of infinities all those dead universes of formal knowledge you're only starting to taste now. And that returns us to the notion of talent, as true scientific talent today is your infinitely small, but magically real chance to break through all those empty universes of dead knowledge (learning it all in passage, just for distraction) and find a narrow but uniquely right path to the realm of that completely new, genuine and harmonious, intrinsically complete and unified knowledge. Anything else that they might be describing you as a talent is but a destructive consumption of resources of a dying civilisation, vanity and nothing but vanity.

    In other words, talent is not a set of skills or abilities, it's neither anything fixed, nor regular: it's a highly nonequilibrium, practically magic process close to what people tend to call destiny, your (possible) great destiny in this case. It's like the greatest love you can ever imagine, girls (if you still can :) ). And boys, forget about love, it's just female's chemistry :) with respect to real talent, which is a momentary, inexplicable and multidimensional synthesis, a divine creative breakthrough of spatio-temporal continuum of ordinary-life events opening you an unimaginable, so novel and extended truth. Its scales and structure may vary, but it's always “something like that”, so much different from all those “necessary” components here evoked like “skills”, “hard work”, “self-motivation” or even chance (although chance has really much to do with it!). Talent can be subjectively “felt” like “strong (natural) motivation”, but one should take care not to confuse it with the very frequent case of vain personal ambitions (the real “basis”, unfortunately, of official science establishment!). It's true that potentially many - maybe almost all - people have an inborn talent opportunity (or even their whole bunches), but at the current level of development on this planet (even at its best parts), these omnipresent potential talents are only very rarely, increasingly more rarely realised and unfortunately in science even much more rarely than elsewhere.

    Should I really recall that, for example, the whole official education system (at any level, up to Ph.D.) - to which some of your loving parents pay fortunes to ensure the brightest possible future for their dear children - is totally oriented to massive and very thorough suppression of all manifestations of your genuine inborn talents, instead of their “development”, as they usually lie in their official promises? We all know, don't we, that the absolute majority of your university professors are themselves nothing but irreversibly failed talents (ratés, en français) who naturally try to bring you to the same state and suppress any “non-standard” curiosity (apart from superficial games in standard “questions and answers” evoking nothing really novel with respect to “well-established” knowledge framework)?

    I'd leave you derive yourself practical advice about how to really develop your natural talents (if you do want that rather than, for example, making your standard, mediocre but well-paid career - better in an “applied” activity sector in this case). Just understand the deeply contradictory logic of the process: it's just because of those “impossible” difficulties on the way of truth that one can attain, overcoming them, the sacred satori of genuine talent (which is always there, inside you, waiting for its impossible realisation!). And then, of course, “never listen to what they say”, bite your professors with inconvenient questions, put on exceptions, find your independent way and be yourself, beyond their stupid fashions...

    Among other things, we should see how to find and organise our talents in Europe for a truly creative, problem-solving research, beyond any self-assumed, explicitly fruitless “excellence”, especially now that the long-standing bubble of North-American domination in everything explodes dramatically revealing the underlying corruption and catastrophic nothingness - and even much more in science than elsewhere (although this is much less spoken about, on the background of hugely growing American investment in that kind of obviously fruitless science, today, in full crisis!). [For example, they are going to expel our highly talented host Bee - at least according to her self-description :) - back home in Europe, can you imagine that?! That's what I call huge European over-qualification for their industrial mediocrity! :) ] If we want the world development to continue as a progress, we should try to make it differently now in Europe (and where else?!), with the help of our genuine talents, as it's absolutely evident that this progress can only be based today on higher-level, causally complete and reliable knowledge, far beyond over-simplified abstract “models” of still dominating unitary science. Where is once great and original German science today, for a huge and highly developed European country but unknown for its scientific breakthrough ideas? Where are ingenious and universal French ideas, when they are most needed in a world bifurcating right now between heaven and hell? Talents are badly needed here, the true ones, and in a very practical sense... Create a new fashion, maybe?! Nothing can progress without fashion, in a world like this :) ...

  25. Low Math, Meekly Interacting11:59 AM, April 15, 2009

    Hi, Bee,

    I also wonder at the myth of Einstein's purported mediocrity. I've read that Minkowski thought he was a "lazy dog", but if he had issues as a university student, they were motivational, not intellectual, and this was recognized by all concerned. If anyone underestimated Einstein, it was because he showed more interest in philosophizing and chasing girls than doing the hard mathematical work expected of him by his teachers. Perhaps he was seen by some as a bit lazy, but never less than talented.

    Regrettably, reality tends to refute the notion that with hard work we can achieve whatever we want. There may be a remote chance one really is that genius who was so bored by school he or she couldn't be bothered to get the high marks, and will someday be revealed through his or her independent work as a mighty intellect, to everyone's amazement. Probably, though, they're just a very bright, though less-than-exceptional, young man or woman who might be better off doing something other than modern theoretical physics. There's nothing wrong with that, nor with putting dreams to rest that won't be fulfilled, at least not without excessive difficulty and discouragement. Unless you're Ed Witten, maybe, there's always someone out there who's smarter, so why not try to be happy and fulfilled doing something more in line with one's innate abilities?

  26. Genius is partly an after-the-fact assessment of achievement. Achievement is a confluence of many things, including ability.

    By ability to do X, I mean it is possible to assess someone and say it is unlikely that that someone will ever do X.

  27. As Indian students we know that the best research is carried out 'out there' in the US of A. Your local blogger is an European living in Canada and objects on this statement.

    I see that I did not make my meaning clear. What I meant is this is what the average Indian students think and what I used to think before I talked to people and found out. The point I was trying to make was about the situation they are in that drives them to write mails like that.

  28. "current mood" feature is amazing !:)


  29. Hi Arun,

    “As to Phil's speculations, I've always wondered what Einstein would have come up with had he been born fifty years earlier.”

    As I admitted to Roland the stratification of knowledge is at most times a prerequisite, so I would admit Einstein would have never come up with SR without Maxwell’s work as it relates to the speed of light and the recognition of the field as a physical entity. One should also understand that between the creation of SR in 1905 and the finishing of GR in 1916 was an eleven year span in which time someone else could have generalized relativity. The fact is there were many still not accepting SR at the time and to some extent some still don't. I think one would have to admit without Einstein GR might have been many more years in coming. I can recall reading Richard Feynman admitting that although he had no problem in understanding and accepting GR, he could never fathom how Einstein made the connective leaps as much as he tried.

    As for what you said about my claim that Quantum Mechanics is mostly a phenomalogical construction I don’t know how it could be referred as being anything else. I would contend that QM has much in common with Newtonian physics, for Newton never did give substance to his force or a proper speed of propagation, he just basically said that’s the best science can offer in making predictions which is essentially all one is left with in QM. Now GR goes much further to say the consequence of having matter being embedded in the cosmos not only changes its architecture yet time’s as well. I don’t know about you, but for me that is what I call a better defined physical description and explanation of our world which in the most ideal sense is what one would like from a physical theory.



  30. Hi Phil,

    FYI, if you quickly look through "A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity" by Sir Edmund Whittaker, you will see Einstein's role in SR minimized.

    If you can't see the books, then thisBest,

  31. People are fooling themselves if they don't think talent is at least as important in physics as it is in say professional sports. Particularly in theory and in fields where competition is intense.

    If you poll most working physicists, you will find a majority of them were either child prodigies, or won/placed highly in various math/physics related competitions as kids.

    I've met a few physicists who weren't natural gifted like the rest, but they have to make up for it somewhere (for instance with herculean work ethics that others are physically incapable of matching) and even that tends to put them at a disadvantage relative to elite.

    Talent isn't sufficient of course (curiosity, social skills and work ethic) are also necessary conditions. But the odds are you won't make it that far if talent wasn't there in the first place, and unfortunately thats simply the way the world works.

  32. Physics is about the pursuit of natural curiosity, if you enjoy it best get on with that as much as your ability allows you to instead of worrying about your talent, or before you know it you're too consumed in self-doubt to remember that you're just a curious kid who wants to know how this world works.

    We all have a desire to do something great but the goal should be understanding, not greatness.

  33. Well, from all these comments it seems to me that there's in fact two ways of answering the question that was posed, depending on the use we see in talent :

    If it's "how important is talent to be a scientist nowadays" then the answer depends on where you live, but in general, you'll need talent to fight competition, to resist the pressure, to be over productive... There is a hostile jungle to survive trough in order to find or keep a job (minus exceptions) !

    However if it's "how important is talent in making a breakthrough" in whatever domain then the answer is far more complex, because talent is a factor, but so is imagination (i've seen really talented people with no imagination at all, they clearly can't do it, it's sad), concentration, memory, patience, curiosity, openness (and so many talented people suffered from the narrow-mindedness of others), luck, environmental conditions and whatnot ! any other quality or circumstance can play a role, and any combination of them can be produce a form of talent... So in fact it's a trick question for some people, it's destiny for others, and it's a shame for the rest.

    Anyway, in each century science has had its perks, its drawbacks, and our time certainly isn't the simplest, its jungle is far more dense and fewer get out of it to lead the others...
    It's our money-based society that slows us...

    We need a scientist-based democracy !

  34. I think most people who have the ability and talent to excel in some particular field are generally aware of that reality.

    I also believe in late bloomers. The idea that all the brilliant people in the world have done their best work while they were young is a stereotype.

    I guess my only response to people who don't know how best to pursue physics is to tell them to open a book and start reading. My on science library is approaching 200+ books, and I don't know how many papers (not to mention all the free papers on arxiv), and I know I am nowhere near where I want to be in my core knowledge set (which always seems to be getting to be further away for some reason).

  35. "Unless you're Ed Witten, maybe, there's always someone out there who's smarter, so why not try to be happy and fulfilled doing something more in line with one's innate abilities?"

    Einstein/Witten. I've never understood why physicists elevate certain people to the status of gods. That's self oppression! I don't see anything quite like this in mathematics. And frankly, if I were Witten, I would be somewhat embarrassed.

  36. Can someone actually define talent? Can two objective people unambiguously agree that a third one has talent?

    The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born.

  37. Hi Arun,

    Yes as J.S. Bell pointed out there is more then one way to approach SR. In fact Einstein himself lamented in hind sight he should have called it Invariance Theory rather then Relativity, I was rather pointing more to GR then SR and yes Whittaker long being sour on Einstein is well known. Yet I think his talent has been attested to by his peers then and since enough that to deny it actually just amounts to just that, sour grapes. Anyway of course all this is opinion and what I expressed simply my own, which is shared by many who unlike myself do have a talent for such things:-)



  38. Hi Richard,

    “Einstein/Witten. I've never understood why physicists elevate certain people to the status of gods. That's self oppression! I don't see anything quite like this in mathematics. And frankly, if I were Witten, I would be somewhat embarrassed. “

    Not to quibble but as far as I can tell there have been many elevated above others in mathematics beginning with Euclid and carrying on to beyond Godel. I think also to compare the leaps of insight in mathematics and physics are a little different as math is largely deductive while physics more of a balance between the inductive and deductive. In fact I would say that too often today math and physics are seen as being much the same. It might be true that in physics if an equation is ugly it may indicate it holds little truth yet to say because one that is beautiful must be true would be equally false. That is to say the real aficionado of things is never the physicist or the mathematician, yet rather nature itself. I think in this way a physicist with talent is one that recognizes what nature considers as beautiful, regardless of what they may think.



  39. Igor,

    Thanks for that link!

    I think that how to do "effortful study" is also a learned skill, and we have few effective ways of teaching it. I would guess that it can be learned by absorption from a person who has it; which is why talent seems to run in families.


  40. Hi Phil,

    I've witnessed excessive hero worship; and nearly obsessive preoccupation with creating rankings of "smartness", when the focus should be - here is the problem I want to solve, what are the things I need to do to solve it. Then there is intellectual intimidation. All unhealthy things, and the emphasis on innate talent contributes to it.

  41. From a early age, young Albert showed great interest in the world around him. When he was five years old, his father gave him a compass, and the child was enchanted by the device and intrigued by the fact the needle followed a invisible field to point always in the direction of the north pole.Reminiscing in old age, Einstein mentioned this incident as one of the factors that perhaps motivated him years later to study the gravitational field. God's Equation, by Amir D. Aczel, Pg 14It took certain factors of realization for Einstein to bring together what he otherwise might not have, had Grossman not mention the geometries of Riemann. It was Riemann, who set Einstein free?:)

    Stratification of thinking has no real boundaries for which it is to be distinctive, yet, Maslow might help toward that end. Venn logic as well as trans personal psychologies. To understand the mixing of experience and memory.

    Such intermingles and entanglements are a whole hodgepodge levels of thinking, influenced, and gravitational considered in thought experiments as "carrying weight." There is no way you can run and hide from this.

    Heaven and Earth are described in the Ying and Yang.

    Such motivations "as to inclination" are easily within determination of anyone, as they look back to the first memories of their youth. What is the most strongest memory that is brought to the surface?

    Looking for the basis of mathematical interpretation is much like this, as to determining the beauty of nature as it is revealed in the very idea of curvatures inherent in any gravitational consideration?

    If you understand Gauss or Riemann then you understand the history that lead to them and their realizations and what finally happened for Einstein?

    If you speak to your children as adults in this "mode of thinking" then what is the right position for moving them forward in life?

    You had to understand this thinking in order to comprehend what was given to them for consideration, as to accepting the independence coming.


  42. I think the idea of talent vs. hard work could be a misinterpretation of the problem of success in a specialized field. I think the real problem comes "after" the bifurcation in life path after one discovers a talent. Often when one discovers a talent you immediately get good feedback through grades and other forms of acknowlegment that one is good at that particular thing. The problem is that these forms of acknowledgment are quite addicting. In a sense that addiction to outside acknowledgment feeds the research paths one takes on.

    Ever so slowly one can become overtaken by the educational system in a way which can become a subtle form of brainwashing. The more technical field one is in the more that you want to use your technical expertise. But this kind of employment of talents will generally lead to accepting as prima facia the existing technical knowledge in that field. The reason this so often happens is because the knowledge is very arcane and you are continually rewarded for understanding such an arcane subject!

    That maybe why there are no really great scientists in the world right now, in the sense of an Einstein or Newton. I would say Witten is a great example of this excelling in an arcane world and is exactly the opposite of an Einstein or Newton that came up with fundamental insights from first principles.

    The problem in physics (as I see it) is too much speciallization and far too much reward for specialization. It's kind of like breeding dogs. We get these wonderful breeds that are absolutely exceptional at a particular thing but are completely useless at anything else. We have created a system in physics that is segmentized so completely that one doesn't have to have any broad physical insight to get substantial good feedback for the narrow area one "IS" good at. It just wasn't that way in earlier times and that's why things are the way they are now.

  43. Analogous to color- , number- , decision-blindedness:
    there should exist something like "talentblindedness", explaining many things.

  44. I don't know about talent. If you are interested in science, in its purest form, you will have to work extremely hard, with an almost insane (from the point of view of others), natural passion. On the other hand, as for science in its non-pure form -- the form which is practiced nowadays --, what you will need is a reasonably good social network, a kind of social capital, in order "keep yourself alive" in the profession, much more than merit, passion, or hard work. Or talent, whatever it means.

    If you think I exaggerate, just try it your own way and good luck. My path has been extremely noisy and uncertain, but at least I happened to end up in a permanent position. I collaborate there with some expertise in areas that they need, making everyone happy, and they don't bother me too much, leaving some time for my personal dilettantism.

    Because of my personal experience, I find it extremely difficult to offer advices on careers. I have seen people advancing in their careers having a mediocre university/graduate record, but with excellent social capitals. I have got an average final A+ score during graduation (PhD), and this did not matter for anything that I needed afterwards. All my papers were carefully written and researched, and published in excellent peer reviewed journals, in which I was the first author in all papers. But what matters is the number of papers, and I had often been haunted by some kind of "ghost of few papers". Perhaps in other countries high scores and good quality papers make some difference, here in Brazil I can tell you for sure, such criteria make no difference.

  45. Great post and great discussion! Further material on the subject can be found here.


COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG ARE PERMANENTLY CLOSED. You can join the discussion on Patreon.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.