The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Madness and Genius: Cosmologist Janna Levin on the Vitalizing Power of Obsessiveness, from Newton to Einstein

One aphoristic definition of madness is repeating a behavior that has previously led to disappointing results over and over again, expecting a different outcome each time. Freud coined the concept of “repetition compulsion” around this notion. But I’m a post-Freudian optimist — I believe that we repeat our perilous patterns not out of blind compulsion but because this is how we evolve. This, after all, is how evolution works in a scientific sense — repetition is its primary driving force. Organisms only ever change by countless iterations, making subtle and imperceptible self-transformations with each turn of the reproductive cycle — adaptive changes in the service of their optimal survival, iterative intimations of continual betterment whispered into the ear of time until the organism emerges as an entirely new creature.

Since our biology and our psychology are so symbiotically entwined, this too must be how our consciousness evolves and how any meaningful change comes about. The history of innovation offers plenty of testaments — most of the people we celebrate as geniuses, whose breakthroughs forever changed our understanding of the world and our experience of life, labored under David Foster Wallace’s definition of true heroism — “minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer.” Marie Curie toiled in her lab until excessive exposure to radiation begot the finitude of her flesh, wholly unprotected by her two Nobel Prizes. Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell made herself “ill with fatigue” as she peered into the cosmos with her two-inch telescope well into the night, night after night. Thomas Edison tried material after material while looking for a stable filament for the first incandescent bulb, proclaiming: “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” And then there was light.

Art by Lauren Redniss from Radioactive, an illustrated celebration of Marie Curie’s life and legacy

“An artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion,” Joni Mitchell observed in contemplating madness and the creative mind. But perhaps the singular turmoil of creative geniuses is precisely this compulsion for iterative betterment, which may give the illusion of madness to the outside world but which remains a central vitalizing force in the interior life of genius.

This relationship between genius and madness is what theoretical cosmologist and astrophysicist Janna Levin examines in a portion of How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space (public library) — an infinitely rewarding and unusual book, both rigorous and lyrical, aglow with the trifecta of what makes great science writing.

Levin, who characterizes her fascination with the madness of mathematicians as “morbid but harmless” and wonders whether “brushes with insanity are occupational hazards,” writes:

Insanity, madness, obsession, math, objectivity, truth, science and art. These friends always impress me. They’re sculptors and tailors, not scientists or spies. I’ve chosen them with the peculiar attentiveness of a shell collector stupidly combining the overwhelming multitude of broken detritus to hold up one shell so beautiful that it finds its way into my pocket, lining my clothes with sand. And then another. Not too many, so that the sheer number could never diminish the value of one.

With an eye to her historical compatriots in this kingdom of scientific obsession, she reflects:

Some very clever people were obsessive-compulsive. I don’t believe insanity is either a requirement or a guarantee for brilliance. But I find the anecdotes so interesting, so much more interesting than the usual hero worship. I’m subjected to my brothers in science… I find their weaknesses so much more touching.

Newton wasn’t obsessive-compulsive to my knowledge, but the tenacity of his mental health has certainly been called into question, particularly in his later years. Newton was a secret alchemist, conducting covert experiments in his college rooms in Cambridge, including very peculiar ones that involved staring at the sun and stabbing himself in the eye with a small dagger. His mental ailments are usually described as paranoia and depression. Some have even suggested that he was as mad as a hatter, meaning his insanity was induced by mercury and other chemicals he ingested in the course of his alchemy — chemicals that led to the mental disintegration of traditional hatmakers. Others suggest his emotional breakdowns were incited by the trials of his covert homosexuality. A broken heart, that sounds more likely.

Any mental lapses seem to have had little impact on his intense scientific clarity, at least for most of his production. Newton was so right about so many things that it seems ungenerous to dwell on where he was wrong.

Among the things about which Newton was trailblazingly right was the intuition that the laws of physics should hold equally true for all observers moving uniformly without any forces acting upon them. This, of course, was the seed of relativity theory, which Einstein developed into his landmark contribution.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne

It is Levin’s account of Einstein, in fact, that best captures this wonderfully optimistic view of the relationship between maddening compulsiveness and genius. She writes of his struggle to find an equation for general relativity, one that would describe his pioneering model of curved space:

Armed with the crudest mathematical instruments, he pierced the surface and saw through to the core. First he identified the object of pursuit, geometry. Then he realized he was completely unequipped to handle a battle with such complex geometry.


Einstein had created an unwieldy monster that in a way he couldn’t tame. He conjured up a theory reliant on mathematics in a curved space-time that still demands years of its students’ attention. Though he managed to use those tools, compared to his mathematician friends he used them clumsily. Isn’t that great? I love that. His fragility, his defiant brilliance in the face of his own limitations… He ploughed right past his inadequacy. Maybe this is what he meant when he said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Like a bad plumber he hacked and hammered and slapped together a mathematical model of curved space, correcting error after error in his own formulation. Sloshing between despair, doubt and conviction. When he finally pulled something together, something that worked, he was overcome with elation for days. He had trudged through the darkness of his own confusion and found what he set out to discover; a theory of gravity based on curved spacetime and faithful to his principle of relativity. It’s like Michelangelo revealing the sculpture he believed hidden within each stone.

Out of this iterative obsessiveness verging on insanity spring the advancements we experience as groundbreaking — repetition becomes the wellspring of revelation. Somehow, though they may appear blinded by their compulsions, minds of genius see more clearly into the nature of things, into some microscopic or monumental aspect of the world that evades the rest of us.

Levin considers the root of Einstein’s visionary powers of perception:

The rest of us live in this fog that he could just see through. He followed his intuition like a beacon, distrusting his calculations but not faltering his faith. Where does this kind of knowledge come from? Is it there in his mind? In my mind? Yours? Waiting to be mined? Are all of nature’s greatest secrets encrypted in our own selves? I hope so. I think so.

How the Universe Got Its Spots is a thoroughly wonderful read in its totality, using the perennial puzzlement of whether the universe is infinite or finite to tell the larger story of how we came to know what we know about space, time, and what we call reality. Complement this particular portion with a look at the relationship between creativity and mental illness, then revisit Einstein on the nature of the human mind and the true rewards of work.

Published February 1, 2016




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