Across the Universe: Maverick Genius

This column first appeared in The Tablet in May, 2011

This spring [2011], the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) celebrates its 150th anniversary. A breathless article in the Guardian reporting on the celebrations describes MIT as a place of “maverick genius,” contrasting its educational style combining theory and practice against the more stuffy Latin-and-Greek classical schooling found just up the river at Harvard.

What MIT maverick geniuses looked like in 1974, I'm the one without the beard; with me is my roommate Paul Mailman

What MIT maverick geniuses looked like in 1974. I'm the one without the beard; with me is my roommate Paul Mailman. Credit my parents for taking, and holding onto, this photo. (Even my family can't recognize me here!)

Forty [now 45!] years ago, I was a student at MIT. Thirty years ago, I taught there. Recently I visited it again with fellow graduates whose son is now a student there himself. It’s still the wonderful place I remember. And it is fun to pretend that we somehow live up to the status of “maverick geniuses.”

It’s not true, of course. For one thing, there is nothing inherently preferable to practical knowledge over classical. When I taught physics, I regularly saw that my best students were often those who had in fact also studied Latin or Greek; I myself did classics, not science, in high school. And for that matter, Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) both went to Harvard, not MIT.

The fact is, we all need to learn how to at least appreciate both worlds. And we appreciate those in both worlds, who can. We’ve seen how embarrassing it is when scientists publicly (as happens in the Guardian) display their ignorance of philosophy, or when religious people misunderstand evolution.

But more importantly, science is not something done by mavericks. It is a social activity that only advances as a community.

The figure of the lone genius is a common cliché, of course. One theory dates this back to the way Einstein was popularized in the press during the 1920’s with the same vocabulary used for film stars or sports heros. (The press conference announcing Eddington’s 1919 observations supporting the Theory of Relativity was covered by a sports writer for the New York Times who happened to be in London for a golf tournament.) But even Einstein was no Einstein, at least not the Einstein of the popular imagination.

The real benefit of an MIT is not the education you get in its classrooms. That’s no different from Nairobi to Nagasaki; I’ve taught physics on three continents, and we all used the same textbooks. What makes tech-friendly schools like MIT special is the community that grows there.

These are places where students can feel comfortable enough to follow their curiosity without fighting negative social pressures. They can be inspired by role models, both professors and fellow students. The sociologist Harriet Zuckerman, cited in Nicholas Russell’s recent book Communicating Science, has suggested that what such a setting provides is not any specific technical know-how, but (in Russell’s words) “socialization into the cultural conventions of elite science.”

The stereotype of the antisocial nerd is deeply flawed, but there’s a kernel of truth to it. An essential role for an institution like MIT is to provide the place and space where science and engineering students can learn how to interact socially. They need it. Unlike philosophy or novel-writing, science and engineering is a vocation that is done in teams, not alone.

It’s a familiar pattern. Consider how the Church grew in the first century, as described this season in our daily readings from Acts. Yes, Paul’s genius was of inestimable value. But if Paul had stayed home making tents in Tarsus then someone else, maybe Apollo or Cephas, would have done the job. The Church was not Paul, it was the folks in Corinth and Ephesus and Antioch. Paul wrote the letters; but they practiced what he preached, and passed his words on to future generations. We hardly know the names of the people in those communities. They were never called “maverick geniuses” in the Guardian. But they were satisfied to call each other Christians.

Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

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Across the Universe: Maverick Genius — 1 Comment

  1. Wow.
    That’s a wonderful link between Paul the ex-tent maker, early Christians, and Science/Religion being done as a community.
    I sometimes wonder(negatively) if we should be called “Paulists”, when so many readings in Mass or Service come from Paul. You’ve put that to rest for me. Somebody had to/would do it, and Paul stepped up.(or I guess in his case was knocked off his high horse)
    Thanks again,eagerly waiting for future posts and insight by all of you!

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