Albert Einstein was a genius, Kurt Gödel was a genius, John Von Neumann was a genius (I hope that people over here will share the meaning of "genius" which I understand, for me I always find Von Neumann being described as "genius" that is very highly intelligent and very much above an average species' mind), Alan Turing was considered a genius, Wolfgang Pauli was considered a genius etc.

We hardly find Rene Descartes, Galilee Galileo, even Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell being described as geniuses, they are simply termed as good theorists. Philosophers are almost never described as geniuses, Bertrand Russell's (an example of 20th century) philosophies are not celebrated much (the answer that he was proven wrong by Gödel is almost same as saying Catholics were proven wrong by Protestants and hence doesn't tell us anything).

There is a difference between the way Aristotle is revered and the way Einstein is revered, what has caused that have been making us to refer post 19th century scientists/mathematicians as geniuses? Why there number has increased almost like a "step-function" after 19th century?

Pierre De Laplace, Karl Frederich Gauss, and few others of 18th-19th centuries were prodigies (similar to today's "genius") but then also they weren't called as very much above the human species' mind, all they did was that they learned things quite early in their age.

  • $\begingroup$ There is a question here related to the growth in population, affluence, and availability of higher education, but why you chose to characterize some of those named as genius and not others appears to be a highly idiosyncratic take on what constitutes genius. "all they did was that they learned things quite early in their age." Seriously? $\endgroup$
    – nwr
    Dec 18, 2020 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ What are your references? How do you justify your claim that we "hardly find" Newton (for example) described as a genius? $\endgroup$
    – Rob Arthan
    Dec 18, 2020 at 23:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Galileo and Newton are not called geniuses? I suggest googling their names with "genius", you might be surprised. And just because the word "genius" gets thrown around more in recent times does not mean that there really are more "geniuses", or that the word has any cogent meaning beyond celebrity for something the public deems intellectually hard. You may notice a similar phenomenon with the word "hero". What you should be asking is why those words are used more, and the answer is the media culture of sensationalization and aggrandizement. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Dec 19, 2020 at 0:57
  • $\begingroup$ @RodrigodeAzevedo That would explain why more people got into science and got famous. As for "genius", the word is mostly used as an interjection with an exclamation mark and has no discernible extension, so all we can count is its mentions. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Dec 19, 2020 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ Newton and Gauss are not geniuses!?! I don't know what you've been reading, but in my opinion both are above Einstein, Gödel, and Von Neumann, and Turing isn't remotely in the running with these people. $\endgroup$ Dec 19, 2020 at 18:27

2 Answers 2


Genius is a loaded word. Richard Feynman was keen to point out that his IQ was no more than a few points above average. Plus a lot of the writing on Einstein, Newton, Maxwell and so on verge on the hagiographical. In fact, I'd say a lot of writing on 'genius' in physics goes quite a bit beyond that. As you've pointed the word is rarely used in other fields in the same way.

It's not just talent that distinguished them from others, but also determination and opportunity.

Take Feynman for instance, the opportunity wouldn't have been there if mass public education wasn't the norm. Nor would it not have been there if the states wasn't an advanced industrialised economy. The determination speaks for itself: he was building crystal radios when he was a young teenager and fixing them, and having read calculus was important he was determined to read up on it as much as he could. It's not surprising then he was ahead of the class.

Another thing to ponder is that there are many fields of endeavour. For example, physics is now split into many sub-fields so that there are many more to succeed in.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Danu
    Dec 19, 2020 at 0:53
  • $\begingroup$ @knight admires Chappo: ... To an ill-posed question. $\endgroup$ Dec 20, 2020 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Knight admires Chappo: It takes two to chat ... and I don't want to chat with you. $\endgroup$ Dec 21, 2020 at 7:45
  • $\begingroup$ I know you don’t want to, but try to persuade yourself. We already know each other. $\endgroup$ Dec 21, 2020 at 8:12
  • $\begingroup$ No we don't know each other. $\endgroup$ Dec 21, 2020 at 8:15

The obvious answer is that the tiny percentage of persons who are geniuses didn't change.

But the number of persons did change, as world propulation multiplied several times between 1800 and 2020, thus multiplying the population of geniuses. And also the percentage of geniuses who didn't have to work hard at manual labor to earn a living but could have the leisure to think about stuff increased. And also with the spread of universal enducation, the percentage of geniuses who got a good education and knew enough facts to build on multiplied several times.

Since the question is about scientific geniuses, it should be noted that probably more professional scientists have worked as scientists within the last 50 years or so than all the scientists or philiosophers in all of previous history.

Remember that for hundreds of thousands of years all humans lived as hunter gatherers, and anyone who was born then with the personality to beome a scientific genius never got a chance to use their scientific potential but had to spend their time chasing animals, picking plants, chipping stones, and weaving baskets, etc., even if they lived long enough to be an adult, or even a teenager. The majority of persons born before the last century or two died as young children, so perhaps we should change our mental picture of a typical human to be a child instead of an adult.

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    $\begingroup$ I would suggest that the fraction of geniuses is constant not in the whole population but in that part of population which has access to good EDUCATION. This would explain, for example why a disproportionally large number of them comes from German speaking countries. $\endgroup$ Dec 19, 2020 at 14:43

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