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Review: One smart book – but not genius

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By Kelly LeVan

What does it mean to be a genius? Is it a genetic gift a person’s born with, or is it a fortunate collection of post-birth circumstances?

Social psychologists talk about something they call the “actor-observer effect:” people’s tendency to attribute their own behavior to external causes – a traffic jam on the way to work precedes a bad mood, for instance – but other people’s behavior to something innate – something to do with their personalities or the kind of people they are.

In “Einstein & Oppenheimer – The Meaning of Genius” (Harvard University Press, 2008), Silan S. Schweber proposes people apply the same logic when considering intelligent, highly accomplished individuals.

Specifically, he argues that maybe external circumstances played a larger role in the success of Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer than most of us realize.

Clearly, both men stand out. Einstein’s theory of relativity and other major contributions to physics revolutionized the field, and Oppenheimer’s accomplishments as director of work in Los Alamos during World War II, and even earlier, as a teacher at Berkeley, set him apart.


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