Mathematical Genius – Born or Raised – Caused or Praised?

What makes a mathematical genius? Are they born or are they raised? Are they the result of hours of study or mountains of praise?

Simon Phillips Norton, a British mathematician, is a recognized genius. Born on February 28, 1952 of Jewish heritage — traced back to the Iraqi Jews of Babylon, Norton, schooled at Eton, is best known for exploring the mathematical puzzle, The Monster, while working in the Department of Pure Mathematics at the University of Cambridge in London. It is the specialized study on group theory, specifically symmetry. What do we know of the life of a genius?

First, what is the definition of genius? Simplistically, genius is defined as a person who receives an intelligent quotient (IQ) score above 140 during specialized testing. This, of course, is a narrow definition, but one that is quantifiable and universally applied. At age three-and-a-half, Norton’s IQ was an “eerie” 178. People who knew Norton described him as brilliant, whereas others said he was “odd” due to his shabby appearance and unconventional thought processes. Others maintained that brilliance in a focused field — such as mathematics, and more specifically symmetry — that the general public may regard as “useless” or artificial, is not as highly regarded in society as a person consistently adept in a range of academic, artistic, social, and physical accomplishments.

By definition, Simon Norton’s parents and two older brothers were not geniuses, nor were they gifted in mathematics, and therefore had little involvement in developing his skills. At age one, he was already exploring number patterns with his building blocks; at four he could compute long multiplication; by five he had mastered percentages, square numbers, factors, and long division; and by ten his memory was proficient and he could solve puzzles with startling speed.

Simon Norton was a voracious reader; read books in a single day; preferred public transport; collected bus and train timetables; was honest to a fault; and found correctness “beautiful.” He never boasted; was not vain; was unassuming; and wore the same clothes, summer and winter. His biographer, Alexander Masters, believed that for Norton’s genius to flourish, he needed stimulation and inspiration through company, which means that he was not a loner. His talent did not come from hard work, it stemmed from delight — the fact that he genuinely enjoyed mathematics. Norton himself said he “never was a great brain, just a very quick one.” He doubted his own genius, not because he was modest, but because he was a purist about language and the meaning of each and every word, thus questioning the definition. Norton believed he reached his peak by the age of twenty — not uncommon amongst mathematicians where it is believed that they peak in their late twenties.

Although Norton who won two gold medals at the International Mathematics Olympiad (scoring 100 percent) and was described as the greatest native talent in Britain for perhaps a century, especially for his achievements in the 1970s, he almost failed the Cambridge University qualifying course to enter its research program because he left many questions unanswered. He was accepted on his reputation, which would not have been afforded to an “ordinary” mathematical student, but by 1985 his contract was not renewed and he became unemployed and unemployable. The reason for his “decline” was boredom. Cambridge University required him to repeat a whole year because he failed the entry test, during which time he lost interest. What people said was Norton’s intellectual decline was probably only others equaling his potential due to the lack of inspiration and encouragement which could have extended him further — in other words, other mathematical students “caught up.”

The lesson is not just one for mentors, teachers, and parents of geniuses; it can be applied to all students, children, and youth during their formative years and beyond. Whether genius is innate or not, it needs to be recognized, respected, and nurtured. Inane repetitious “busy work” does no student any good. Students need stimulation from a range of sources: social, intellectual, physical, and artistic. Norton indicated that his inspiration came during walks in the wood, or travel, both domestic and international. Inspiration and motivation come not just from a classroom or lecture hall; it comes from the environment and it comes in the company of others where ideas can be tested and validated. Genius is a combination of interest, encouragement, stimulation, challenge, social discourse, experimentation, and inspiration.

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