Monday, October 25, 2010

In Which I Am ThisClose to Genius

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was in graduate school, a newish professor from the next state over came to visit my dissertation professor, meet the faculty, meet the students, give some lectures, do what new professors do as they climb the ivory tower of academe. About 7 years later or so, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant--the genius awards, half a million smackers, given with no strings attached just because you're, well, a genius. I always thought, hey, I'm sure he doesn't remember meeting me, and having a beer with all of us grads (we were probably just one lump of seething graduate humanity, except for my friend Adam, who really is a genius and probably will get one of these awards someday), but I shook hands once with a real genius.

Friday night my friends, Lady Scientists J and B, and I attended a state Humanities Council awards and lecture. Every state has a humanities council, and they offer free lectures, programs, and events. Gary Paul Nabhan was the speaker, and he also won a MacArthur Foundation award several years ago. I was again in the presence of greatness! He spoke about heritage foods while wearing his grilling apron and wielding his favorite wooden spoon as a pointer. It was a funny and educational lecture. I strive for those two things myself when I teach, but I'm not sure I achieve it, much less as effortlessly as he did. Today B, in her capacity as Madame Director of a public institution that shall remain nameless to protect the innocent, has a meeting with him. She'll get to meet greatness up close.

Both these men are perfect examples of what I've come to realize over the many years I've now been in science and academia: that really smart people, not the ones that think they are smarter than you, but really smart people, work really hard at something, and they love that something, and they love it so much they make interest in it infectious to everyone else they speak to about their subject. They never stop learning, and working at learning, or trying to solve a problem. They never think they have solved the question they set out to answer, regardless of years spent working on it (or the awards or prizes received), because so many other avenues open up and so many more questions are asked, they just find more to puzzle and intrigue and excite them. Arrogant people who let you know they're smarter than you--not real geniuses.


  1. I'm quite sure, confident and positive, that you present your lectures in a "fun and educational" manner.

    Picture this, gentle readers...

    I was lucky enough to travel to Mexico with your blog hostess, the book-loving, tea-drinking, cat-and-dog-loving nerdy scientist. We were standing at the top of El Castillo at Chichen Itza and she began telling me the history of the site, explaining what we were looking at, pointing out some topographical highlights, other buildings at the site we were visiting... I looked around a moment or two later, and ALL.THE.VISITORS.ON.OUR.SIDE.OF.EL.CASTILLO.WERE.LISTENING. ENTHRALLED.
    Trust me, you are a wonderful instructor and an awesome writer, too!

  2. Aw, thank you. Teaching distance learning classes (I'm a scientist, and I play one on TV!) with student heads from hundreds of miles away that are just a few inches tall on a gigantic TV monitor makes it very hard to judge whether I'm being effective or totally incoherent.