On the Shoulders of Giants

An essay by data scientist and co-editor of Future Ethics, Catherine Hilgers.

Graph showing usage of word ‘genius’

‘Genius’ conjures innate ability and its inevitable expression in great works. My bachelor’s level chemistry professor informed us on the first day of class that we were literally standing on the shoulders of giants. The first few weeks of that class covered the historical work of these genius giants, largely white men, with Marie Curie as a venerable exception among them.

Scholars who study the concept of scientific genius, like Gita Chadha1, write of genius as a social construction, equally harmful for the well-being of individuals, as it is dangerous for marginalized people who wish to enter the field of science (or other fields which center on a similar concept of genius). It begins with who gets to do science, who is seen as able to do science, and who is deemed worthy enough to number among science’s ‘giants’.

Structural genius narratives today can be understood as evidence of capitalism’s endless performance pressure on the individual, but the term genius did not always have this lonely-at-the-top interpretation. The ancient Roman conception of ‘genius’ had it that spirits helped people, places, or groups achieve success. The spirits, however, were coded as male. In his lecture The Myth of the Composer-Genius,2 Evan Williams says that artist-geniuses communed with the divine by secluding themselves with the spirits. This partnership allowed them to create great works.

Image: www – Lararium painting Naples Archaeological Museum

The connection to the spirits was gradually lost. In The Critique of Judgment, Kant writes that, “Genius is the talent (natural endowment) which gives the rule to art. Since talent, as an innate productive facility of the artist, belongs itself to nature, we may put it this way: Genius is the innate mental aptitude (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art.” His genius conception and that of other Enlightenment-era philosophers has erased the spirits or external forces which visit the artist, and places the focus squarely on the individual talent and its presence in human nature.

In the Enlightenment-hangover era, genius narratives focus on the individual, the lone wolf. The flaneur, a classic silhouette of masculine fiction, depicts the lone traveler as an ultimate embodiment of free movement (the free movement which remains precarious for many women, non-white, and undocumented people to this day). Usage of the term ‘genius’ in English-language literature spiked in the mid-to-late-1700s and was on the decline until the mid-1980s, after there is an upward trend until now.

Image: The Guardian, American Girl in Italy by Ruth Orkin, 1951

Although it may appear to the contrary at the present, due to the prominence of figures such as Donna Harraway and Karen Barrad, etc, the fields of mathematics, physics, and music continue to suffer from genius narratives. Psychologists Sarah-Jane Leslie and Andrei Cimpian3 worked on a field-specific ability beliefs hypothesis: it transpired that the more a field is believed to require raw brilliance, the fewer the women. The psychologists interviewed professors and other people to rate fields in terms of how important sustained effort was to success in the field, and how important intrinsic ability was. Intrinsic ability was believed to be most important in physics, math, and music.These fields are often viewed as impenetrable and technical, but they are creative fields like any other. Individual merit discourse (rife in tech companies) supposes that individual geniuses will naturally be accorded success. When the burden of displaying genius is placed on the individual, according to Chadha, it erases the fact that science is not a level playing field.

Genius can be also harmfully fetishized: Cesare Lombroso 4 and other philosophers go as far as to connect genius to mental illness. Lombroso, for example, contrived to meet Leo Tolstoy in Moscow in an attempt to find evidence of his supposed illness. Depression or bipolar disorder are commonly characterized as the creative impetus for art. In Music-making and the myth of the tortured genius 5, Marjorie Wallace reminds us that, “The majority of people may have the illness but not the gift.” This fetishization of creativity under conditions of mental illness is wide-spread and harmful.

In creative fields like mathematics or in music, we are meant to show passion and downplay the jobbiness of our jobs. My friend Mathilde Gerbelli-Gauthier, a mathematician, said to me, “Math is beautiful, and math is like art. There is an idea amongst mathematicians that math should be pleasurable in the same way that art is.” We are performers and businesspeople, though. Like Terre Thaemlitz said, “Your soul must be full of this one particular sound. That’s really a problem that a lot of musicians have. They go along with this stuff. ‘Oh yeah, my heart is just filled with house… or rock… or punk.’ No. It’s filled with a consumer relationship. And I think this needs to be problematized.”6 Artists often graduate from academic degrees without a deep understanding of how to navigate granting systems or sustain themselves financially. As creative workers we can’t eat our passion or exposure.

Opportunities are distributed along the lines of privilege, but the myth of genius places people under pressure, inciting impostor syndrome or anxiety, perpetually comparing oneself to the work of the giants. In symphony halls, safe classical music from a handful of blockbuster composers, active hundreds of years ago, still draws the most support. Mathematician Piper Harron wrote in her blog post I Am Not Your Genius, “The system that holds some of us up is the same that pushes others of us down. There isn’t one without the other.”7 Genius narratives are obstacles to inclusiveness of creative fields, and they obscure the vast support networks and just plain luck required to succeed.

A widely shared (at least in the mathematics community) long-form article in the New Yorker called Manifold Destiny tells the story of mathematician Grigori Perelman, who solved a famous and long-unsolved mathematical problem. The author-interviewer invokes destiny in the title, and emphasis is placed on the mathematician’s loneliness throughout the article. “I had no close friends,” the mathematician says. Another mathematician described Perelman, saying: “He didn’t need any help. He likes to be alone. He reminds me of Newton – this obsession with an idea, working by yourself, the disregard for other people’s opinion.” Just one paragraph earlier though, they mention that Perelman was able to work by himself because he could access the work of his peers on the internet, and also because another mathematician named Hamilton. Hamilton did foundational work for Perelman’s successful proof. After Perelman published his proof and was awarded a prize, he rejected the prize money, claiming that his contribution to solving the famous conjecture was no greater than that of Hamilton’s. Because theories in mathematics are typically named after their discoverers, it now has the shared title ‘Hamilton-Perelman theory of Ricci flow.’ Perelman also lives with his mother in Russia.8 Painted as a lonely genius throughout the interview, the details, dropped here and there, reminded me that no scientist makes their name without building upon the intellectual work of others, and without substantial financial and moral support along the way. 

In many ways, I have benefited from narratives of genius in mathematics. It’s my belief (and I am not alone in this) that mathematicians and data scientists are overpaid compared to those working in the creative fields valued less: art, philosophy, and so on.

What is most compelling to me about mathematics is the impact mathematically-based fields like big data and artificial intelligence have on society. Here, I’ve been exploring the inverse: the impact that society has, on mathematics. Calls to separate the art from the artist (or as I see it written these days: claims that it’s just about the music) ignore the context of the music-makers and other artists, and these mutual effects need to be acknowledged and accommodated for.

Photo: Phillip Schulze. Sonify III, Salon 21 at K21 Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf Germany. October 23, 2019.  Harkeerat Mangat with Nathanael van Zuilen on pakhawaj and Maximilian Sänger on tanpura. 

My friend and Indian classical vocalist Harkeerat Mangat showed me a video where he is singing at a symposium wearing a heart rate monitor and displaying his heart rate on a screen. This vulnerability shows the audience the way his heart rate changes as he performs. I asked him about his drive to measure himself. He said that it came from noticing and observing how much his voice changed with the context of each different performance. “In front of a room of that many people, it’s like singing through a completely different body.” He says, “Heartbeat corresponds to breath span. Your breath span is how long you can sing a note. I found that when I perform this music, my instrument is completely different from the one I use to practice.” His music teacher advised him to adjust his style accordingly when he feels his breath isn’t cooperating: use the resources you have available to sing shorter phrases, the ones that don’t require you to extend your breath when you are unable to. Harkeerat made an effort to show the audience the effect they have on the music, demonstrating how his instrument (breath) changes the music he makes on the spot. With that, he broke the illusion of perfection practiced-ness, which the artist performs in front of an audience.

Photo: Phillip Schulze. Sonify III, Salon 21 at K21 Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf Germany. October 23, 2019.  Harkeerat Mangat with Nathanael van Zuilen on pakhawaj and Maximilian Sänger on tanpura. 

Piper Harron, wrote in the same blog post mentioned earlier: “The myth of genius is that there is something objective and innate within a person that naturally separates them from the rest. This has never been the case. Genius (at least in its modern form) has always been subjective, from without, and required the collusion of a great many people… Don’t ignore my privilege, my marginalization, or my ignorance, because doing so would only support the status quo.”

What makes success in these fields possible? Freedom, space, finances, support. Successful mathematicians and musicians usually have all of these things. I can imagine modes of solidarity where genius is no longer the burden placed on the creative individual. In music, groups like Discwoman (tagline: ‘AMPLIFY EACH OTHER’), or texts that explore the relationship we have to each other in dance and club settings like Plurletariat or the zines Rave Ethics and Future Ethics, which I co-publish with Bee Hill, make an effort to highlight what is necessary for artists, audiences, and artist-audiences to flourish.9,10,11 We can re-envision the history of not-so-lonely geniuses, and we can question whether genius narratives need to be made at all.

Future ethics zine: cover


  1. https://thelifeofscience.com/2020/07/09/scientific-genius/
  2. https://www.icareifyoulisten.com/2019/03/the-myth-of-the-composer-genius/
  3. Meyer M, Cimpian A and Leslie S-J(2015) Women are underrepresented in fields where success is believed to require brilliance.Front. Psychol. 6:235.doi:   10.3389/fpsyg.2015.002. https://www.princeton.edu/~sjleslie/Frontiers2015.pdf
  4. Carrà, Giuseppe & Barale, Francesco. (2004). Cesare Lombroso, M.D., 1835–1909. The American journal of psychiatry. 161. 624. 10.1176/ajp.161.4.624. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8643824_Cesare_Lombroso_MD_1835-1909
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2015/nov/06/music-making-myth-of-the-tortured-genius-mental-health-depression
  6. https://www.residentadvisor.net/features/1134
  7. www.theliberatedmathematician.com/2016/01/i-am-not-your-genius/
  8. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/08/28/manifold-destiny
  9. https://plurletariat.net/
  10. http://futureethics.net/raveethics/index.html
  11. http://futureethics.net/fem001/