You is Smart

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You is Smart

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By Elle Rothermich

A new commercial series for TurboTax features a number of high-profile physicists aiding “everyday people” in the use of its tax preparation system. “You don’t need a genius to do your taxes,” runs the tagline.

This advertising campaign begs a question: what, exactly, is a genius?

If a child takes a minute to solve a problem that other children need 10 minutes to solve, she probably has a high level of logical intelligence. If the child then extrapolates a novel algorithm from her calculations and later uses it to solve similar problems, someone is bound to throw around the word “genius.”

Understood by the Romans to refer to a personal guardian spirit, the term “genius” in modern society has come to signify the seemingly effortless ability to remember and retrieve information that can be used to solve problems those with lesser intellects can see yet barely approach. The scientific minds of Sherlock Holmes and Sheldon Cooper exemplify this definition. Both brains possess a large aptitude for spatial reasoning, while both personalities express an equally large affinity for commenting on the mental shortcomings of those around them. So lives the idea of genius in the public consciousness — the highly logical man, misanthropic and intensely reliant upon a sturdy sidekick to act as a liaison between himself and the world. Computers, human-created tools, can also remember and retrieve. If we hold this narrow definition to be true, Google then must be the greatest genius of them all: able to retrieve the molar mass of lithium acetate in less than a second and then, in a blink, offer you showtimes for Star Wars just from the letters “amc st.” What Google does not know, one assumes no one knows.

But we know that Google is not truly thinking. Computer code stretching for miles keeps up the charade of organic mental processes, but the search engine cannot create anything new from the information it acquires. It cannot truly problem solve.

Problem solving is, at first glance, far more applicable to the STEM fields than to the humanities. Logic-based tasks have clear inputs and outputs (solve the equation to generate a value for x, or add hydrochloric acid in a specific concentration to neutralize a set amount of sodium hydroxide). Massive theories can be articulated through the systematic application of inputs derived from prior outputs. Scientists at CERN found the Higgs boson because their calculations pointed to a Higgs boson-shaped hole in the human understanding of particle physics.

But what calculations pointed Lin-Manuel Miranda to a rap-shaped hole in Alexander Hamilton’s narrative? Imagination, as Einstein himself said, “encircles the world.” Embracing ample imagination and creative thought as the markers of intellectual prowess may be just the thing to help schools match students to the resources that will best help them grow. It may be just the thing to lead our society to a deeper appreciation of female intellect, and maybe parents will not look so harshly upon the child who prefers the paintbrush to calculus. Perhaps it is time to broaden our definition of genius.