In popular movies, a scientist is usually brilliant but troubled. We know that he’s brilliant because we’re told so repeatedly, and we know that he’s troubled because that’s plain to see. He might spend a lot of screen time getting depressed over his lack of creative output and trying to remedy this situation by getting drunk or going out for long walks – anything that will keep him from attempting any actual work. Finally, thanks to divine inspiration, a life-changing event or some other such, he stumbles upon a Great Idea. Now that he’s made his breakthrough, the days and nights go by in a blur as the work flies off his hands, the manuscript pages practically writing themselves. Once it’s all done, the scientist has to snap out of the trance, at which point it’s not uncommon for him to collapse and have a nervous breakdown.
I don’t even want to name specific movies – that’s shooting fish in a barrel. The number increases further if you substitute a writer or artist for a scientist. If you’ve seen too many Hollywood films and don’t know better from your own experience, you could be excused for drawing the conclusion that it’s somehow the mental illness that’s responsible for our creativity. I mean, scientific discovery – not to mention art – boils down to blinding flashes of brilliance, and those come hard and fast when you’re seriously kooky, right?
And now there’s a medical study that I’m sure I’ll see quoted in support of this. According to a recent article in Science Daily, researchers at Karolinska Institutet have shown that highly creative people and people with schizophrenia have similar dopamine systems. That in turn has been linked to the capacity for what the article calls “divergent thought” (a scientist is quoted to refer to it as “thinking outside the box”, one of the most annoying phrases out there), which contributes both to creative problem solving in healthy people and abnormal thought processes in people with schizophrenia. The long suspected connection – make sure to also check the links under “related articles” – may thus have a basis in brain chemistry. Yay for the Mad Scientist!
The n-category Café has a post about “Dangerous Knowledge”, the BBC documentary I reviewed here some time ago; there’s also a discussion in the comments on whether mathematicians (or academics, or creative types) are really different from “normal” people. If you came here from the link over there, welcome, and here’s hoping that you’ll enjoy this recent interview with John Nash. (Hat tip to 3QD.)
Around the 6-minute mark in the second video, Nash is asked explicitly whether his mental illness might have in some way contributed to his creativity and enabled his mathematical work. He points out in response that his work in game theory was all done before the onset of his mental problems and that he “did not develop any ideas, particularly on game theory, while being mentally irrational”. He also recalls a mistake in a published paper that he completed shortly before the breakdown and suggests that it may have been due to a malfunction of his mind.
This got me a bit puzzled: why would a comment on this post link to a BBC documentary on Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing?
Given that I don’t know as much about the history of mathematics as I probably should, and that I was too tired late last night to do anything more intellectually challenging, I ended up clicking through and watching all 10 parts of the documentary.
The mathematics involved – Cantor’s hierarchy of different-sized infinities, Boltzmann’s statistical mechanics and entropy, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem – is described remarkably well. An expert might quibble about how some of the explanations are ambiguous and imprecise, especially where it concerns Gödel’s work, but that’s a relatively small price to pay for being able to communicate the excitement, audacity and impact of mathematical ideas to a lay audience. The images and animations are, for the most part, well done and helpful. Several mathematicians and scientists (including Roger Penrose) were interviewed for the documentary, and I am guessing that experts were consulted quite extensively about the mathematical content.
That’s only one part of it, though. The movie chooses to focus on Cantor, Boltzmann, Gödel and Turing not only for their groundbreaking contributions to mathematics, but also for the mental anguish and personal tragedy in their lives. Boltzmann and Turing committed suicide, Cantor and Gödel suffered from mental illness and were hospitalized for it, and Gödel ended up starving himself to death. Now, I understand that these are undisputed historical facts. I also understand that troubled characters make for a more interesting movie. But I’m tired of watching the media portray mathematicians as socially challenged and mentally unstable, not to mention poorly dressed. You’d never know that it is quite possible for a great mathematician to be a well adjusted and fully functional human being, to have a long, happy and accomplished life, or to face and overcome adversity without developing a mental illness.