Gifts and Bombs

February 1st, 2018

The Dubious Value of Verbal Aptitude

Last night I looked at Amazon Prime to find something to watch while I had the birds out of their cages. I saw that they offered a documentary on the atomic bomb. I’m a sucker for books and videos about the bomb, going back to The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, so I had to watch.

As I expected, I found it entertaining. I haven’t seen all of it yet. I hoped to see some mention of Richard Feynman, a great physicist who worked on the bomb in his youth, but he has not appeared yet.

A friend of mine bought me a new copy of Richard Feynman’s first book, Surely You Must be Joking, Mr. Feynman, as a Christmas present, and I have been reading it over the last few weeks.

I first bought the book years ago, when I was a physics student. I bought a lot of physics-related nonfiction. When I dropped out of grad school and moved back to Miami, I put my books in boxes, and later, I found that ants had eaten a lot of them. At some point after that, Feynman got publicity from some source or other, and his book became popular.

It’s always a bummer when other people catch onto something you like. Everyone thinks you jumped on the bandwagon, and you end up having very unsatisfying conversations with real bandwagon jumpers who lack any sort of real understanding. It reminds me of my experiences with brewing. I was a beer freak even when I was in high school, and then at some point other people got into quality beers and homebrewing, and suddenly the world was full of hipsters who were instant beer experts.

I’ll tell you something funny. No matter how popular good beer becomes, there won’t be many people who can tell Miller Lite from Dogfish Head. That’s just the way humanity is.

I loved Feynman’s books. I won’t lie; I didn’t understand the third one I bought. It was about quantum electrodynamics. I didn’t have the patience to work my way through it. But the first two were great. They were autobiographies. He wrote about his experiences as a smart kid, as well as his time working with great men of science.

I learned something interesting from the bomb documentary. The thing I learned was of great historical importance, but I had never heard about it before. My best guess: liberal journalists and academics suppressed it. It concerned the United States and atomic policy, and it cast the United States in a very favorable light, so it’s the kind of thing hippies would naturally find infuriating and worthy of concealment.

The United States, on its own, tried to get rid of nuclear weapons and prevent the arms race.

For a short time, before the expected and unpreventable betrayal by leftists put the bomb in the hands of evil communist regimes, the US had a monopoly on nuclear weapons. We proposed destroying them and working to create a global ban on new production, combined with verification. The Soviets were working on their own bombs, and they refused to cooperate until we destroyed our weapons. Of course, the demand was ridiculous. We knew they were working on the bomb, and we didn’t know how far along they were. We knew we didn’t know how far along they were. It would have been idiotic to disarm and hope they didn’t have bombs waiting to be deployed.

The Soviet empire was, as Reagan put it, evil, and there is no way to justify the canard that westerners were just as bad. Even the disenfranchised in countries like the US had it much better than ordinary Soviet citizens, who were prisoners and slaves in their own nations. The Soviets were warlike and aggressive, and their policy was to expand by means of force. Unchecked, this would have resulted in a world system in which all human beings were humiliated prisoners and slaves. Taking a chance of making the USSR a nuclear monopoly would have been criminal.

I’m old, and I’m not especially ignorant, yet until last night, I was unaware that the US had tried to prevent the arms race. Thank you, crooked disseminators of information.

Today during breakfast I decided to Google and see if there were any documentaries about Feynman, and I came across a very interesting site. It’s called Cosmolearning. I know very little about it, but the “About” page says, “Collecting the top educational videos on the web, generously offered by hundreds of universities, educators, and professionals, we share their passion for teaching by providing a platform for world-class education free of charge.”

They had several videos on Feynman. Now I have some good stuff to look forward to.

Feynman’s autobiographical books are good reading not just because he writes about science, but because he writes interesting tales about a remarkable person with an engaging personality. He writes about his feelings, not just his accomplishments. A lot of his stories are funny. Some are moving.

One deceptive thing about the books is that Feynman undersells his intelligence. He was not just brilliant. He was extraordinary among brilliant people. But he describes himself as a guy who was dazzled and intimidated by the bright people he worked with.

Feynman writes about working on the bomb as a young man, as though he hadn’t graduated from college. He mentions overseeing high school boys at Los Alamos, as though he were some kind of low-level babysitter. I looked it up, and I found out that he had received his Ph.D. in 1942, at about the age of 24, before starting to work on the bomb.

So much for the babysitter narrative.

Feynman scored 125 on an IQ test, and that’s not impressive, but he also blew the tops out of very difficult math exams. His aptitude for math and physics was freakish, regardless of his self-deprecation.

It has been suggested that Feynman’s surprisingly low IQ was due to the nature of the test he took. After all, IQ is a test score, not a definitive quantization of intelligence. A very smart person can, legitimately, have a low IQ. You just have to measure the right things.

Most physicists are not good at verbal tasks. I know that from working with them. The great physicist Murray Gell-Mann said more or less the same thing in one of his books; he remarked that he was unusual because his gifts were balanced. It may be that Feynman’s test measured verbal ability more than mathematical aptitude. My guess is that a score of 125 on such a test would be unusually high for a physicist. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that other brilliant STEM thinkers had disappointing IQ scores.

Anyway, the notion that Feynman was anything less than astounding is untenable.

This got me thinking about smart people, so I Googled John von Neumann. If you don’t know who he is, it suffices to say that he appears to be the smartest person, among people of note, of the last century. He intimidated people like Edward Teller the way Edward Teller would intimidate you or me.

The power of von Neumann’s mind was incomprehensible. He made gigantic contributions in a number of fields in which most solid workers have no hope of making any type of memorable impact.

I have to say that I was depressed a little by looking into these things. God gave me some pretty good gifts, and I didn’t do anything with them. Earthly achievements aren’t very important in the Christian scheme, since everyone in heaven is a greater genius than 10 von Neumanns, but doing nothing with your gifts is not something that makes you feel good.

I always wonder what would have happened, had I been raised in a healthy family, by people who knew how to help their kids win. These days, I goad my friends to avoid the minefields I walked into. I tell them they need to get their kids started on music, math, and languages EARLY, EARLY, EARLY. Once you hit maybe 16, everything gets harder to learn, and your future success becomes limited. Earthly gifts aren’t everything, but being strong is usually better than being weak.

This week I realized something funny: extreme verbal aptitude has very little value. If you have a ton of STEM aptitude, you can use it to get a fine career that will feed you for life, and you may be able to make an extraordinarily large amount of money and look after yourself and others. A STEM person with an IQ of, say, 180 will find a lot of open doors. But what if you have an extreme verbal aptitude? There’s nothing you can do with it. No one will pay you to do crossword puzzles. It will help you as a lawyer, but let’s be honest; a lawyer with an IQ of 145 (common) will be able to do absolutely everything the law demands, very, very well. We have probably had good Supreme Court justices who were not that smart.

God gave me a very high verbal IQ, and now I know how unmarketable it is!

I do very well in STEM pursuits, but I got a late, late start. I was 30. I went from algebra dropout to grad student in a top physics program in 4 years, but I got burned out and quit (also, I suspect my memory was fading and making it harder), and I very much doubt I was ever going to come up with anything useful. I would have ended up doing experimental physics somewhere, shooting lasers through cold gases or something, and taking endless measurements to be interpreted by people who were smarter than I.

Maybe there is something useful about extreme verbal aptitude, and I just haven’t figured it out yet. Or maybe it’s just a gift to keep me entertained. I would not wish it for a son or daughter. A nice solid 650 verbal SAT and an 800 math SAT would get a kid much farther in life.

It seems to me that smart STEM people give us things that are useful, whereas verbal freaks do nothing but misunderstand and spread misunderstanding. They write books and essays full of godless opinion and conjecture, dragging the rest of us along in their wakes. The academics who are constantly hacking away at Christians are mostly verbal people.

I think of Justice Brennan, the famous liberal sage. He was wrong all the time, and his views were poisonous, but he was so smart, he convinced people (probably including himself) he was right. What a wasted life.

Now I’m more depressed than ever!

I may not be inventing great things or advancing physics, but thank God, I haven’t ended up like Sartre or Noam Chomsky or any of the other umpteen million verbal people who spent their days filling other people’s minds with sewage.

I think STEM gifts are better than verbal gifts, but on the whole, freak aptitudes are not that wonderful. The most important thing in life is a relationship with the Holy Spirit. After that, you want a nice, solid above-average brain, and more than that, good habits. The world is full of contented, successful people who serve God and couldn’t equal Feynman’s 125 on their very best days.

Incidentally, Feynman was an atheist. I enjoy his books, and I admire his mind, but in all likelihood, he is in agony right now, defeated forever. Terrible. I will never meet him.

Von Neumann is a different story. When he learned he was seriously ill, he sought God. He was a Jew by birth. I guess he was not religious prior to his illness, because he didn’t look for a rabbi to help him. He became a Catholic, and even on his deathbed, he was very afraid. I hope he made it.

How about all these huge Jewish brains? Where do they come from? What is God’s purpose for them? Feynman, von Neumann, Einstein, Bohr (half Jewish), Oppenheimer, Norbert Wiener…some almost incredible, others merely amazing. You could sit and list them all day. It almost makes you wonder what life would be without them. Would we have nuclear technology yet?

Gentiles do okay. Tesla, Gauss, Leibniz, Newton, Dirac, Fermi, and so on. But we SHOULD do okay. The vast majority of human beings are Gentiles. Something like 99.8%.


I often wonder why God bothers giving us gifts at all, when the real answer is to connect to the Holy Spirit and get him to take care of you. But I suppose gifts are useful to keep you alive until you find the Holy Spirit. You have to use whatever crude weapons you have.

Whatever my potential was, I missed the bus, so now I get my thrills playing with farm machinery and machine tools. C’est la vie. At least I can function as a walking cautionary tale and help other people.

I’m going to look for more stuff on the Cosmo Learning site. Maybe I can still jam a few more things into the worn-out container which is what’s left of my mind.

5 Responses to “Gifts and Bombs”

  1. Steve B Says:

    I’ve always thought of the intent of His gifts on earth is to do His will. Maybe I am too simplistic, but I see your verbal aptitude as especially important in sharing your knowledge and teaching me from this blog.

    Thanks again for sharing. You are a bright spot in my day.

    Steve B
    (Morrow, OH)

  2. Lee Says:

    I’d like to comment on two things:

    1) Anyone who doubts that the Soviet Union was evil should be required to read The Gulag Archipelago. That book is the size of Lord of the Rings and every page contains mind boggling horrors.

    One example: the Soviets murdered their own citizens en masse, for various specious reasons and sometimes for no reason whatsoever. When they did so, they often buried them alive. Not out of cruelty, but because it was easier to throw a live person off the wagon into the pit than it was to throw a dead one.

    2) I’ve read Surely You’re Joking, and I loved it. Feynman was a lot of fun to read, and despite his great talent possessed real humility.

    Here’s a great example:

    Take care.

  3. Og Says:

    Thanks for the link tot he Feynman interviews. I had seen some of them before but didn’t know where to find them, and now I can revisit them.

  4. Thomas Doan Says:

    Get the book The Nuclear Express Written by Danny Stillman. He is a nuclear chemist and they are the makers rather than the theorists. The book lacks the normal histrionics of the subject.

  5. Aaron's cc: Says:

    My dad sat with Nash at the Princeton opening of A Beautiful Mind. The Judd Hirsch character is a composite character largely based on one of my father’s co-authors.

    Great STEM talent sans moral compass isn’t worth much, either.

    The antipathy of STEM folk for G-d is less about G-d than organized religion.