Exploring Genius – Terence Tao

Each Exploring Genius article profiles an accomplished and recognised genius, details parts of their life and career, how they’ve influenced society, and what they’re like as people. The previous entry was on Stanley Kubrick.

Genius appears in all fields of human accomplishment so these articles are naturally varied in style, length and approach. Terence Tao works in pioneering-level pure mathematics and I’m about as proficient with mathematics as a salamander, so this entry is coming from a particularly laymen (nay, idiot’s) point of view. It provides a generalised overview of Tao’s life, briefly covers the origins and significance of mathematics for context (which is actually pretty damn interesting), gives rough insight into the significance of his work, explores his giftedness growing up and how it was developed, and ends with an overview of his personality—which is exceptionally kind and humble—and how it all fits together.

Introduction

The term ‘genius’ is more related to accomplishment than ability, and can be equally applied to painting as it can be to theoretical physics. It has very little to do with IQ (though some take having an IQ above 140 to also qualify a person as a genius). There may be a correlation with IQ scores in many cases, but an IQ score is only indicative of isolated aptitudes (such as memory and logical reasoning). Genius-level accomplishment comes from the interplay between cognitive control and creativity; it’s raw intelligence multiplied by open-minded imagination and wonder. Certain fields display a stronger correlation than others, and from what I can tell it appears strongest in mathematics and physics. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman is notoriously used as an example of the irrelevancy of IQ testing, with a tested score of only 125 and a clearly genius-level intellect, but closer inspection reveals that to be a likely product of the specific test he took, which was heavily language-focused. IQ tests are largely irrelevant, by Feynman isn’t the best example.

The kind of thinking required for mathematics and physics is pure logical reasoning and abstraction, with processing speed, braveness (yep, braveness) and imagination being key bonuses. Terence Tao has a tested IQ score of over 220, and by many accounts demonstrates those attributes better than any mathematician alive today. He’s known as the “Mozart of math” and in the classical sense of the term, he may well be the smartest guy on the planet.

What is Mathematics?

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For a better appreciation of Tao it helps to understand the broader significance of his field, so without deviating too much, here’s a basic rundown:

We don’t exactly know when it ended, but there was a time in human history when we had no concept of counting. We intuitively understood the concepts of ‘more’ and ‘less’—generalised quantity—but couldn’t differentiate anything in abstract terms. Seeing two antelope and recognising them as more than one antelope was one thing, recognising their quantity as an abstract concept equally applicable to fingers and days on a calendar—the concept of the number 2—was a quantum leap in human thought. The first person to achieve this may well be the most important genius in our ancestry. But we have no idea who it was, or how it came about. Anthropologists theorise that counting started as the tallying of single units, seen as vertical lines drawn on a wall, and that symbols were eventually incorporated to represent larger groups of tallies. In ancient Sumerian culture for example, a small clay cone was used to denote ‘1’, a clay sphere ’10’ and a large clay cone was ’60’. Many different systems of symbols were used across the world before the establishment of 0 – 9, which came out of India after 300BC.

The formation of symbols to represent groups of single units created a new dynamic between each symbol, and with each new dynamic came further symbol sub-systems (like algebra) with their own unique interplay, so that complexity grew exponentially from a mathematical big bang—an outward explosion of theory from the use of the first single unit.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell makes the case in The Principles of Mathematics (1903; not to be confused with his Principia Mathematica released in 1928) that mathematics and logic are the same thing (or at least, come from the same place), which becomes easier to comprehend when we consider that numbers are only representative—different systems (such as roman numerals and binary) yield different kinds of patterns, puzzles and insights, but all are bound by logic to the parameters of the system they belong to. Whether or not logic and mathematics are considered the same is a matter of definition, but thinking of logic as being fundamental to math at least helps us understand its nature from a deeper perspective and ponder the question: what exactly is mathematics? Is it something we’ve discovered, or is it something we’ve created?

I think it makes sense to view logic as a core property of the universe, intrinsic to the way everything exists and functions, and that mathematical theory is a form of logical structuring—an interaction of human concepts with the order of the universe. I have nil expertise and may be way off, but it seems like the 0-9 number system could potentially be replaced by something much more complex; it’s just that it works broadly for our population and is complex enough to describe reality to the level we’re capable of being curious.

So is mathematics just a way to describe reality? The physicist Max Tegmark makes the case in his book Our Mathematical Universe that mathematics not only describes reality, but that reality itself is mathematical in nature:

“The idea that everything is, in some sense, mathematical goes back at least to the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece and has spawned centuries of discussion among physicists and philosophers. In the 17th century, Galileo famously stated that our universe is a “grand book” written in the language of mathematics. More recently, the Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner argued in the 1960s that “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” demanded an explanation.

We humans have gradually discovered many additional recurring shapes and patterns in nature, involving not only motion and gravity, but also electricity, magnetism, light, heat, chemistry, radioactivity and subatomic particles. These patterns are summarized by what we call our laws of physics. Just like the shape of an ellipse, all these laws can be described using mathematical equations.

Equations aren’t the only hints of mathematics that are built into nature: There are also numbers. As opposed to human creations like the page numbers in this book, I’m now talking about numbers that are basic properties of our physical reality.

For example, how many pencils can you arrange so that they’re all perpendicular (at 90 degrees) to each other? The answer is 3, by placing them along the three edges emanating from a corner of your room. Where did that number 3 come sailing in from? We call this number the dimensionality of our space, but why are there three dimensions rather than four or two or 42?”

The example Tegmark gives is a good illustration of the symbolic nature of numbers, showing there to be a fundamental truth of the universe beneath their representation, but whether or not reality is mathematical in nature is mostly redundant to the field; it’s just helpful when trying to understand why it’s all so important, and therefore, the importance of the work being done by someone like Terence Tao. There may be conjecture around the philosophical nature of mathematics but there’s little debate over the benefit. Without it, our cultural and technological evolution wouldn’t have progressed beyond the spear—every scientific and technological advancement involves mathematics to some degree.

The paradigm shift available through understanding mathematics at a deeper level is also about mathematicians. Where once they appeared as number technicians, it now seems talented mathematicians are actually more tuned-in to the universe than anyone else (especially those making that kind of claim). Like a child who develops language early and is therefore at an advantage with interpersonal relationships, the gifted mathematician has an aptitude with the language of the universe, becoming the core force behind the progression of our species within it.

If Tao really is the world’s most gifted mathematician, he’s more than just a guy who solves hard problems: he’s more fluent with universal language than anyone else alive.

The Child Prodigy 

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Terence Tao was born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1975 to Billy and Grace, both Chinese natives who had emigrated to Australia in 1972. They’d met a few years previously at Hong Kong university; Billy there to complete a doctorate in paediatrics while Grace became an honours-roll mathematics and physics graduate. They had three sons within a few years of arriving: Terence (known to his friends as Terry), Nigel and Trevor—their westernised names chosen to reflect the culture of the couple’s new home country. All three brothers would eventually become standout intellectuals, with Nigel scoring a 180 IQ and winning bronze at two international mathematics olympiads, and Trevor becoming a national chess champion at age 14 while winning numerous prizes for his classical music compositions; broad achievements made all the more impressive by the fact he has autism.

Tao’s precocity became evident before the age of two, when his parents noticed him arranging an older child’s letter blocks alphabetically; a skill he’d learnt through watching Sesame Street. Things didn’t slow down: when he was 4 he was able to multiply two-digit numbers by two-digit numbers in his head. It was soon decided that regular schooling wouldn’t be suitable, and so he was placed into accelerated learning, which was eventually monitored by the Davidson Institute (Australia’s centre for the development of gifted children). The institute’s Miraca Gross writes:

“A few months after Terry’s second birthday, the Taos found him using a portable typewriter which stood in Dr. Tao’s office; he had copied a whole page of a children’s book laboriously with one finger! At this stage his parents decided that, although they did not want to ‘push’ their brilliant son, it would be foolish to hold him back. They began to borrow and buy books for him and, indeed, found it hard to keep pace with the boy. They encouraged Terry to read and explore but were careful not to introduce him to highly abstract subjects, believing, rather, that their task was to help him develop basic literacy and numerical skills so that he could learn from books by himself and thus develop at his own rate. “Looking back,” says Dr. Tao, “we are sure that it was this capacity for individual learning which helped Terry to progress so fast without ever becoming bogged down by the inability to find a suitable tutor at a crucial time.” By the age of 3, Terry was displaying the reading, writing and mathematical ability of a 6-year-old.”

Research has shown the likelihood of a child prodigy transitioning into an adult genius to be extremely rare. Genius-level intellect isn’t just about talent; it’s about creativity, inventiveness and open-minded intrigue. Tiger mothers forcing a discipline on a child may eventually produce a fantastically able technician in line with the best of a field, but geniuses are generally made through self-interested goals; at the core of true genius is one defining characteristic: self-propelled passion.

Billy and Grace Tao are exceptional parents. Instead of marshalling their son’s progression forcibly, it was Tao’s own interest and maturity that informed each incremental step in his education. His father explains:

“Firstly we realised that no matter how advanced a child’s intellectual development, he is not ready for formal schooling until he has reached a certain level of maturity, and it is folly to try to expose him to this type of education before he has reached that stage. This experience has made us monitor Terry’s educational progress very carefully. Certainly, he has been radically accelerated, but we have been careful to ensure, at each stage, that he is both ready and eager to move on, and that we are not exposing him to social experiences which could be harmful.

Secondly, we have become aware that it is not enough for a school to have a fine reputation and even a principal who is perceptive and supportive of gifted education. The teacher who actually works with the gifted student must be a very flexible type of person who can facilitate and guide the gifted child’s development and who will herself model creative thinking and the love of intellectual activity.

Also, and possibly most importantly, we learned that education cannot be the responsibility of the school alone. Probably for most children, but certain for the highly gifted, the educational program should be designed by the teachers and parents working together, sharing their knowledge of the child’s intellectual growth, his social and emotional development, his relationships with family and friends, his particular needs and interests… that is, all the aspects of his cognitive and affective development. This did not happen during Terry’s first school experience but I am convinced that the subsequent success of his academic program from the age of 5 onwards has been largely due to the quality of the relationships my wife and I have had with his teachers and mentors.”

Contrasting this approach to other accelerated prodigies, the Taos seem to have viewed their son as his own person rather than as an extension of themselves. They cultivated an environment of deep caring and unconditional support around the interests of their children, allowing the spark of internal genius to ignite without the repressive force of projected self-expectation. The Davidson Institute’s Marica Gross continues:

“In November of 1983, at the age of 8 years 3 months, Terry informally took the South Australian Matriculation (university entrance) examination in Mathematics 1 and 2 and passed with scores of 90% and 85%, respectively. In February the following year, on the advice of both his primary and secondary teachers, who felt he was emotionally, as well as academically ready, the Taos agreed that he should begin to attend high school full time. He was based in Grade 8 so that he could be with friends with whom he had undertaken some Grade 7 work the year before, and at this level he took English, French, general studies, art, and physical education. Continuing his integration pattern, however, he also studied Grade 12 physics, Grade 11 chemistry, and Grade 10 geography. He also began studying first-year university mathematics, initially by himself and then, after a few months, with help from a professor of mathematics at the nearby Flinders University of South Australia. In September that year he began to attend tutorials in first-year physics at the university, and 2 months later he passed university entrance physics with a score in the upper 90s. In the same month, finding that he had some time on his hands after the matriculation and internal exams, he started Latin at high school.”

Though Tao’s education was governed by his parents and teachers, the trajectory was entirely driven by himself and was aided dramatically by an attention to his emotional and social maturity. In many respects he was actually held back. He was moved into high school at aged 10, but as noted above, he’d nearly aced university entrance exams two years previously (in Australia high school goes up to grade 12). He spent two thirds of his time with grade 11 and 12 students and the remainder attending 1st and 2nd year university maths and physics classes. This was all down to his parents, who felt strongly about not doing anything simply for appearances sake, and only taking steps when it was in their son’s best interests:

“There is no need for him to rush ahead now. If he were to enter full-time now, just for the sake of being the youngest child to graduate, or indeed for the sake of doing anything ‘first,’ that would simply be a stunt. Much more important is the opportunity to consolidate his education, to build a broader base.

If Terry entered university now he would certainly be able to handle the work but he would have little time to indulge in original exploration. Attending part-time, as he is now, he can progress at a more leisurely rate and more emphasis can be placed on creativity, original thinking, and broader knowledge. Later, when he does enter full time, he will have much more time for research or anything else he finds interesting. He may be a few years older when he graduates but he will be much better prepared for the more rigorous graduate and post-doctoral work.”

Sitting among students nearly twice his age, the young Terry Tao became known for his humble and friendly nature, and by all accounts, was universally liked by teachers, mentors and peers alike. This may be his nature, but being as precocious as he was, his personality was undoubtedly benefited by the unwillingness of his parents to treat him any differently to his brothers (and other children of a similar age in ‘regular’ families). Modesty was a virtue in the Tao household; show-boating and arrogance made as much sense as a clown at a librarian convention. He didn’t care about winning prizes or being the best at anything; he just really loved doing maths, and received the perfect balance of encouragement and structure to reach his full potential without ever feeling superior. He knew he was different, but had no value placed on that difference: everyone else was viewed as a human equal. When the 10 year-old Tao was offered a prize for scoring the highest mark ever on the American SAT for a child of his age, he chose a chocolate bar, and when it was handed to him, broke it in half and shared it with his father!

Professional Career

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Tao’s work has achieved everything from progressing prime number and infinity theory to advancing MRI scanning technology—rapidly improving the detection rate of tumours and spinal injuries across the globe. Professor of mathematics at Princeton University Charles Fefferman said in an interview:

“Such is Tao’s reputation that mathematicians now compete to interest him in their problems, and he is becoming a kind of Mr Fix-it for frustrated researchers. If you’re stuck on a problem, then one way out is to interest Terence Tao”

The influence of mathematical advancement on society is almost entirely indirect: it usually functions as a basis to the advancement of other sciences, especially physics, so drawing a clear line between Tao and the broader value of his work quickly becomes convoluted by additional theory and speculation. Not to mention, explaining pure mathematics in laymen’s terms is extremely difficult. The concepts being used are comprised of other concepts that themselves require their own multi-conceptual explanations, all of which are already well beyond the learning level of the average person (myself included). What I do understand though, is that mathematics at an advanced level can be a truly beautiful and creative phenomenon, and for many, an emotional one as well.

It’s been said that most people don’t enjoy math because the schooling curriculum gives a vastly incomplete picture of the subject, analogous to an art class only teaching how to paint a single-coloured wall and never showing a Picasso or Rembrandt. For most of us it’s easy to recognise artistic and social talents as we have our own abilities as a point of reference, allowing us to perceive a distance between our own output and that of the great masters. In the case of mathematics it’s usually a case of viewing some kind of alien language. For example, here’s what Tao has been working on most recently:

“I’ve been meaning to return to fluids for some time now, in order to build upon my construction two years ago of a solution to an averaged Navier-Stokes equation that exhibited finite time blowup.

One of the biggest deficiencies with my previous result is the fact that the averaged Navier-Stokes equation does not enjoy any good equation for the vorticity {\omega = \nabla \times u}, in contrast to the true Navier-Stokes equations which, when written in vorticity-stream formulation, become

\displaystyle \partial_t \omega + (u \cdot \nabla) \omega = (\omega \cdot \nabla) u + \nu \Delta \omega

\displaystyle u = (-\Delta)^{-1} (\nabla \times \omega).

(Throughout this post we will be working in three spatial dimensions {{\bf R}^3}.) So one of my main near-term goals in this area is to exhibit an equation resembling Navier-Stokes as much as possible which enjoys a vorticity equation, and for which there is finite time blowup.

Heuristically, this task should be easier for the Euler equations (i.e. the zero viscosity case {\nu=0} of Navier-Stokes) than the viscous Navier-Stokes equation, as one expects the viscosity to only make it easier for the solution to stay regular. Indeed, morally speaking, the assertion that finite time blowup solutions of Navier-Stokes exist should be roughly equivalent to the assertion that finite time blowup solutions of Euler exist which are “Type I” in the sense that all Navier-Stokes-critical and Navier-Stokes-subcritical norms of this solution go to infinity…”

I don’t know about you, but I almost need a lay-down after reading that.

It’s my goal over the next 12 months to both increase my own base understanding of mathematics and to source mathematicians capable of providing effective metaphors to better illustrate the work they’re doing for the rest of us. I’ll post more specifically on the subject then, and will potentially revisit this section to give it some greater context.

Closing

It’s no accident that Tao became passionate about mathematics, and it’s not just a matter of encouragement. His parents instilled him with a positive and compassionate outlook and supported him, but it was ultimately the conscious absence of his parents that helped him the most. The common sense fact is, if someone is good at anything, they’re much more inclined towards it over other activities, especially without there being any pressure around their achievements. The brain naturally releases higher dopamine levels when the mind perceives self-accomplishment easily relative to a common standard, which in Tao’s case, came very early when he was teaching children twice his age how to count before turning 3. His aptitude then went on to connect his developing interest to higher-concept (more elegant and interesting) mathematics much sooner than most professionals in the field, thereby giving him an enormous hook. The message for parents here is a clear one: for a child’s potential to be reached, their talent needs guidance without any pressure and expectation.

The choices and direction of Tao’s parents were paramount to his development. They worked tirelessly in the background to create new and nurturing environments for him to grow in, and in terms of his personal experience, they were largely invisible. They recognised the importance of balance in the growth of modest self-confidence, a concept equally important to all avenues of his life—whether it be at school, at home or among friends.

Most importantly, Tao’s parents understood his genius. His father sums it up:

“I have seen too many situations where the parents did the wrong thing. A brilliant mind is not just a cluster of neurons crunching numbers but a deep pool of creativity, originality, experience and imagination. This is the difference between genius and people who are just bright. The genius will look at things, try things, do things, totally unexpectedly. It’s higher-order thinking. Genius is beyond talent. It’s something very original, very hard to fathom.”

Terence Tao is more than a mathematical genius; he’s a role model for human conduct, a rare example of supreme talent and supreme humility existing in side-by-side unison. We may not be able to learn much directly from his work, or even understand the first thing about it, but I think most of us can learn from his outlook on the world: no matter who you are or how good at something you are, be humble, let your work speak for itself, and be a good and genuine person without motive.

If you haven’t seen him before, here’s a brief interview he had on the Colbert Report a couple of years ago. Note his demeanour and the speed of his brain compared to his speech. He’s one of a kind.

If you’re interested in learning more about the ‘Navier-Stokes’ equation or checking out more of his work, Tao runs his own WordPress blog here.

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Exploring Genius – Stanley Kubrick

This is the first in a series profiling various geniuses from a regular-Joe-point-of-view. It mostly focuses on their intellectual giftedness and where it has been demonstrated, in turn building a better sense of how their minds function relative to the rest of us. It’s also about getting a sense of how interesting they are as people. As it turns out, recognised geniuses are some of the quirkiest individuals you’re likely to find. Stanley Kubrick happens to be one of them.

This article details certain aspects of Kubrick’s career, briefly covers his youth, provides an overview of directing for context, discusses his innovations and influence, explores examples of his gifted intellect and abilities behind the camera, covers select third-party opinions and anecdotes, and finishes up by joining it all together. Biographical details are loosely covered as a means of context. Hope you enjoy it!


Exploring Genius – Stanley Kubrick

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Introduction

Stanley Kubrick was born in the Bronx in New York City in 1928, and died of a heart attack in 1999 in his home at St Albans, England. He wrote, produced and directed 12 feature films (as well as directing 3 short documentaries and Spartacus) over a 46-year career—the first being the self-funded Fear and Desire (1953); the last being the uber-mature relationship drama, Eyes Wide Shut (1999). He’s revered as one of the greatest film directors of all time, Hollywood or otherwise, and has cast a shadow of influence over directors such as Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, David Fincher, James Cameron and Martin Scorsese; all supremely influential directors in their own right. His best known films include Paths of Glory, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, which were all eventually hailed as masterpieces of their respective genres.

To fully convey Kubrick’s genius it’s important to start by giving some context to his career and define the role of a director. Movies have become market-saturated and synonymous with our culture, but ironically have creative processes that are often totally mysterious to the public. As a director once said: “People don’t care how a soup’s made so long as they like the taste”. More often than not, movie-goers struggle to make a distinction between the cast and the creative team, prejudging their interest in a film based on a lead actor—a phenomenon compounded by the media’s constant reference to films as belonging to their stars. When someone wins an Academy Award for best director it’s a fair assumption that outside of making a great movie, most of the TV audience has no idea why.

The Role of a Film Director

There’s an element of truth to the mystery around what directors do. Depending on dozens of circumstantial factors the role can change drastically from one production to the next, and for that reason it can never be defined as specific to a method. Broadly defined, a film director is literally charged with ‘directing a film project’ using whatever resource, skill and leadership technique they have available to them. It’s the outcome of a project that informs whether they’ve done the job correctly; the challenges they had to overcome and the ingenuity they had to demonstrate is what separates one director from the next. In most cases, the higher the quality of a film, the higher the level of ingenuity and skill that was needed by the director to get there.

Film directing to a high standard on a large scale is perhaps one of the most difficult and overwhelming jobs in the world. A director’s goal is to transpose their vision of a story, whether written by themselves or someone else, from a text-based screenplay to an intricate visual and auditory experience where every elemental nuance of that experience serves to better realise that vision. Between creating a vision and bringing it to the screen there can be an incredible amount of compromise; including, but not limited to: working within budgetary limitations under executive studio pressure; the challenges of shooting on location; the challenges of working with actors (and their emotions); the managerial challenge of overseeing the contributions of numerous departments and hundreds if not thousands of people to ensure they’re aligned and timely and up-to-standard; the need for rewriting the script on the back of any of these things. And that’s just when things are going smoothly. In the filming of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola had to navigate production through Typhoon Olga and several destroyed large-scale set-pieces, problems with casting, the mental breakdown of Martin Sheen, a completely overweight and underprepared Marlon Brando, intense financial pressure, a regional military conflict, and the need to completely reinvent the film’s ending on the fly. Kubrick once said that directing a film is like “trying to write War and Peace, in a bumper car, in an amusement park”.

At its mildest, a director is the conductor of a multi-faceted and unpredictable filmmaking orchestra, unifying it to create an artwork as close to how it was conceptualised as possible. Directors that double as producers immediately have the added responsibilities of planning, hiring, financing and organisation, and auteur directors (such as David Lynch and Kubrick) have additional fingers in every piece of the creative pie; whether it be the film’s soundtrack or the type of fabric being used on a costume. As such, the technique and method of any great director is bound to be markedly different to the next.

Kubrick as a Filmmaker (1)

In terms of the above criteria Kubrick is arguably the greatest director English-speaking earth has ever seen. His control of the medium, especially on larger productions, has never been matched: he steered his figurative ‘bumper cars’ with precision while writing War and Peace in calligraphy, backwards, in Old Latin.

Spielberg called Kubrick the “greatest film craftsman in history”, and in spite of some recalcitrant attitudes towards his micro-management and perfectionism, every cast and crew member he worked with refers to him with exceptional regard, if not awe. His methodology and craftsmanship made him the tallest artistic poppy in Hollywood, but it was also his intellect that elevated him to legend. Arthur C. Clarke himself said Kubrick was “perhaps the most intelligent person [he’d] ever met”. But this isn’t an article about Kubrick the filmmaker; it’s an article about Kubrick the genius, so before delving too deeply into his life as a director, let’s roll back the tape and explore Kubrick before he made his mark on cinema.

Schooling, Chess and Photography

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From a young age Kubrick was bored by the standard schooling curriculum, refusing to commit to study on the basis he “wasn’t interested” (though he didn’t mind physics). His father Jacques, a doctor, was keenly aware of his son’s intellectual prowess and rather than take a disciplinary route, introduced the young Kubrick to chess and then purchased him his first camera. If there’s ever been a case for dynamic and progressive parenting, Kubrick’s life is it.

Kubrick took to the chess board with aptitude, regularly playing his father while studying different techniques, but didn’t take the game seriously until he was 17, when he joined a local chess club. Incidentally, 17 was also the age his photography career took off. He’d taught himself camera assembly and how to develop pictures over the previous few years, taking hundreds of photos of New York City and developing them in his own self-made darkroom. Completely disenfranchised with his schooling—with grades to match—he’d begun networking within the photography industry, in particular the prestigious Look magazine, where he eventually landed a job as a staff photographer. His breakthrough came following the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945. The entire city devastated, Kubrick captured the cultural impact with a single shot:

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That a barely 17 year-old high school dropout had the artistic maturity to produce a photo of this calibre is, well, you be the judge. He sold the picture to Look for a decent fee and was working for the magazine full-time by mid 1946, where he stayed until producing his first documentary in 1951. Look had a readership of nearly 3 million people at the time.

It’s clear the young artist had some incredible visual talent, but how good a chess player was he? He claims he was only ‘decent’ and that he wasn’t ranked especially highly at his chess club, which even as a modesty is probably an indication that his cognition was different to the likes of Garry Kasparov. That being said, if Kubrick had been trained from a younger age and practiced with ongoing discipline and training, who knows. He certainly ended up good enough to support himself financially hustling top players in central park, which is renowned as being home to some of the most deceptively competitive players in America. Playing for 12 hours a day while waiting between productions, he earned a reputation as one of the best. He was no patzer that’s for sure (though he was quick to call-out others for the dishonour).

Chess played a central role in the filmmaker’s life. While he never ascended to the standards of the elite on the board, he applied the principles of the game to his working life with staggering effect. He once said “Among a great many other things that chess teaches you is to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good. It trains you to think before grabbing, and to think just as objectively when you’re in trouble.” That he was able to conceptualise the game philosophically for real-world application, with such awesome success, signifies a mind primed for abstract thinking with a pragmatic benefit. This would become a hallmark of his career.

Kubrick as a Filmmaker (2)

Kubrick’s filmmaking career and its various highlights has been detailed ad nauseam so there won’t be any more biographical description here. If you’re looking for a chronological account of his life and work then it’s well worth checking out Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures. It’s a stellar documentary. Here though, let’s get to the intellectual meat: outside of his finished films, what gave the guy a reputation as being one of the smartest people (if not the smartest) in the industry’s history?

1. Innovation

Aiming to shoot his period drama Barry Lyndon with natural candle light—an apparent impossibility in 1973—and to give it the visual impression of a painting with no visual depth, Kubrick contacted NASA, aware they’d used a specialised ultra high aperture Carl Zeiss lens (the Planer 50mm f/0.7) for the Apollo moon landings. Kubrick was savvy enough to figure out the technical requirements for the pioneering effect, leading to a landmark technique being born (the specifics of which are beyond my meagre comprehension to explain). Take a look:

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The foreground and background can be ascertained, but there’s virtually zero depth of field between them, giving the impression of a two-dimensional painting from the same period. The film industry legally requires an appointed cinematographer on a film production—a requisite that had led to a 27 year-old Kubrick forcibly dominating a 48 year-old Lucien Ballard when he condescendingly defied a request while shooting The Killing—so John Alcott was given credit and awarded an Oscar, but it was all Kubrick. A similar thing happened on the set of Spartacus: Kubrick had been hired mid-shoot by Kirk Douglas when the original director didn’t work out, and the incumbent cinematographer Russell Metty complained that Kubrick had poor camera judgement and was taking over his role, to which he was told by the director to “sit there and do nothing”. Metty was also awarded an Oscar; his first and last. Ironically, Kubrick never won one himself.

Kubrick also conceptualised and pioneered the now done-to-death steady cam technique first seen in The Shining, used most famously in this sequence:

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Outside of technical innovations (there are numerous others) he pioneered several filming techniques: from extreme and oblique camera perspective; to ultra wide-angle lenses; to employing slow and brooding, protracted sequences; to extended tracking shots; to framing perfect symmetry mise èn scene:

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2. Cultural Impact

An assessment of the cultural sensitivities of Kubrick’s work could liberally take an essay in its own right, so in keeping with your interest (and awakeness) this article will only explore Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (1964)

Initially planned as a drama until Kubrick realised how unintentionally funny it was, Dr. Strangelove satirised Cold War tensions so effectively it managed to change the nuclear discourse in America. It’s important to note just how real the threat of nuclear war was back in the 60’s; most Americans genuinely believed an apocalypse to be imminent or precariously balanced on thin diplomacy. Recognising the need for an artistic commentary, Kubrick sought to adapt the novel Two Hours to Doom (aka Red Alert). The book ended up being little more than an inspiration and the movie took on a satirical, stage-like tone that would still be original if released today. It made the political unrest at the time seem socially ridiculous, and by many accounts helped push the public narrative back into the realm of reason, quelling many people’s fear in the process.

‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)

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And so it began.

Aside from being a landmark sensory experience in cinema, 2001: A Space Odyssey sparked a whole generation’s interest in space and catapulted science fiction into a new era. Literally every major space-based sci-fi film that followed was directly influenced by it: from Tarkovsky’s Solaris; to Star Wars; to Interstellar—all replicate the same majestic and authentic take on the universe to varying degrees. Prior to 2001 the public had a warped perception of how space looked, and following its release there was a significant social shift towards science and technology, bolstering an adolescent NASA. Spielberg called it his generation’s “big bang” and many commentators (including fellow directors) claimed it annihilated all preconceptions of the genre. It’s highly likely that the ripple-effect of 2001’s influence extended deep into the scientific consciousness, forming the basis of the recent resurgence in scientific interest we’re experiencing today.

It’s also one of the most cerebral mainstream films ever released. The plot imagines a race of alien life-forms that’s evolved beyond physical matter and can harness energy and spacetime at will, that accelerated the evolution of our ancestors to eventually allow the transcendence of our species in similar fashion to their own. When an exploration finds an alien monolith on the moon it communicates to the creatures that our species had evolved enough to take the next step.

In an effort to keep interpretations as organic and broad as possible, Kubrick opted to use a vague narrative and an absorptive, mesmerising tone; triggering public dialogues about the origins of our species and the nature of the cosmos that are still being had today (in some form or another).

3. Cognitive Ability

When Steven Spielberg first saw The Shining he didn’t like it very much. Not long after its release, Kubrick asked him for his opinion over dinner. After Spielberg tried to give a diplomatic answer glossing over the things he did like, Kubrick saw straight through it, and according to Spielberg the conversation went like this:

Kubrick: “Well Steven you obviously didn’t like my picture very much.”

Spielberg: “Well, there’s a lot of things I love about it…”

Kubrick: “But there’s a lot of things you didn’t like, probably more than what you did. Tell me what you didn’t like about it.”

Spielberg: “Well, the thing is, I think Jack Nicholson’s a great actor, and I thought it was a great performance, but it was almost a great kabuki performance. It’s like kabuki theatre.”

Kubrick: “You mean you think Jack went over-the-top?”

Spielberg: “Yeah, yeah I kinda did.”

Kubrick: “Okay. Quickly, without thinking, who are your top five favourite actors of all time, and I don’t want you to think; just name off some names.”

Spielberg: “Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Carey Grant, Clarke Gabel…”

Kubrick: “Stop. Okay, where was James Cagney on that list?”

Spielberg: “Um well he’s up there high…”

Kubrick: “But he’s not in the top five. You don’t consider James Cagney to be one of the five best actors around. You see, I do; this is why Jack Nicholson’s performance is a great one.”

In case you’re unfamiliar: James Cagney was known for his high-energy showman-like performances, much like a ‘good-guy’ version of Nicholson in The Shining, and was one of Hollywood’s leading stars for two generations. He starred in well over 100 films, won an Oscar, and was held in universally high regard by his peers, directors and critics alike. Kubrick knew that if Spielberg didn’t like Nicholson’s performance, he also wouldn’t think that much of Cagney, and that would put him at extreme odds with the majority opinion. By cornering him into admitting Cagney wasn’t on his radar, Kubrick marginalised Spielberg’s opinion on Nicholson to a small minority, rendering his opinion moot. He thought of all this in a split-second.

Spielberg has since watched The Shining over 25 times and now calls it one of his favourite movies.

With the strategy of a winning chess move, Kubrick was immediately able to both answer and influence his fellow director with ease. This kind of razor-sharp-terminal-velocity wit allowed him to consistently influence his actors and crew exactly as he wanted. Can you imagine handling an objection with a layered, strategic and influential line of reasoning so quickly? It’s probably light-years beyond most political and intellectual debates you’ll come across (Christopher Hitchens is the closest I’ve found).

Kubrick’s memory was just as incredible. When he was working on preproduction for the aborted epic Napoleon he had an assistant purchase every available book on the emperor, which ended up being more than 100. He quickly digested them all, and apparently astonished his associates when he was able to recall every detail of them in the planning process, right down to knowing the weather patterns on the day of each battlefield scene based on the sky in paintings he’d looked at.

Not long after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, Kubrick gave Playboy the most illuminating and extensive interview of his career. He eventually became notoriously reclusive and refused to do many afterwards—something he’d planned to change following the release of Eyes Wide Shut, but was tragically never given the chance. The interview gave an acute sense of his supreme intellect; he answered the interviewer’s questions with such intricacy and detail it’s hard to imagine they weren’t typed with the benefit of prolonged consideration. Here’s a random example:

Playboy: “Have you ever used LSD or other so-called consciousness expanding drugs?”

Kubrick: “No. I believe that drugs are basically of more use to the audience than to the artist. I think that the illusion of oneness with the universe, and absorption with the significance of every object in your environment, and the pervasive aura of peace and contentment is not the ideal state for an artist. It tranquillises the creative personality, which thrives on conflict and ferment of ideas. The artist’s transcendence must be within his own work; he should not impose any artificial barriers between himself and the mainspring of his subconscious. One of the things that’s turned me against LSD is that all the people I know who use it have a peculiar inability to distinguish between things that are really interesting and stimulating and things that appear so in the state of universal bliss the drug induces on a “good” trip. They seem to completely lose their critical faculties and disengage themselves from some of the most stimulating areas of life. Perhaps when everything is beautiful, nothing is beautiful.”

Closing Thoughts

Stanley Kubrick was never self-conscious about his intellect; he knew he was smart and that he had the ability to make important pictures, but he never showboated his mind unnecessarily. For that reason it’s possible he’s even smarter than this article has indicated. Some have claimed his IQ to be over 200—which is a feasible figure—but given Kubrick’s humble and professional personality, it’s highly unlikely he’d ever have made his IQ known publicly (not that IQ has much to do with genius on the whole anyway). He was an exceptionally organised and hard worker, storing every single planning and preproduction item, fan letter and professional correspondence in hundreds of neatly arranged boxes at his home. He also reportedly slept less than a few hours a night. As he grew older he gradually developed numerous eccentricities and some profoundly obsessive behaviour-patterns; including (but not limited to): extreme perfectionism—some scenes in Eyes Wide Shut took over 100 takes; an irrational fear of flying (though he did try to rationalise it in the Playboy interview); extreme task-mastery of his staff and crew; calling friends and colleagues with bizarre requests irrespective of the time; an extreme attention to detail (Eyes Wide Shut was set in New York but filmed in London; Kubrick had every road sign, window and physical aesthetic made to identically match the real thing, even though the audience would never know the difference had they been less accurate).

His cognitive and creative abilities seem widely spread among many aspects of human functionality. He was equally gifted with information processing as he was with visualisation; equally talented with leadership as he was with broad abstraction. He also had an immense talent for problem solving, something he strongly advocated for in schooling. He made culturally significant films in starkly contrasting genres, and never once produced a failed work—critically or financially.

When we daydream about the world from our homely vantage-points it’s easy to judge the failures of those who rise to society’s upper echelons, believing we’d be able to make better decisions given the chance (Josh Trank’s direction of Fantastic Four, for example). We rarely consider the pressures of the elite in our idealistic fantasies. When it comes to being a film director, the pressures rise like wind-resistance: the larger the scale of a project or ambitious the vision, the more difficult it becomes to accomplish. That’s what made Stanley Kubrick so amazing—he managed to formulate a system and method that allowed him to function in a volatile and pressure-riddled industry with the controlled demeanour of a mindfulness meditation guru. The results speak for themselves. As Martin Scorsese said: “One Kubrick film is worth ten of anyone else’s.”

Towards the end of the Playboy interview the conversation drifted into the prospects of alien life and human existentialism, and Kubrick was asked by the interviewer: “If life is so purposeless, do you feel that it’s worth living?”

Kubrick: Yes, for those of us who manage somehow to cope with our mortality. The very meaningless of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism—and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in faith and in the ultimate goodness of man. But if he’s reasonably strong—and lucky—he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s élan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death—however mutable man may be able to make them—our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfilment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.


Film Review: ‘The End of the Tour’ (2015)

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The End of the Tour is the fourth feature from James Ponsoldt, director of acclaimed coming-of-age film The Spectacular Now, and the lesser-known Smashed (2012) and Off the Black (2006). The film stars Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace, the gifted writer and philosopher who committed suicide in 2008, and Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky, the Rolling Stone journalist who was tasked with interviewing Wallace on the last leg of the book tour for his landmark novel, Infinite Jest. The screenplay was written by Pulitzer Prize winning writer Donald Marulies, with conversations and plot sourced mostly from Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and additional filler being provided by Lipsky directly

The only speech at James Ponsoldt’s wedding in 2010 was a reading of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, which was turned into a mini-novella as This Is Water in 2009The audio is readily available on YouTube, and inclusive of people unfamiliar or impartial to Wallace’s writings and philosophies, it’s well worth a listen. It’s unlike any commencement address you’re likely to find, self-consciously dispelling the form for the sake of a prophetic-like message on the importance of mindfulness and self-controlled choice. It’s also a pretty accessible introduction to Wallace, both as a writer and as an apparent morality beacon.

Beyond moral rhetoric Wallace was a very complicated man: manipulative, profoundly self-absorbed and often far from saintly. He was also a genius, a mind so stunningly conscious he had a habit of recursive and deconstructive thinking over every detail of reality, leading to profound self-consciousness, social anxiety, and in conjunction with a complex chemical imbalance, the depression and psychosis that eventually killed him. He was also a profound marijuana addict. Unlike the deflective answers he gives on addiction as portrayed in The End of the Tour—which were probably true of his dialogue at the time—he did have a significant drug battle that ultimately led to months of rehab and a lifelong engagement with the 12-step recovery process. He was also a binge drinker, but given the cultural glamorisation of weed and how un-seriously it was (and is) taken as a drug of dependance, there’s a good chance he told people he had a drinking problem in place of the truth. He never had an issue with anything perceptively heavier, though as the film shows, many of his onlookers thought otherwise—something compounded by numerous bathroom visits at social events to spit out chewing tobacco being mistaken for a cocaine habit.

Primarily set in Wallace’s home, the snowy surroundings of winter-clad Illinois have been poetically shot by cinematographer Jakob Ihre. Some sequences are stylistically reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though the occasional use of sunlight-flared shaky-cam as mechanism for magnifying emotion may come across a little obvious unless you’re fully engaged with the narrative. I certainly didn’t have that problem.

Ponsoldt’s film does Lipsky’s account of Wallace some beautiful justice. The filmmaking style and nuances exhibited in The Spectacular Now have been dialled-up to such poignancy that even the Wallace-uninitiated will likely find themselves captivated by the character, moved by his passing, and compelled to explore his life and work further. It’s been shaped with a cerebral subtlety and delicate balance, completely original in a way that allows the two characters to captivate us with little else but their conversation. Jason Segel portrays Wallace with earnest, mimicking his mid-western vocal cadences and physicality well (though admittedly, far from perfectly), and in doing so delivers the performance of his career. Eisenberg’s performance seemed more Eisenberg than Lipsky but is equally as impressive on its own terms. It’ll be surprising if neither are nominated for an Oscar.

The End of the Tour is a mature, intelligent piece of biopic filmmaking that pays high respect to Wallace’s legions of fans, showcasing the writer to the world with incredible reverence and restraint while refraining from any sense of Hollywood sensationalism. Those close to him have essentially boycotted the film on the basis of Wallace’s assumed protest and the incompleteness of the portrayal, but the fact remains that without it, millions of people may have never even heard of him. Since seeing the trailer several months ago I’ve absorbed dozens of hours of Wallace-related audio and video, read the majority of his non-fiction, read his biography, and am several hundred pages into Infinite Jest with an eye to finish his entire catalogue before moving on to Franzen, Leyner and Updike. That wouldn’t be the case if it weren’t for this film, and assuming I’m not alone, surely that’s not a bad thing.

4/5 stars