Extraordinary People: Intelligence and Determination

Five Great Books on Extraordinary People - selected by Choice Reviewer Bernard Beins

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer. Penguin Press, 2011.

Whether it’s tracking down your car keys or remembering your grocery list, everybody laments the limitations of their memory. Joshua Foer did something about it. After following the World Memory Championships, he began to teach himself how to learn and remember efficiently and effectively. At one point, he was able to memorize and recall the order of cards in a deck in under two minutes. By using mnemonic devices that psychologists have studied for decades, he learned to learn—winning the 2006 World Memory Championships. His performance was truly impressive, and he recounts the various memory strategies he used. This book illustrates wonderfully the history and psychology of memory. In the end, though, was his memory flawless? With respect to memorizing lists, he approached perfection. But, alas. The exceptional memory for learning lists is fairly constrained and doesn’t generally transfer to other tasks. So he probably has as much trouble remembering where he put his keys as the rest of us do.

Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe, by George Johnson. W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Sometimes intelligence is simply waiting to manifest itself. Such was the case involving Henrietta Leavitt. She spent many hours working in Harvard’s observatory looking at the results of the latest technological innovation in astronomy: photographic plates of the stars. Her task was to record data on the brightness of individual stars. In that era, women were the primary tabulators of data, which required long hours of tedious and unrecognized work. Leavitt rose above the simple tasks, however, and discerned a way to resolve a long-standing issue of computing the distances of stars from earth. Her use of new technology combined with her creative insights opened the starry skies to further study and to our current understanding of cosmology. Her discovery revolutionized astronomy. So why have so few people heard of her? She was recognized in the astronomical community, but because of the barrier of gender and because she died fairly young, the fame that might have been accorded her did not emerge. This book provides a fascinating glimpse of Leavitt’s intelligence, insight, and determination as she overcame barriers to entering the scientific community.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, by Jason Fagone. HarperCollins, 2017.

Much has been written about the role of Alan Turing in helping to unravel the ciphers of the Enigma machine in World War II. Less well-known is the work of American cryptographers that led to the defeat of Nazi Germany, specifically the extraordinary accomplishments of Elizabeth Smith, a young Quaker woman who began her cryptological career looking for hidden messages in Shakespeare’s plays and finished it a supremely gifted codebreaker. Smith was an unlikely wartime hero, but her ability to work with codes was exceptional. The book is fascinating in its depiction of the creativity and language skills she displayed while puzzling through the ciphers. It is quite clear that her insights didn’t happen by accident. Rather, she needed continuous and diligent focus to resolve the puzzles she faced. Smith did not have a machine for cracking the codes; her brilliance lay in an ability to detect patterns where others did not. As with many other women contributors to science, she has remained largely unknown, in this case partly because of the classified nature of her work. This book reveals how impressive her contribution was to the war effort and how seemingly ordinary people have talents that merely require an outlet.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, by Steven Johnson. Riverhead Books, 2006.

Books about cholera seldom generate reviews using words like thrilling. This book is an exception. Johnson writes of how the physician John Snow demonstrated that cholera was a water-borne disease—a view rejected by most of his contemporaries. Nevertheless, his scientific approach to studying the disease’s patterns eventually proved him right. This book shows how cultural and social issues pervade people’s beliefs and are driven by hidden assumptions. Snow’s work set the stage for the field of epidemiology, which has greatly benefitted the developed world in the 150 years since his research took place. The book’s title comes from the map Snow created showing the pattern of deaths from cholera during the epidemic. Not only did Snow have to invent his research techniques, he also needed creativity and insight to speculate beyond common wisdom. Policy changes based on his conclusions have led to the urban life that we now experience, free from the cyclical cholera epidemics that were once the norm.

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdős and the Search for Mathematical Truth, by Paul Hoffman. Hachette Books, 1998.

Sometimes people make extraordinary contributions when they find themselves in a context that brings their talents to the fore. Others seem to show special characteristics simply because of who they are. Paul Erdős was one such figure. He was one of the preeminent mathematicians of the 20th century, and the book details a life far from ordinary. Erdős was a peripatetic mathematician who would suddenly appear on a mathematician’s doorstep and, it is said, claim that “my brain is open.” He would reside there for a time, turning caffeine into theorems, before moving on to someplace new. The mathematical community recognized his brilliance and his productivity, such that scholars have “Erdős numbers.” A person with an Erdős number of 1 published with him; an Erdős number of 2 means that the person published with somebody who had published with Erdős, and so on for his 511 coauthors. Erdős was an eccentric who lacked many social skills, but he had a powerful impact on those with whom he worked. Hoffman details the life and perspectives of a man who lived in a way that indulged his idiosyncracies and maximized his talents.

About the author:

Barney Beins is Professor of Psychology at Ithaca College. He is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, the American Psychological Association, the Eastern Psychological Association, and the New England Psychological Association. He has been the recipient of the American Psychological Foundation’s Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching Award.