Genius Does Not Guarantee Wisdom

After she passed away, my grandma taught me that aging does not correlate with wisdom. She did so through her absence, in which my grandpa’s true — or perhaps now altered — colors showed. As it turned out, my grandma was holding the house together, including her husband. It was her calm, frugality, rationality, and humor that kept everything in balance. When those hard-earned traits vanished, my grandpa went off-kilter, to the point that neither his son nor his grandkids, aka me and my sister, even talk to him anymore. “Aging won’t free you from stupidity,” I concluded. “Only learning will.”

Aging is one quality we’re overly generous with in using it as a proxy for wisdom. Genius is another.

Called in front of the US Congress in 1949 on the matter of exporting isotopes to other nations, Julius Robert Oppenheimer proved as much. Atomic Energy Commission member Lewis Strauss believed handing other countries these chemical materials would be a safety issue, as they might be used in the development of atomic weapons. Oppenheimer did not. Though factually, the father of the atomic bomb may have been right, he could not see the consequences of his testimony ahead of time.

Genius as he was, with his contributions to quantum mechanics, nuclear fusion, wave functions, and even black holes, he proceeded to not just oppose but outright humiliate Strauss for the whole world to see: “Congressman, you could use a shovel in making atomic weapons. In fact, you do. You could use a bottle of beer in making atomic weapons. In fact, you do. I’d say isotopes are less useful than electronic components, but more useful than a sandwich.”

For all his brilliant theories, one outcome Oppenheimer could not predict: that Lewis Strauss was a petty, vindictive man — and would stop at nothing to ruin the world-famous scientist’s reputation. Less than five years later, Strauss became the chairman of the AEC. He promptly orchestrated the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, effectively stripping him of his career and political influence in one fell swoop.

“Genius is no guarantee of wisdom,” Strauss muses in the movie about the incident, and even though he would be the one to make sure his statement held, he was still right.

There’s a difference between aging and learning, and there’s a difference between being book smart and being street smart. Only one of these you’ll do automatically. Don’t forget the other three, for each of them might save your life in a different, unique way.