The Gift of Creativity

Article excerpt

What does it mean for a child to be gifted and in particular, scientifically gifted?

It has even been suggested in a postmodernist vein that giftedness is a social construction! In today's society where elitism is frowned upon, downplaying giftedness is perhaps understandable. I disagree. Is it not a fact that some children - and adults, too - are simply smarter and/or more talented than others? How do we account for that exalted tier of those who are gifted with creative genius, those in the sciences who are incredibly clever problem solvers which, of itself demonstrates a genius for problem solving? What do we call the supergeniuses in science whose work changes a world view, similarly to the supergeniuses in the arts and humanities, who also discover new ways to represent our world.

No amount of education or hot house atmosphere can grow Einsteins or Picassos or Mozarts or, for that matter, Michael Jordans. Even the very gifted scientist, composer, or athlete practices their craft at great length daily and yet never reach the exalted heights of these, shall we say, super-gifted or super-genius people.

This article compares and contrasts the early years of two super-geniuses: the great polymath Henri Poincare (1854-1912) and the very icon of the 20th century science, Albert Einstein (1879-1955). Similarities and dissimilarities are discussed in how they reacted to their educational systems and vice versa from which lessons are drawn for identification and support of gifted children.

Einstein is used as the reference point for comparison because he is better known. Since Henri Poincare may not be as familiar to readers, an overview of some of his scientific achievements follows. (For biographical details see Miller, 1996). Poincare took all philosophical, scientific and mathematical knowledge to be his province. Besides being one of the greatest mathematicians in the history of that discipline, he made significant contributions to every branch of physics and astronomy, as well as formulating a unique viewpoint of the philosophy of science called conventionalism. Today, mathematicians agree that many of Poincar6's papers are still not completely understood and promise new riches. For example, in some of his earliest mathematical research, in 1890, he discovered what is now known as chaos theory.

No two early lives of highly creative scientists could have differed more than those of Poincare's and Einstein's. Dramatic contrasts emerge between their school careers, personal lives and early reception of their research efforts. Whereas Poincare's giftedness and genius were early recognized, Einstein's life is the stuff of which movies are made.

They are the key players in a classic episode in the history of ideas: in 1905 they both possessed the same data and mathematical formalism to formulate a theory of relativity. Yet only Einstein succeeded. Einstein's visual mode of thinking, in contrast to Poincare's nonvisual mode, made the difference here (Miller, 1996).

The two men knew of each other through their work and met at least once. Their meeting at the Solvay Conference in the Fall of 1911 in Brussels was not totally successful owing to Poincare's disagreement with Einstein's 1905 special theory of relativity. Einstein brashly wrote to a friend in November 1911 that "Poincare ... showed little understanding of the situation" (Miller, 1981, p. 255). Nevertheless, Poincare was sufficiently impressed with Einstein to write a letter supporting him for a position at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, known in German as the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule (ETH).

A Comparative Study of Poincare and Einstein as Young Men

Poincare was born 29 April 1854 at Nancy where his father Leon, age 26, was a physician and professor of medicine at the University; his mother, Eugenie (nee Launois), was age 24. Henri spoke at nine months, and read at six years. …