The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense

By Michael Shermer | Go to book overview

12
THE AMADEUS MYTH
Mozart and the Myth of the
Miracle of Genius

BEFORE READING ANY FURTHER try to answer these questions: what five-letter word do all college graduates spell wrong? How is it possible that our basketball team won a game last week by the score of 73–49, and yet not one man on the team scored as much as a single point? How can it be that a man in a certain town in the United States married 20 women from the town, yet he broke no law, he is not a Mormon, and they are all still alive?

If you answered W-R-O-N-G for the first question, that the basketball team was an all-woman's team for the second question, or that the man is a minister for the third question, you likely experienced what is called the “aha” reaction of insight in problem-solving. This is one theory of genius—the answer inexplicably pops into the ingenious mind from on high, a mental miracle from the muses. Einstein stumbles onto relativity theory while dreaming of riding on a beam of light. Kekule discovers the structure of the benzene ring by dreaming of a snake biting its tail. Darwin suddenly becomes an evolutionist while visiting the Galapagos Islands. Wallace discovers natural selection while in a feverish fit of malaria in the Malay Archipelago. Evariste Galois, out of fear of a foreshortened life, pens the entirety of his mathematical group theory the night before he was killed in a duel over a woman. Newton flashes onto universal gravitation when beaned by an apple. Coleridge creates his brilliant poem Kubla Khan one afternoon during an opium-induced altered state of consciousness. And, perhaps best known of all, Mozart composes perfect symphonies on first draft—no corrections, additions, or deletions needed—a miraculous masterpiece.

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