Tuesday, July 8, 2008

In the presence of genius

The nature of my work is that every so often, I am in the presence of genius. The same, of course, cannot be said of the people who are exclusively in my presence, but they are just one degree removed from genius so that's something to recommend me, I think.

I am a writer, and, poor that I am, I write that proudly. During the day, I am a full-time marketing-type writer, working for a small agency in the South End that serves primarily clients in the high tech and higher ed fields. (At night, of course, I become Creative Writer Man, serving my own damn needs, working alone and very much removed from genius.) As such, I get the opportunity to meet with and interview people involved with innovations both big and small; many of these innovations are of modest impact, but some are truly huge.

When I am in the presence of the people responsible for the latter category of innovations, I am always processing the moment in multiple ways. First, I am talking, listening, and otherwise engaging with the individual at the purely professional level, where I am trying to get the story I need to write about from this person who has been identified as my primary information source. This requires a great deal of attention, because after all, I'm just a guy with a BA in Journalism from UMass Amherst, who still sometimes can't believe he's been a professional writer for 23 years when he feels deep inside not far removed from the stoner who used to zone out at Laser Rock shows at the local planetarium. When people are talking to me about their technology or their research, I'm kind of like George Jetson on his treadmill, and it's all I can do to maintain a mental pace that keeps the interviewee within my cognitive sights.

So that's one level. On another level, I'm a silent observer of the individual. I am always looking for physical evidence of the person's genius, such as an oversized head, a mark somewhere. I remember my mother once commenting on an artist acquaintance of my father's (the painter Hyman Bloom) that he had the most beautiful hands she'd ever seen. That made sense to me, that a painter would have beautiful hands. But does that mean a technical genius has a beautiful brain? That's not good enough for me, because I can't observe that. On this observational level, I am often somewhat disappointed. "This guy's so short, how can he be a genius?"

At a third level, I observe myself in the presence of genius. I want to make sure I am respectful but not starstruck. I want to nod and let the person know I get the gist of what he is saying but not appear like it's all so simple. I want to be sure to ask intelligent questions that demonstrate that I am quickly processing the information and moving the conversation in an interesting and appropriate direction. I have to be a good interviewer, which goes beyond simply conceiving and conducting a Q&A session.

So who are these geniuses who fight for the opportunity to be interviewed by me? I'll start with the most recent one. Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web. THE WEB, PEOPLE! This whole freaking thing we're obsessed with, he invented. When I walked into his office, his assistant was helping him blot a stain on his shirt; he apparently had just spilled a beverage on himself. Hey, it happens. Just because a guy invents the World Wide Web doesn't mean he can defy the laws of gravity.

Anyway, we sit in his office and he's polite and gracious, asking me about nature and scope of my assignment. Then I turn on my digital recorder and ask my first question, and it's like three people are talking all at once. He speaks so rapidly, darting from one idea to the next, in a voice that despite the English accent is in desperate need of enunciation remediation, that I worry our transcription service will fire us. He answers my questions, and I parry his points with relevant follow-up questions, leading to new fragmented threads of response that are remarkable compelling and yet frustratingly elusive at the same time. He knows more than he can tell me, and at the same time, gracious though he is, every minute he spends with me is a minute he could be spending changing the world...again.

After about 45 minutes, his cell phone rings. I had just ask a question, but within 20 seconds he turns to me and asks, "Are we done?" The answer, of course, is yes. I ask him to sign my copy of Weaving The Web, his book that details the development of the invention that earned him an OBE (I couldn't bring myself to call him Sir Tim), a MacArthur Fellowship ("genius grant"), and dozens of other prestigious honors. I thank him, he winks at me, and I leave. Impressed.

Another genius I hve known, like Berners-Lee plying his trade at MIT, is Robert Langer. Langer is a chemical engineer who could be a Nobel Laureate by the time my two-year-old hits grade school. Back in the early '70s when Dr. Judah Folkman was doing groundbreaking cancer research, Langer was among the very first people with an engineering degree to think he could play a part in biomedical research. Today, Langer is the author of about 1,000 articles, he has more than 600 patents issued or pending worldwide, his patents have been licensed or sublicensed to more than 200 companies, and his awards include 2006 United States National Medal of Science; the Charles Stark Draper Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineers; and the 2008 Millennium Prize, the world’s largest technology prize. There are so many awards and certificates on the walls of his office that I couldn't tell you what color those walls were painted.

Langer is as enthusiastic as Berners-Lee, but more lucid and articulate. He wanted me to not just to get the gist of what he was saying, but to really know the research as deeply as possible. Countless times during the interview, he jumped up from his chair to ask his secretary to get copies of articles and reports for me. I walked out of his office lugging reams of paper that described his mny innovations. One of his big areas of focus is drug delivery systems for cancer. He uses nanotechnology to develop chips that can be implanted into a patient's brain to deliver precise amounts of drugs directly to a tumor; minus this innovation, general drug delivery would lead to toxicity. I enjoyed meeting with him very much and I definitely had the sense that he was interested in helping me with the work I was doing.

Sam Bodman is GW Bush's Secretary of Energy, but I try not to hold that against him because I admire him so much. Some time before my current job, I was a Corporate Communications Writer for Cabot Corporation, at that time a Fortune 300 manufacturer of specialty chemicals. Bodman was the CEO and I had the opportunity to write speeches for him, which naturally required me to sit with him one-on-one on several occasions. Himself an MIT-trained engineer, I found him to be the sanest, smartest chief executive I have ever worked for. I left the company after only a year because it just doesn't feel like a good fit for me. I went from chemicals to public broadcasting so that tells you where my values and politics lie. He was genuinely sorry that I was leaving, not because I was irreplaceable (far from it), but because it bothered him that his company couldn't provide a good fit for a potentially valuable employee. He saw the big picture and the small details, and he was equally concerned about both. I might add that he does have a large head and I always assumed it was to hold his big brain.

I had the opportunity to meet one of my heroes, Brian Wilson, at a time in his life when he could best be described as a broken genius in the midst of healing. His autobiography had just been published, and it was later revealed that he had taken no part in its creation. He was under the control and influence of his controversial doctor, Eugene Landy, who would later be forced to give up his psychiatry license. Landy had saved his life, but was now trying to make a fortune off his troubled client by attaching his name to songwriting and production credits. Brian was doing a book-signing, a frightening proposition for him given his psychological problems and his discomfort both with performing and with being in public. He is in a much healthier place now, he tours worldwide often, to great acclaim (in fact I'm seeing him next week and will publish a review afterwards), and is much more comfortable being Brian Wilson. He is very productive and creative today, but back then he was a shell of a man.

I had already bought and read his book, and I waited in a long line to meet my hero. When I was maybe five people from him, I finally got to see him up close and I could see he was uncomfortable. He wasn't looking up at people, his hands were shaking, he really didn't want to be there. He was flanked by two "handlers" employed by Landy. When it was my turn, the handlers took an opportunity to get Brian feeling good. They asked me how long I waited, how long I was a Beach Boys fan. "You hear that, Brian? They love you!" was the extent of their therapeutic expertise.

Brian was signing my book slowly and with his shaking the autograph looked like it was written by a six-year-old. But I was determined to be as positive as I could. Though we had been told not to talk to him or expect to shake his hand, I reached my hand out and he took it. I said, "Stay healthy, man. I love you." I know it sounds corny, but he looked at me, shook my hand, heard my words. Maybe it meant a little something to him. All I know is I touched the hand that wrote "God Only Knows."

One of the hands typing this, therefore, is one degree removed from pure genius. So there.

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