Point At Issue: What's Behind Society's Obsession Of A Genius?


On June 23, twelve boys from the local youth football team the Wild Boars in Thailand’s Mae Sai district, decided to go on a little expedition to a specific destination: the six-mile long Tham Luang Nong Nan cave system. They parked their bicycles outside, and ventured in, accompanied by their 25-year-old coach Ekkapol Chantawong. All they had with them were flashlights, since they planned to be there only for an hour. However, nature had other plans.

It had been raining on the mountains above the cave system for the past few days. The water led to a flash flood, which forced the teenage boys and their coach to venture deeper and deeper into the cave system. The group sought refuge in a small cavern that they created by digging with rocks. All they could do now, was wait, and hope to be rescued.

The rescue operations outside the cave were in full swing. It had been ten days since the boys were trapped, when Twitter user, @MabzMagz, tweeted at Elon Musk, asking him whether he could assist the rescue efforts. Elon Musk responded that he would be happy to help.

It wasn’t a hollow promise. On July 6, Musk sent a team of engineers from his private space flight company, Space X and its subsidiary, Boring Co., which the Thai Government confirmed on its Facebook page. He suggested other ideas like inserting a 1m diameter nylon tube and inflating it with air “like a bouncy castle.” He began work on a mini-submarine to be used in the rescue efforts as well. By July 10, all the boys and the coach were rescued. The mini-submarine was not used. Musk decided to leave the submarine in Thailand for future use, and congratulated the rescue team for their outstanding efforts.

That would have been the end of Elon Musk’s involvement with the rescue, except it wasn’t. First, BBC News reported that Musk’s mini-sub would have been impractical, according to Narongsak Osotthanakorn, the rescue operations chief. Musk refuted to the BBC News report, and tweeted his email correspondence with the co-leader of the dive rescue team, Richard Stanton, as proof.

There was more to come. When asked about Musk’s idea of the mini-sub in an interview with CNN, British rescue worker Vern Unsworth laughed at the idea and said, “[Musk] can stick his submarine where it hurts.” Unsworth also dismissed Musk’s involvement in the rescue as a PR stunt. In response, Elon Musk defended his mini-sub idea and attacked Unsworth in a tweet, a screenshot of which is posted below:

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This fall from grace is important to note because it tells us a thing or two about widely recognized geniuses and their relation to people. The attack, which many have deemed dangerous and unsubstantiated, shows us that geniuses are human too. The attack also tells us that, when their well-meaning intentions are questioned, geniuses can fire back too, maybe not in the most dignified manner. However, it also speaks to a larger issue. In times of crisis, why do we approach geniuses for help? Why do we obsess over every word that comes out of a genius’s mouth?

The Cambridge dictionary defines genius as an individual who possesses a very great rare natural ability or skill. Musk certainly fits the definition. After all, not many people can claim to drop out of a PhD program in applied physics at Stanford University at the age of 24 and go on to have founded and sold two successful companies by the age of 31.

People have approached Musk for help in solving humanitarian crises time and again, and he has either solved or tried to find a solution to those problems, thus proving the trust in his abilities. Musk is only one of several other geniuses. Why people put their faith in geniuses might also be because geniuses not only challenge convention, but even defy it. Muhammad Ali was a sporting genius. He is remembered for his in-ring accomplishments as well as off of the ring, too. When he took the stand against the Vietnam War, he stood up for his fellow black Americans. He gave them hope of the freedom and equality people of color deserved just as much as anybody else.

Maybe that’s where the faith in geniuses comes from: in a genius’s ability to make claims and prove them, and the ability to take a stand for issues that other people may not be brave enough to take a stand for. There could be other answers, too. In the past, when something proved to be too difficult to understand, someone who could find an explanation was termed a genius. For example, artists used white color in their paintings, but not all artists knew that colors of the rainbow could be put together to form white color. Isaac Newton discovered the laws of optics which demonstrated that clear white light was composed of seven visible colors. Newton invented calculus to improve his own mathematical thought process as well, but let’s not get into that.

Are there other reasons as well? Do geniuses display an extraordinary ability to save people from problems that might arise from decisions of the present? In short, are geniuses like saviors? What does a savior do? A savior saves people from trouble, and there can be different definitions for trouble. South Africa faced the trouble of a civil war at the end of apartheid, but it took the political genius of Nelson Mandela and his belief in racial reconciliation to avoid war. He helped lay the foundation for a democratic South Africa. Nelson Mandela was South Africa’s savior.

Times have changed, but geniuses have always been trying to find solutions to problems that people face. These problems could range from phenomena that not everyone understands, as in the case of humanity as it was a few hundred years ago, to humanitarian crises that have happened in recent years. From Ali to Mandela to Musk, all of these geniuses have tried to solve problems that humanity faces.

Slavery was, and continues to be trouble for current governing systems and political leaders of the world. Cures for major diseases such as HIV/AIDS are still unknown. By inserting themselves into moments of humanitarian crises and solving the problems at hand, geniuses mimic saviors in their ability to bring hope to others. Maybe that’s why we collectively obsess over those we deem a genius: because geniuses give us hope.