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Hotbeds of genius and innovation depend on these key ingredients

January 21, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
What kind of environment spawns genius? That’s the question Eric Weiner tackles in his latest book, “The Geography of Genius,” in which Weiner journeys around the world and through time, from Plato’s Athens to Leonardo da Vinci’s Florence, to find the secret ingredients behind some of the greatest minds in history, and what it means for America today. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.


Are there really genius clusters? What is the secret sauce of creative genius? For his new book, “The Geography of Genius,” best-selling author Eric Weiner traveled the globe from Athens to Silicon Valley to find out why certain places have turned out so many talented individuals at certain times in history.

Weiner says several elements are often at play. “In order for genius to happen, you need to have almost a chemical reaction going on, you need to have molecules banging against each other, and the more molecules you have, the better,” Weiner told PBS NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman.

“Those collisions are more likely to happen in a city than they are in the countryside. Silicon Valley is one exception to that rule, it was essentially suburbia when it grew up, but it’s probably the exception that proves the rule. All of these other golden ages sprang out of urban centers.”

The key to the cultivation of genius is openness to innovation, and to outsiders. Genius magnets attract talent from far and wide.

“Take Vienna,” Weiner said. “Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, none of them were from Vienna, they moved there and once they moved there they further magnetized the city, but there always has to be that initial seed in the first place.”

Read the full transcript of this segment below:

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, what helps foster genius, particularly geography and the close proximity of other talented minds?

Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, has a look, part of his weekly Making Sense series, which airs every Thursday on the NewsHour.

PAUL SOLMAN: So we’re in the National Gallery of Art, genius clusters galore. You want to explain some to me?

ERIC WEINER, Author, “The Geography of Genius”: Sure.

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s journalist Eric Weiner. For his new book, “The Geography of Genius,” he traveled the world and back in time. So, a museum seemed a fitting backdrop to hear what he found. First stop, ancient Athens.

ERIC WEINER: Athens was one of the first real global cities in the world. And so they would open their doors to foreigners — they called them Metics — they were essentially resident aliens, who, even though they knew they posed somewhat of a national security risk, they invited them in.

PAUL SOLMAN: And became cosmopolitan, the first necessary ingredient for the genius cluster every place would like to have, says Weiner.

Unsurprisingly, the head of Harvard’s Center for International Development agrees.

RICARDO HAUSMANN, Director of the Center for International Development, Harvard: I study how places become good at different things, and how the things that they’re good at evolve.

PAUL SOLMAN: Professor Ricardo Hausmann.

RICARDO HAUSMANN: And what I find is that they tend to diversify into things that are somewhat related, but somewhat more complex or more advanced. And in the process of diversifying, they rely enormously on talent that came from the outside.

PAUL SOLMAN: Although note, says Weiner, that these places have to be big and wealthy enough to attract top talent.

ERIC WEINER: Almost all of these genius clusters throughout history have been cities. And Athens wasn’t a huge city, but it was very dense, there were lots of interactions, and it was an urban life that we might recognize today, people trading and gossiping and getting together for these drunken symposia where they would recite poetry and drink wine.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, do you believe it takes a Socrates to make a Plato?

ERIC WEINER: And a Plato to make an Aristotle, and an Aristotle to make an Alexander, if you will. The point is that genius is contagious.

PAUL SOLMAN: Professor Hausmann’s research bears this out.

RICARDO HAUSMANN: Genius is not really about individuals. It’s really about a collective. It’s about a community of practice.

PAUL SOLMAN: To Eric Weiner, a prime example was Renaissance Florence.

ERIC WEINER: It cannot be a coincidence that you had not only a Leonardo da Vinci and a Michelangelo doing incredible work in Florence at this particular time, but you had Ghiberti and Brunelleschi and Filippo Lippi and all of these others.

People were living out of each other’s intellectual pockets. They were sharing ideas. There was enough trust to share your ideas, but enough tension to create some sparks.

PAUL SOLMAN: Competition, you mean?

ERIC WEINER: Absolutely. All of these golden ages were competitive places.

Graham Greene once famously said about Switzerland 500 years of peace and stability and what have they brought the world? The cuckoo clock.

PAUL SOLMAN: Fractious, but wealthy Florence, by contrast, brought the world a painter we still know by one name, Leonardo — the National Gallery boasts America’s only painting by him — and a rival with whom we’re also on a first-name basis, Michelangelo.

ERIC WEINER: Michelangelo was younger, and he was the upstart, and he was threatening to Leonardo. But it brought out the best in both men, and that’s often the case.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, I think the first thing I learned about Leonardo da Vinci is that he was a renaissance man, right?

ERIC WEINER: He was the original renaissance man, actually. All genius is interdisciplinary, to some degree. They cross boundaries. And today we have pigeonholed ourselves so much, that it’s hard to break out. It’s hard for a biologist to write about physics. It’s hard for an art historian to talk about aeronautical engineering.

PAUL SOLMAN: One more stop on the National Gallery tour of genius geography, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna, circa 1900, home to painters like Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka.

So, this is our approximation of a Viennese coffee shop right?

ERIC WEINER: Pretty close. We have got the coffee. We have got the desserts.

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s true. So what was it about Vienna?

ERIC WEINER: The Viennese coffee house was a classic case of what’s known as a third place. Third places, unlike work or home, first and second places, third places like this are places you go where you can converse with friends, and you can converse with strangers, and people who may not share your exact political point of view or your exact intellectual point of view.

And it’s this mixing of divergent points of view that came together in the Vienna of 1900.

PAUL SOLMAN: For Eric Weiner, the final ingredients of genius seem pretty clear: a rich city with bustle, competition, cooperation, and, above all, openness to the new, the foreign.

ERIC WEINER: Vienna was a city of immigrants in 1900, a lot of immigrants from throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including Sigmund Freud, who was an immigrant, and they came together and they brought fresh ideas, and they shook up the status quo.

It was a demographic earthquake that changed Vienna and that made it, at the time, the greatest city in the world.

PAUL SOLMAN: Much as America, because of our openness to fresh ideas and people, has been called the greatest country.

But can we afford to stay so open in an increasingly menacing, terror-mad world?

Development expert Hausmann responded with data.

RICARDO HAUSMANN: In the U.S., 25 percent of employers are foreign-born. In Silicon Valley, over 50 percent of start-ups created by people who were born abroad.

PAUL SOLMAN: As we left Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where Venezuelan Hausmann and so many other immigrants teach, I had one last question: How bad would it be for the economy if America became less open?

RICARDO HAUSMANN: Well, it definitely is going to cost. We should remember that Steve Jobs’ parents were Syrian. And there are plenty of Syrians we’re not letting in.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, only the dad was from Syria. Still, some of those we’re not letting in may father or be potential geniuses. Others, well, who knows? The fact is, when it comes to cooking up genius clusters anywhere, from ancient Greece to Renaissance Italy to high-tech America, there may be key ingredients, but the recipe is awfully hard to follow.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting for the PBS NewsHour.