Dave Gorman: What makes a genius?

Genius. It's a much abused word these days – describe everyone and everything from Charles Darwin to round tea bags. But what exactly is it? And how easy is it to be one these days anyway? The comedian and film-maker Dave Gorman looks at two shining examples of genius to see if he could have thought of them first (if only it hadn't been for those pesky Babylonians)

Saturday 14 March 2009 01:00

There are two inventions that – in my humble opinion – stand out as most truly deserving the title, Genius. They are the wheel and the number zero. How pleasing that one appears to be a drawing of the other. I stress that this is only an opinion – and a humble one at that. My non-humble opinion on the subject is that both are eclipsed by Gorman's Patented Pre-Dunked Biscuits and Ride My Pimp: an exciting prostitutes-and-enforcers-piggy-back-race TV format that I hope to bring to the screen in 2010. But over the years I've learnt that my non-humble opinions are not to be trusted so let's ignore such folly and get back to the round things. Not the biscuits. The zero and the wheel.

Nobody knows who invented the wheel. In all likelihood it was thought of independently many times by different peoples in far-flung corners of the world. But that does nothing to diminish the genius behind it. It's obvious that without the wheel all civilisation would be screwed. I suppose there's an outside chance that we could have bypassed it and gone straight to a world full of hovercrafts and the Maglev trains ... but deep down we all know that's unlikely.

It's not as obvious to some but the number zero is, I believe, even more significant an invention. For yonks we managed without it. But we didn't middle-manage without it. Because middle-management wouldn't exist without accountancy – and accountancy requires zeros.

For thousands of years there didn't appear to be any need for it. Why would anyone need to record the fact that they had none of something? If you were a shepherd you might want to take notes on how many lambs are born in a given season and how big your flock is at any given moment in time, but the point at which you had no sheep was the point at which you'd stop taking notes. And probably the point at which you'd stop calling yourself a shepherd too.

But then the zero came along. The Babylonians are credited with getting there first. Apparently they came up with it some three centuries before Christ ... although, to be honest, the evidence that Christ came up with it at all is slender. "Let he whose sum total of sin is equal to zero cast the first stone." I don't think so.

Following the Babylonians, in the 4th century AD, were the Mayans and then, around a hundred years later, the Indians. It spread, reaching Cambodia, China and then the Islamic world before finally limping into Western Europe in the 12th century. Old thicko Western Europe there, bringing up the rear.

The use of a zero unlocks a vast and previously unexplored mathematical world. Its first advantage is simply as a placeholder. It allows us to represent a number like three thousand and ninety nine as three thousands, zero hundreds, nine tens and nine units... or 3099. The advantages of this compared to MMMIC might not be immediately obvious to all, but if you try multiplying MMMIC by XL on the back of an envelope without first translating it into the more familiar form of 3099 x 40 you'll soon see how useful that zero really is.

But it does much more than that. The zero is like a gateway drug, leading the innocent into the world of mind-bending, hardcore mathematics. Negative numbers couldn't exist without it. How could our shepherd have minus three sheep? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the invention of debt! Without zero there are no negative numbers, without negative numbers there's no debt and without debt there's no credit crunch. Oh. Hang on. Damn that Babylonian genius.

One of the things I find most fascinating about human development is the way in which all of society can so quickly catch up with what was once the cutting edge. And zero is as good an example of this as any. There was a time when the concept of zero was something only the greatest minds could wrestle with. And yet today junior-school children handle it with ease. We are all so familiar with it that it is frankly impossible to imagine a world without it.

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Which is what leads me to my theory on the increasing difficulty of Being A Genius. It took a genius to invent the wheel. It took a genius to introduce the world to the concept of zero. At the same time, I feel certain that if I'd been born into a world without wheels and zeros, I would have invented them. Ergo: I am a genius. It is, appropriately enough, a circular argument.

Not that I think I'm unique. No, no ... I think you'd invent them too. Of course you would. Because they're blindingly obvious, aren't they?

But, of course, I can't invent the wheel and I can't introduce the world to the concept of zero because I was born in 1971 and they were already pretty well established by then. There is a long, indeed infinite, list of other things – inventions, concepts, schemes and so on – that I am sure I would have invented if only they didn't already exist.

The internal-combustion engine, telescopes, telephones, television and tele-sales (evil genius), nylon, Sweden, Just A Minute, democracy, sausages, the bicycle, pointillism, football, skiing, crosswords and trifle would all have been mine if only they hadn't existed before I did.

So it stands to reason that Being A Genius is harder now than ever before. If John Logie Baird had been born in 1971 would he have been a genius? The only thing we know with any certainty is that he wouldn't have invented the television. Some people believe he would have still established his genius; that he would have simply found another arena in which to work. I disagree. I think he would have been distracted from such brainy pursuits by all that television.

Face it, before television there was precious little else to do but think. With so many of the world's wonders still to be invented and nothing to distract you from inventing them it's no wonder there were so many geniuses around. But the gogglebox has surely changed all that. Seriously, how is anyone going to come up with a genius idea now that Dale Winton's Hole in the Wall exists? Are you really going to spend your time thinking and inventing when there are Lycra-clad celebrities being pushed into a pool by a polystyrene wall on BBC1? Who's going to invent something to help save the world when five days a week Jeremy Kyle pops up before breakfast to ably demonstrate that humanity doesn't actually deserve saving?

Of course, there are some people who've managed to rise above the mire of televisual distractions and invent ... but by and large all they seem to do is come up with even better ways of distracting us. Tim Berners-Lee might be a genius for inventing the World Wide Web, but in doing so he has surely condemned countless other potential geniuses to a wasteful, invention-free life. This is 21st-century Britain. I have a broadband internet connection. On my computer! The very same computer that I'm using to write this article right now! Which means that I'm spending today just two or three mouseclicks away from an infinite world of entertaining diversions. In order to type this very sentence I don't just have to think of the words and move my fingers to the keys in the right order, I also have to resist the temptation to dip into boingboing.net, I have to not check out the funny video someone sent me a link to this morning and I have to resist the egotistical/self-punishing urge to see how my latest book is doing on amazon.co.uk. I acknowledge that wasn't the most mind-blowing of sentences ... but how could it be? I'm only operating at 10 per cent of my potential. It takes 90 per cent of my brain power simply to resist temptation. I forgot Twitter. Let's call it 5 per cent.

If we're not careful we could soon discover mankind has invented itself into a permanent vegetative state of non-invention. The first sign of this will probably come in the field of creative arts where non-invention goes undetected at first, masquerading instead under the guise of "re-invention". But I doubt we need to worry about that for a while. Yes, it's true that the West End stage is currently offering such movie-turned-musicals fare as Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Sunset Boulevard, Hairspray and Dirty Dancing, but until something truly insane happens, like, say, Whoopi Goldberg's early-Nineties, lounge-singer-on-the-run-teaches-nuns-to-rock-out-themed Sister Act making the leap from celluloid to stage, I think we're OK.

It opens in May, you say? We're doomed, I tell you, doomed. Unless ...

Unless ... we start trying to address the problem right away. There's only one thing for it. Attack is the best form of defence. We need to incentivise the world of invention using the very tools that normally distract us. What's needed is a television programme that actively encourages the pursuit of genius, a show that says to the world: "If you think you might be a genius, bring us your brightest idea and we'll give you the chance to prove it."

I'm pleased to tell you that such a show does indeed exist. It's called Genius ... and it's hosted by yours truly. Which is an odd choice because I'm a bona-fide idiot. But that's OK, because each week, I have a genius of a guest and it is they who get to cast judgement on the ideas that are brought before us. I just try to make sure they give each idea a fair crack of the whip.

Thousands of people submitted ideas to the show; ideas that, I dare say, would not have bubbled to the surface of their brains if we hadn't first built the show as a forum in which to dissect and discuss them. In truth the vast majority of these ideas don't come close to the mantle of genius. I don't think it's possible to reshape the Isle of Wight to make it symmetrical and even if it was, I'm not convinced it would help the island's economy. Would wearing 100-metre tall shoes really help you win Olympic gold? I mean, yes, if when the starter's pistol was fired you fell over in the right direction you would cross the finishing line before Usain Bolt, but having fallen on to a hard running track from such a great height it's highly unlikely that you're going to be alive for the medal ceremony – so really, what's the point?

But in among such flawed ideas there are some real gems, ideas that I believe contain at least the spark of genuine genius. Have you ever lain in bed on a cold night, frustrated because your partner has pulled the duvet to them for extra warmth? What if, instead of a traditional duvet that sits on top of the bed, you had a continuous loop of a duvet that travelled down the side and under the bed, and then back up the other side like a giant, quilted conveyor belt? With this invention in place you need never be uncovered again. When your partner pulls the top-surface to them, they inadvertently pull fresh covers around from under the bed and on to you. Now come on, admit it: the conveyor-duvet – yet another circular, zero-shaped, wheel of an idea – has the whiff of genius about it, doesn't it? Doesn't it?

Dave Gorman's forgotten geniuses

Eddie Braben (scriptwriter, 1930-)

I love Morecambe and Wise before and after Braben worked with them but if you look at his work with them he is definitely a genius. Throughout the 1970s, Braben generated almost all of their act, though Eric and Ernie were also sometimes credited as supplying "additional material". Together, Morecambe, Wise and Braben were known as "The Golden Triangle".

Midge Ure (musician, 1953-)

Just as influential as Bob Geldof in putting Live Aid together and writing "Feed the World". Bob, being Irish, gets the honorary knighthood; Midge, who's British and so able to get a real knighthood, gets nowt.

Alfred Russel Wallace (naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist and biologist, 1823-1913)

Best known for proposing a theory of natural selection, which prompted Darwin to publish his own theory (20 years after he thought of it) and be rewarded by endless radio and television programmes celebrating 200 years since his birth.

Edward Powys Mathers (translator and poet, 1892-1939)

One of the first great masters of the cryptic crossword, although many of his crosswords are considered too unfair and obscure. By people who can't do them. He took the pseudonym Torquemada, after the leading Spanish Inquisitor. "I creep and am enough to make a cat smile (8)". Anyone?

Tenzing Norgay (mountaineer, 1914-1986)

Sir Edmund Hillary gets all the credit for climbing Mount Everest, when Norgay did it at the same time. And he brought all the luggage with him.

'Genius' begins on BBC2 on Friday. © Dave Gorman 2009

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