Were Einstein and Newton afflicted by an obscure form of autism?

Charles Arthur,Technology Editor
Thursday 01 May 2003 00:00
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Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton both reshaped our views of the universe – and yet both may also have been suffering from a form of autism, a leading expert on the condition suggests.

Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, believes the two men could have had Asperger's syndrome, the least severe form of autism, which does not cause learning difficulties.

Autism is a spectrum of disorders, according to the National Autistic Society. A spokeswoman said: "The principal three characteristics of Asperger's are problems with social interaction, problems with communication – being obsessively interested in a subject to the exclusion of all else – and problems with imagination."

Newton, who was Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, hardly spoke, became so engrossed in his work that he forgot to eat, and was remote or even bad-tempered with his few friends. His eccentricities included lecturing to an empty room if no students showed up.

Einstein was a loner who repeated sentences obsessively until the age of seven, and as an adult gave lectures that were confusing rather than deep.

Yet the two also showed some contrary indicators: Newton did some dramatic scientific work, including the demonstration that white light comprises many colours, and the development of calculus, which deals with the idea of infinitesimal amounts of time. Einstein developed relativity, and also had countless affairs, made intimate friends and was outspoken on political affairs – notably the need for the United States to develop the atomic bomb.

In a report in New Scientist magazine published today, Professor Baron-Cohen says: "Passion, falling in love and standing up for justice are perfectly compatible with Asperger's syndrome. What most people with AS find difficult is casual chatting – they can't do small talk." He admits the impossibility of making a definitive diagnosis of someone who is now dead. But he hopes that such an analysis might shed some light on why some people with autism excel in life while others struggle.

Glen Elliott, a psychiatrist from the University of California, tells the magazine he is not convinced by the diagnosis. "One can imagine geniuses who are socially inept and yet not remotely autistic," he says. "Impatience with the intellectual slowness of others, narcissism and passion for one's mission in life might combine to make such individuals isolative and difficult."

More than 500,000 people in Britain have some form of autism, a developmental disability that affects social relationships and communications. People with Asperger's syndrome have normal or even above-average IQs.

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