Brilliant is as brilliant does A high I.Q. is no excuse for disgusting conduct

April 21, 1996|By JAMES M. KRAMON

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with a "brilliant" mathematician like the Unabomber suspect was stunningly memorable.

I was in my second year at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh at the time, taking a course known as Linear Algebra. The course was taught in a semi-amphitheater classroom in a building that housed facilities for the school's ROTC program including a military amateur radio station.

The class was taught by a purportedly brilliant, Harvard-trained mathematician with a doctorate degree. He had the physical appearance of a long, white string with a vacant face that failed to reveal anything to the rest of the world. The students referred to him as "Birdman," presumably because he was, in every observable respect, disengaged from others.

We were about a third of the way into the hour-long class, with the professor ensconced in his blackboard reverie of equations, when a door opened at the top rear of the classroom: "Excuse me, professor," an almost hysterical student in the doorway sputtered, "I have just heard on the amateur radio station that President Kennedy has been shot and is in critical condition." These words filled the entire classroom around the trembling declarant, but the professor continued scribbling his equations on the blackboard.

The student tried again: "Professor, the president has been shot. They do not know if he will live."

This time something in the professor's atrophied receptors seemed to engage. The "brilliant" mathematician turned slowly clockwise from the blackboard, leaving completed only the bottom half of the large lazy S that mathematicians use to denote an integral. He squinted with obvious annoyance at the unwelcome interloper at the rear of the classroom.

Decades have passed and I can still see in my mind's eye, and hear in my mind's ear, the professor's grudging response: "Well, we cannot do anything about that now." And then, turning counterclockwise precisely as he had turned clockwise a few seconds before, the "brilliant" mathematician placed the point of his chalk precisely where it had been before the interruption and completed the upper half of the lazy S. As he did so, dazed students began leaving the classroom. Some did not even bother to collect the belongings in and around their seats. Some sought other students to accompany them while they sought further information. Tears of shock and disbelief were there even before the classroom had emptied.

I remember looking over my shoulder as I walked out the same door that the interrupting student had entered moments before. The professor was busily engaged in his equations, unconcerned, or so it seemed, that there was no one left to teach.

To read the hyped-up articles about Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber suspect, one would have to conclude that for much of his life no one cared about any aspect of his personality other than his "genius" for mathematics.

Surely, Harvard did not find Mr. Kaczynski attractive because of his special talent for avoiding relationships by moving quickly past groups of people and slamming the door behind him. I doubt if it was the odor of unused cartons of milk emanating from Mr. Kaczynski's swamp of a room in Harvard's Eliot House that commended his progression to graduate work at the University of Michigan.

It could not have been Mr. Kaczynksi's ability to complete five years' residency and masters and Ph.D degrees at Michigan without a yearbook picture or a single relationship of significance that attracted Berkeley's "premier math department" to the man who allegedly turned into the Unabomber.

"No friends, no allies, no networking" was the way a classmate characterized Mr. Kaczynski's two years at Berkeley.

Nevertheless, when Mr. Kaczynski decided to resign from Berkeley after two years on the tenure track, the chair of the mathematics department "tried and failed to talk him into staying."

Perhaps there is a special standard for pathologically removed individuals who are able to perform well in one narrow field, but I do not appreciate it.

Engineering schools like the one I attended are loaded with students with perfect SAT's and aptitude tests in mathematics and sciences. But for some students at my old school, a fun weekend night consisted of catching one of the gay men who went to an established meeting place in a nearby park.

The hapless victim was taken like a captured animal to a different part of the park or to a car. There his "brilliant" captors would shine a flashlight into his eyes and interrogate him about his sexual practices until he collapsed from fear and humiliation.

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