Glo­be­trot­ting for “ge­nius hot spots”

The Denver Post - - BOOKS - By Jon Gert­ner

NON­FIC­TION GLOBAL ODYSSEY

Ge­og­ra­phy of Ge­nius: A Search for the World’s Most Cre­ative Places, From An­cient Athens to Sil­i­con Val­ley by Eric Weiner (Si­mon & Schus­ter)

Not long ago, I spent a day in Water­loo, Canada, vis­it­ing with a few dozen sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers. There prob­a­bly aren’t too many col­lege stu­dents in Amer­ica who are dream­ing right now of mak­ing it big there. And yet, if you were to make a short­list of places that are vy­ing to be­come new cen­ters for in­no­va­tion, you wouldn’t dare leave out Water­loo, which is boom­ing with tech star­tups and is in hot pur­suit of an emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy called quan­tum com­put­ing.

As it hap­pens, though, Water­loo has a lot of com­pe­ti­tion. Pick a coun­try— Is­rael, China, In­dia, Brazil— and you’ll find a city where ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists and civic boost­ers are mak­ing stren­u­ous ef­forts to cul­ti­vate lo­cal tal­ent and in­cu­bate new ideas, all in the hope that they can spark jobs and wealth and Re­nais­sance­size bon­fires of cre­ativ­ity. The goal is to build the kind of eco­nomic en­gine we tend to call a global hot spot, or what’s more typ­i­cally de­scribed th­ese days as the Next Sil­i­con Val­ley.

Th­ese hot spots are not a new phe­nom­e­non; they date back to an era long be­fore any­one con­sid­ered the po­ten­tial for the rolling hills around Palo Alto. Think of Athens in the age of Socrates or Florence in the era of Michelan­gelo. What th­ese places seem to have in com­mon is that their cul­tures pro­duced an in­or­di­nate num­ber of peo­ple— geniuses, let’s call them— who went on to change the world through lit­er­a­ture, art, mu­sic, sci­ence or phi­los­o­phy. And some­times, the cities gave us stand­outs in many fields si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

“Cer­tain places, at cer­tain times, pro­duced a bumper crop of bril­liant minds and good ideas,” Eric Weiner tells us in his new book, “The Ge­og­ra­phy of Ge­nius.” But as he read­ily ad­mits, we don’t pre­cisely know why. Weiner rea­sons that maybe we’ve been pur­su­ing the an­swer to the wrong ques­tion for a while. In­stead of ask­ing “What is cre­ativ­ity?” a bet­ter ques­tion is “Where is cre­ativ­ity?”

If youwant to know, of course, you’ve got to go. And so Weiner goes— to Athens, Florence and a host of other places, in­clud­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley. For­tu­nately, we get to tag along. “The Ge­og­ra­phy of Ge­nius”— likeW einer’s pre­vi­ous book, “The Ge­og­ra­phy of Bliss”— is a global odyssey that seeks to dis­cover why geniuses gather in cer­tain places dur­ing cer­tain eras and why th­ese hot spots burn out, of­ten af­ter a half­cen­tury of grand achieve­ments. Weiner is a su­perb travel guide: funny, knowl­edge­able, self-dep­re­cat­ing and al­ways up for shar­ing a bot­tle of wine. He is dis­cur­sive, too, and some­times ram­bles to the pointwhere you­may ask your­self, “Can’t we leave Athens al­ready and go on to Cal­cutta?” Even­tu­ally, you can, since Weiner, a for­mer for­eign correspondent for NPR, seems to have friends in ev­ery port of call imag­in­able. And when he doesn’t have so­cial con­nec­tions to tap, he finds a lo­cal guide or aca­demic who can drop a sparkling apercu, usu­ally over coffee or a beer, that will lead him, and us, to­ward an un­der­stand­ing of howa golden age be­gins.

To be sure, Weiner is tread­ing in deep wa­ters here — a fact that’s some­times ob­scured by his comic shtick. His search for “ge­nius clus­ters” is tan­ta­mount to the search for a key to hu­man progress. We might think of civ­i­liza­tion as fol­low­ing a smooth up­ward curve to­ward moder­nity, in other words, but his­tory sug­gests this would be a mis­taken no­tion. In large part,

we’re tak­ing this jour­ney be­cause so­ci­ety moves for­ward in fits and starts — by dint of big break­throughs such as wood­block print­ing or me­chan­i­cal clocks in Hangzhou, China, whereWeiner takes us to visit. Or through the ad­vent of hy­po­der­mic nee­dles and anes­the­sia in Ed­in­burgh, Scot­land, a city we also ex­plore. In­deed, Ed­in­burgh is one of the high points ofWeiner’s jour­ney— so much in­no­va­tion, achieved in so lit­tle time. “If you’ve ever con­sulted a cal­en­dar or the ‘En­cy­clopae­dia Bri­tan­nica,’ ” he tells us, “you can thank the Scots. If you’ve ever flushed a toi­let or used a re­frig­er­a­tor or rode a bi­cy­cle, thank the Scots.”

I didn’t know about the ori­gins of the toi­let or the re­frig­er­a­tor. Then again, I found sur­prises in most of the citiesWeiner vis­its. Athens’s golden age, for in­stance, arose thanks to a vi­tal mar­ket­place for free ex­pres­sion, but ban­quets had lit­tle to do with it, since Athe­nian food was dread­ful. As the city’s wealth and in­flu­ence grew, how­ever, Weiner tells us that its cit­i­zens de­vel­oped gourmet palates. And then, alas, Athens col­lapsed. “If the pro­lif­er­a­tion of food­ies fore­shad­ows the down­fall of a civ­i­liza­tion,” he con- cludes, then Amer­ica might be in big trou­ble.

There are more se­ri­ous mo­ments here, too. The au­thor’s ob­ser­va­tions about the cat­a­lysts of a golden age even­tu­ally point to­ward the idea that no sin­gle set of cir­cum­stances holds true for ev­ery global re­nais­sance. In Athens and in Sil­i­con Val­ley, the weather prob­a­bly helped, but in gloomy Ed­in­burgh, in­no­va­tions arose from the Scot­tish cul­ture of practicality. In 14th-cen­tury Florence, mean­while, geniuses were spurred by the largesse of theMedici fam­ily but also, some­what sur­pris­ingly, by the fact that the black plague had thinned the ranks of the city, up­ended the old or­der and con­cen­trated wealth in dif­fer­ent hands. (A bit of chaos tends to spark cre­ativ­ity.) Ah, but you may won­der: Isn’t ge­nius usu­ally cul­ti­vated by hav­ing an im­pres­sive univer­sity nearby? That was the case in Ed­in­burgh, and with Stan­ford in Sil­i­con Val­ley, but it’s not a guar­an­tee. In Florence, Weiner notes, “the strait­jacket of a cur­ricu­lum” had lit­tle to do with the city’s cre­ative flow­er­ing.

If there is a per­va­sive weak­ness in this book, it’s thatWeiner’s ob­ser­va­tions on ge­nius are sprin­kled through the nar­ra­tive so freely, and so con­stantly, that read­ers may strug­gle to syn­the­size them and take in their con­tra­dic­tions. Of­ten, I was wish­ing he kept a cleaner ledger of causes and ef­fects; the up­shot would be a book that’s not only schol­arly and witty, but rig­or­ous, too. At the same time, Weiner drifts off course with some reg­u­lar­ity. Mostly he fo­cuses— ably — on­why the cul­tures of cities like Vi­enna led to artis­tic and tech­no­log­i­cal fer­ment. But some­times he ex­pounds at length on what creates the in­tel­lect of an in­di­vid­ual ge­nius, such asMozart. There is a re­la­tion­ship be­tween char- ac­ter and ge­og­ra­phy, I would guess. Yet, it’s not al­ways made ex­plicit here.

I’m per­fect­ly­will­ing to con­cede that rigor and ex­ac­ti­tude are not the main rea­sons to read­Weiner’s odyssey, how­ever. I had some friendly ar­gu­ments with his take on Sil­i­con Val­ley his­tory, for in­stance, but that’s okay. The jour­ney it­self is the point, andWeiner’s idio­syn­cratic ap­proach made me feel after­ward as if I’d been on an odd but very sat­is­fy­ing va­ca­tion. What’smore, his trip ul­ti­mately left me mulling over a pro­found ques­tion: When will Amer­ica’s golden age end, and for­what rea­sons? De­spite its bound­less cu­rios­ity and breezy good hu­mor, Weiner’s book may leave youwith the un­com­fort­able feel­ing that no­mat­ter hows­mart ev­ery­one might seem, the end is al­ways nigh.

Ed­in­burgh is one of the high points of EricWeiner’s jour­ney— so­much

in­no­va­tion, achieved in so lit­tle time. “If you’ve ever con­sulted a cal­en­dar or the ‘En­cy­clopae­dia Bri­tan­nica,’ ” he tells us, “you can thank the Scots. If you’ve ever flushed a toi­let or used a re­frig­er­a­tor or rode a

bi­cy­cle, thank the Scots.”

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