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Magnus Carlsen not Mozart of chess

Brilliant virtuosity is not genius

Carlsen routs Anand at the 2013 World Championship in Madras

Carlsen, the worlds third youngest ever Grand Master
by Kumar David-April 22, 2017, 5:44 pm

Some peoples minds are really weirdly

wired; a gift that defies explanation. Ramanujans way with
numbers bewildered his Cambridge mentors Godfrey Harold
Hardy and John Edensor Littlewood, both outstanding
mathematicians. The way theorems and theories of numbers,
sometimes far ahead of their time, floated into his mind led some
to suggest that "The mind of god was speaking to the mind of
young Sirinivasa".
Seven Magnus Oven Carlsen, Magnus Carlsen hereafter, born in
1990, a chess Grand Master at the age of 14, inflicted defeat on
former world champion Anatoly Karpov and then drew one game
and lost one to Gary Kasparov the then reigning world champion.
An effusive Washington Post columnist was moved to call Magnus
the Mozart of Chess. My unromantic soul is wont to correct the
excess; dazzling are Ramanujan and Carlsen, but Mozarts was
genius on a more exalted planet. So this piece continues a recent
bee in my bonnet; genius, science, maths, and the weird.

Carlsen was one of the youngest World Champions at 23 when he

routed Viswanathan Anand in 2013 in Madras Gary Kasparov
became world champion at age 22 and Mikhail Tal at 23. He
successfully defended the title against Anand in 2014 and in 2016
against Serjey Karjekin. In 2013 he reached a rating of 2,882
points computed by FIDE (international chess federation), the
highest ever by any player, surpassing the peak of greats like
Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov. (I think these ratings did not
exist at the time of Emanuel Lasker, Jose Capablanca and Mikhail

An episode which bears on the theme of this essay is that Carlsen

played blindfolded against ten players at Harvard, calling out his
moves (Table 6 "knight to kings-bishop 4", etc.) and the moves of
his opponents were called back to him. So he had to picture in his
mind the position of the pieces on all ten tables as the games
progressed. He won all, but his opponents were not champions
just the best at the university. This wizardly ability at mental
visualisation reminds me of how equations in number theory
would float into Ramanujans mind. Stupendous as these
achievements are, I would still search for another word than
genius to denote them. Magnus Carlson is not the Mozart of
chess, nor Ramanujan of mathematics. Why?
Glitterati does not

mean genius

Incredible faculties, powers of calculation and the ability to

perform improbable mental tasks is not the same as genius.
Genius is comprehension, formulation and enunciation of a body
of thought or art that will impact collective human life for
generations. On this measure Aristotle, Newton and Einstein are
winners Archimedes, Gauss and Darwin too, though they were
one dimensional. What about writers, artists and philosophers?
Sure we must accommodate the likes of Shakespeare and Dante.
Was Marx a genius? I think we can find a better term like game-
changer for the old Moor.

These are spanking shinning stars, but a few stand above this
glitterati I have two in mind Mozart and Leonardo da Vinci.
Those who know classical music I only listen to the stuff say
Beethoven was more profound and Bach more weighty. True, true,
but there is something ethereal about Mozart, there is genius;
albeit only musical genius unlike Leonardo a polymath. Mozarts
first biographer Franz Niemtschek writes in a vein no one could
employ for any other:-

"In the quiet repose of the night, when no obstacle hindered his
soul, the power of his imagination became incandescent with the
most animated activity, and unfolded all the wealth of tone which
nature had placed in his spirit. Only the person who heard Mozart
at such times knows the depth and the whole range of his musical
genius: free and independent of all concern his spirit could soar in
daring flight to the highest regions of art".

Leonardo of course is everyones choice for numero uno in the

genius stakes. Wikipedia is good enough for me:-

"Italian polymath whose areas of interest included invention,

painting sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics,
engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany,
writing, history and cartography. He has been called the father
of palaeontology, ichnology, and architecture, and is considered
one of the greatest painters of all time. He is credited with the
invention of the parachute, helicopter and tank. Leonardo
epitomised the ideal of the Renaissance Man".

[Disclaimer: As befits todays modest storyline I take no account

of heavyweight spiritual and moral personages and law-givers.
Hence going from ancient to recent times, I omit Zarathustra,
Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Mohamed and the Sikh Gurus.
It makes no sense to spin them into todays simple yarn or
provoke bigots to gouge out my eyes if their aspirant is not
awarded an A*].

Physical basis of


It seems that the vast differences in mental ability between

humans cannot be reduced to physical determinants such as
brain size or convolution (folding) alone. I have, to the extent I
could understand, read both popular and nerdy stuff in Stanford
Neurosciences, Scientific American, Smithsonian and ever
obliging Wikipedia. The consensus is that the correlation between
brain size and IQ is only 0.3 to 0.4 no better than what we
expect between the recommendations and results of our friends
the economists! A 0.3 correlation is only slightly positive and in
many samples there was less correlation. The neuro experts then
bluff us with: "The brains underlying organisation and the
molecular activity at its synapses (junctions between neurons) is
what seems to dictate intelligence" - which is to say that they are
as clueless as the rest of us and can be precise about bugger-all.

The brains of the Prince of Mathematics, Carl Friedrich Gauss

(1777-1855), Vladimir Lenin (1817-1924) and Albert Einstein
(1879-1955) were removed and studied in autopsies. Einsteins
was extensively examined in many laboratories by teams who
received slices.

The weight of the brains, Gauss (1,492 grams), Lenin (1,340

grams) and Einstein (1,230 grams), are not unusual compared to
the average weight of a human male brain (1,334 grams). Lenin
had big frontal lobes, Gauss had highly developed convolutions
(folds) and Einsteins showed a stronger than usual connection
between left and right hemispheres and increased glial cells
which provide nutrients to neurons and protect them from
pathogens. All are sorts of one-off variations, but no pattern!

Neanderthal brains are on average 15% larger than human;

sperm whale brains weigh 8,000 grams (18 lbs) and most
interestingly it seems that the hominid brain, after getting bigger
for two million years, has been shrinking in the last 20,000 years
according to John Hawkes anthropologist at the University of
Wisconsin. This is all very confusing; what on earth is going on?
This neuro stuff is not exact, that we know; but it is not even
reliable science.

Intelligence and the mob

I have often argued in this column that racism is inbuilt in the

psyche of homo sapiens and overcoming this prejudice will be a
long and difficult task. I think readers will agree that a majority of
humans (sic: that is themselves!) are racially or religiously
prejudiced. People active in civil society and progressive politics
refer to the task of overcoming prejudice as building social
consciousness and pluralism and creating an awareness of the
obligations of democracy. Since the brain in involved in both
intelligence and prejudice I suppose there is some overlap
between these concerns and the topic of this essay. Be that as it
may, the madness of the mob is not something I wish to pursue

There is another more explosive side to this story which I want

readers to chew upon. The New York Post reported in April or May
2013 that a Jason Richwine argued in his 2009 Harvard PhD thesis
that "the average IQ of U.S. immigrants is substantially lower than
that of the white native population and the totality of the
evidence suggests a genetic component in IQ". He reckoned "no
one knows whether Hispanics will reach IQ parity with whites and
new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and
grandchildren". In a study co-authored with the reactionary
Heritage Foundation, Richwine proposed IQ screening for
immigrants and said amnesty for illegal immigrants would be a $5
trillion burden on the U.S.
So you see the race-intelligence debate is not dead. Its
protagonists such as Richwine ask: If there is a genetic basis to
intelligence (smart kids, statistically, come from families with
smart parents and grandparents) then by extension cannot there
be a racial basis to intelligence as well? Granted, intelligence
here is measured by tests with a heavy cultural overload and
biased in favour of wealth and privilege, but still there is a
problem. So why not I leave you to cogitate as you sip your
Sunday morning coffee?
Posted by Thavam