Most people think that genius is the primary determinant of intellectual achievement. Yet three of the most distinguished thinkers had in common, not inexplicable genius, but a questioning mind. Their intellectual skills and inquisitive drive embodied the essence of critical thinking. Through skilled, deep, and persistent questioning they redesigned our view of the physical world and the universe.
Consider Newton... When asked how he had discovered the law of universal gravitation, he said: "By thinking on it continually. I keep the subject constantly before me and wait till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light." This pattern of consistent, almost relentless questioning, led to depth of understanding and reconstruction of previous theories about the universe.
Newton acutely recognised knowledge as a vast field to be discovered: "I don't know what I may seem to the world, but, as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."
Consider Darwin... He found traditional instruction discouraging. "During my second year at Edinburgh I attended lectures on Geology and Zoology, but they were incredibly dull. The sole effect they produced in me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology, or in any way to study the science."
His experience at Cambridge was similar: "During the three years which I spent at Cambridge my time was wasted... The work was repugnant to me, chiefly from my not being able to see any meaning in [it].
In pursuing intellectual questions, Darwin relied upon perseverance and continual reflection, rather than memory and quick reflexes. "I have never been able to remember for more than a few days a single date or line of poetry." Instead, he had, "the patience to reflect or ponder for any number of years over any unexplained problem...At no time am I a quick thinker or writer: whatever I have done in science has solely been by long pondering, patience, and industry."
Einstein, for his part, did so poorly in school that when his father asked his son's headmaster what profession his son should adopt, the answer was simply, "It doesn't matter; he'll never make a success of anything." In high school, the regimentation "created in him a deep suspicion of authority. This feeling lasted all his life, without qualification."
He showed no signs of being a genius, and as an adult denied that his mind was extraordinary: "I have no particular talent. I am merely inquisitive." He failed his entrance exam to the Zurich Polytechnic. When he finally passed, "the examinations so constrained his mind that, when he had graduated, he did not want to think about scientific problems for a year."
Einstein had the basic critical thinking ability to cut problems down to size: "one of his greatest intellectual gifts, in small matters as well as great, was to strip off the irrelevant thrills from a problem."
When we consider the work of these three thinkers, Einstein, Darwin, and Newton, we find, not the unfathomable, genius mind. Rather we find thinkers who placed deep and fundamental questions at the heart of their work and pursued them passionately.
An extract from Elder, L., Paul, R., "The questioning mind in science, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein", in The miniature guide for students and faculty to scientific thinking, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press 2008.