Searching for geniuses in Washington, one runs into a lot of resistance. "You've got to be kidding," people said in nearly identical words. "There are no geniuses here." Einstein was a genius, they said. So-and so isn't. He or she is a thinker, they said, a creative thinker at best.
The age of the genius has ended, said one bookish friend who scans the op-ed pages of major metropolitan dailies. The age of the consultant is upon us. Thinking by committee has replaced the stroke of genius.
The search meant asking for lists from a lot of people in different disciplines, but it didn't take long before certain people, perhaps unknown outside their fields, became clear choices. According to their colleagues, several of them are future Nobel Prize winners, and their discoveries may one day dramatically affect us all.
In interviews, these thinkers seemd isolated, living in their own worlds of narrow and intense specialization. But after awhile each of them let loose. They turned out to be surprisingly playful. The microbiologist discussed reincarnation, and the botanist proved an accomplished bassfiddle player. The philosopher was thinking of ways to reverse the decline of morality, and the theologian would do well in the State Department. Frank M. Snowden, Jr. Classicist
Saddened by the morning's news from Lebanon, Frank M. Snowden Jr. turned to his Thucydides. "The sufferings which revolution entailed were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same," wrote the star historian of antiquity. "Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; the ability to see all sides of a question, ineptness to act on any."
Author, educator and diplomat, Snowden moves with equal ease in the worlds of antiquity and modernity. "But forget parallels," he thunders. "Listen to what the classics say, and it applies today. The classics are contemporary in any age!"
Ensconced in his apartment gleaming with antique furniture and African masks, Snowden regales visitors with Plato, Virgil and Lucretius. "But Homer is the first and the greatest," he says. "He takes us everywhere." Snowden remembers how as a student at Boston's famous Latin School he recited Homer's lines on the Trojan hero Hector bidding farewell. At 71, his voice is still the orator's.
Snowden studied at Harvard. Since 1940, he has taught classics at Howard University, with leaves of absence to serve as the U.S. cultural attache in Rome and as a State Department-sponsored lecturer.
His books launched an academic discipline: blacks in the ancient world. He discovered that the Romans, as the Greeks before them, did not regard color as an important factor. Blacks were soldiers, actors, diplomats and slaves, and were assimilated culturally and physically. Their public image was favorable; Homer spoke of them as "blameless."
Asked how long it might take for our society to reach the ancients' concern with character instead of color, he cites two recent examples: five Boston youths slaying a black man for walking through a white neighborhood and the boycott by black Harvard Law School students of an outstanding white professor lecturing on civil rights. "We have a long way to go," Snowden says, "a long, long way." O. B. HARDISON Renaissance scholar
From his Tudor chair in an oak-paneled office, O. B. Hardison contemplates the Capitol which, he recalls, was named in honor of the Campidoglio in Rome. He compares the city to a palimpsest -- a manuscript with one text superimposed on another -- with American democracy as the new text and imperial Rome as the old.
Director of the Folger Shakespeare Memorial Library since 1969, Hardison is a poet, a student of medieval drama and Renaissance literature, and the author of a trilogy on modern identity published by the Oxford University Press. At 53, he is a slender, elegant scholar with courtly manners.
A North Carolinian by birth, he attended and then taught at Chapel Hill. Milton was his specialty. "I taught Milton so long that I couldn't distinguish where Milton's thoughts stopped and mine started," he says.
In his book "Entering the Maze," Hardison predicts a new culture to be shaped by technology. He draws parallels between the medieval Christian culture -- with its churchmen and scholars drawn from different nations but all speaking Latin -- and today's scientific culture -- with its international managerial class and its common computer language. He wonders if modern man is condemned to being lost in the maze of contemporary culture. Or, he muses, the problem may be the belief that the maze has an exit and a desire for an exit is "a vestigial survival of pre-technological habits of mind." RICHARD McCORMICK Theologian
Richard McCormick is consulted on issues ranging from the morality of professional boxing (he disapproves) to nuclear arms (he advocates neither a ban nor a buildup), from contraception (acceptable in some circumstances as a nuisance or "a nonmoral evil") to abortion ("morally wrong in the vast majority of cases"). It pleases him that the Catholic church's right and left criticize him with equal fervor; his aim is a balanced position.
A Jesuit and professor of ethics at Georgetown University, McCormick specializes in bioethics, which he defines as "an ethic of anything that touches on life."
He says he would not like to live in a society in which the theologian's word is the law. "Theologians tend to identify their policy decisions with the will of God," he says, "but political decisions are pragmatic and thus utterly changeable. If there is anything worse than a pure politician in politics, it's a theologian in politics."
McCormick believes that the contemporary theologian's job is "to provoke society into seeing more deeply the ethical dimensions of what life is about." He does not want to be seen as "an answer -- giver" because that would reinforce "a dependency syndrome -- keeping people dependent on other peoples' convictions."
McCormick cheerfully accepts his lonely vigil over a permissive society. He is his creed's defense counsel rather than its prosecutor. His emphasis is on reason first and faith second, or, as he puts it delicately, "reason informed by faith." THELMA LAVINE Philosopher
If Thelma Lavine lived in Paris, she would reign over a cafe (a spacious, well-lighted place) and the patron would personally serve her favorite drink (bourbon with water). Disciples and adversaries would crowd around her table, and the press would report her reflections on the invasion of a foreign country and her choice of a mate.
But in Washington, Lavine's acclaim is limited to philosophers and literary types. She is a celebrity at the George Washington University where, for the past 10 years, her Philosophy 71 has ranked as one of the most popular electives, drawing up to 150 students last semester.
She has the lively face of an actress expressing the heart's every flutter. In her deep, resonant voice, she critiques John Dewey, the preeminent American philosopher, for worshipping the process of experimenting with truths but detesting the notion of a self-evident truth. Dewey is the father of the typically American inquiry that tries to solve a problem ever so optimistically but that insists that "everything must be seen situationally."
She attacks Dostoevsky-- and his apostolic successor Alexander Solzhenitsyn--for never leaving "the penal colony of Omsk" and for failing to rise above "the choice between infantile dependency upon some form of authority or infantile rebellion against it." Fortunately, Western liberalism permits us to transcend the notion that politics reflects "the ascendancy of the master or the slave." But she regrets Western inability to make "an icon of liberalism" to celebrate the the inalienability of human rights and parliamentary procedure.
She fears our society is mired in the pragmatism of shiftless experimentation. She is angry that the reaffirmation of basic values is left to the Moral Majority; she recalls that the republic's founders intended a new world of religious sensibility -- a millennium. JAMES DUKE Botanist
Ginseng is the most mysterious of the computerized list of 88,000 herbs that Jim Duke has compiled as a laboratory director for the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many of the herbs he dug up in Latin America, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. "There are undiscovered medical miracles in the disappearing floras of the world," he says.
He does not share the Chinese faith in the ginseng root's powers to prolong life and virility. He suspects that ginseng works only for Oriental males over 50 who take it daily for years. However, he adds, it's good to have some ready in case he is wrong.
At 53, Duke is a robust 62, a prodigious producer of books and articles. His house is surrounded by six acres of land, much of it planted with exotic herbs.
If while abroad he has an attack of gout, he digs up the bulb of a plant called fall crocus, steeps it in a glass of wine and drinks the wine. In a few hours, the throbbing pain disappears. Like most medicinal herbs, the crocus bulb is poisonous, Duke warns; one must know the dosage.
After seven years of hunting for plants that might cure cancer -- the specimens are now being tested -- he believes that a breakthrough is more likely to come from herbs than from chemistry. "Herbs are less dangerous than chemicals," he says.
And he invites his visitor to share in another glass of gin from a bottle that has a hefty ginseng root steeping in it. HARLAN MILLS Mathematician
Burly, tweedy Harlan Mills is IBM's resident genius at the company's federal division headquarters in Bethesda.
Mills studied art under Grant Wood, majored in English literature and creative writing at the University of Iowa, piloted bombers during World War II, taught mathematics at Princeton and computerized management techniques at General Electric. He has been with IBM since 1964.
Since 1973, Mills has been one of IBM's "fellows" -- a special category of employes identified in a company ad as "dreamers, heretics, gadflies, mavericks and geniuses."
His specialty is applying mathematics in new areas-- one of his triumphs was a formula for NFL scheduling. His motto is "making people more powerful." He acknowledges that computers can be misused, but says, "it's up to society to decide" how to avoid that. "Computers do what people tell them to do," he says. "You'd never send a typewriter to jail for plagiarism."
His model is the Gothic cathedral; he praises "the conceptual unity achieved through the self-abnegation of generations of builders." There is no freedom in chaos, he says, "paradoxically, discipline makes for freedom."
Mills compares the progress of computers in 25 years to the evolution from the airplane from a two-seater biplane to the supersonic jet. He says one can predict what computers will be like 25 years from now, "but the decisive part is what humans will do with computers. Everything we say about the future of computers turns out to be wrong." CLARENCE J. GIBBS Jr. Microbiologist
He is a microbiologist who proposes that we are walking time bombs carrying fatal viruses that could go off at any moment. He is chubby, cheerful and cherubic, enthusiastic about progress in his specialty, the brain. "The brain is the last organ to be left for scientific exploration," Clarence J. Gibbs Jr. says, "but it is now in the forefront."
In 1961 he had a cushy job at the National Institutes of Health when he was invited to transfer to an isolated laboratory to study kuru, an obscure brain disease in New Guinea. There was suspicion that kuru, fatal to humans, might be similar to scrapie, a nervous system disorder fatal to sheep.
His research contributed to the discovery of what he calls unconventional viruses, and his partner, Carleton Gajdusek, won the 1976 Nobel Prize for medicine.
Unlike other viruses, unconventional viruses cannot be seen by electron microscope and do not provoke any immune reaction in the body. They resist drugs and radiation. There are no cures, no treatments. These viruses take a long time to induce symptoms, and when they do, it is too late to do anything because they have destroyed too many brain cells. Gibbs suspects that we may carry some unconventional viruses all our lives which remain harmless unless a mysterious action triggers them. Some types of cancer might be due to such a slow-acting virus.
"A discovery is in your gut, in your mind's eye before it is scientifically proven," he says. "You draw the table and then generate the data."
Gibbs' objective is to find the source of unconventional viruses, develop diagnostic skills and devise treatments."The brain is a privileged site," he says, explaining that it has no antibodies to reject transplanted tissues which may one day soon replace damaged tissues. Beaming has an attac with confidence, he predicts breakthroughs in the study of the brain in the next five years. Why five years? "It is my lucky number," he says.