Jon Gertner is the author of “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.”
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 list of places that are vying to become new centers for innovation, you wouldn’t dare leave out Waterloo, which is booming with tech start-ups 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 Renaissance-size 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 you want 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” — like Weiner’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 half-century 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 point where you may 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 aperçu, usually over coffee or a beer, that will lead him, and us, toward an understanding of how a 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, where Weiner 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 of Weiner’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 cities Weiner 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 concludes, 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 the Medici 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 that Weiner’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 — on why 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 as Mozart. There is a relationship between character and geography, I would guess. Yet, it’s not always made explicit here.
I’m perfectly willing to concede that rigor and exactitude are not the main reasons to read Weiner’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, and Weiner’s idiosyncratic approach made me feel afterward as if I’d been on an odd but very satisfying vacation. What’s more, his trip ultimately left me mulling over a profound question: When will America’s golden age end, and for what reasons? Despite its boundless curiosity and breezy good humor, Weiner’s book may leave you with the uncomfortable feeling that no matter how smart everyone might seem, the end is always nigh.
By Eric Weiner
Simon & Schuster. 353 pp. $26.95