Charles Murray vs. Amazon

Battle of the genius-rankers.


[A]n idea is a misty, vague object that takes on protean shapes, never the same for any two people. There is a strong family resemblance between the dictionaries of Dr. Johnson, Mr. Webster, and Messrs. Funk & Wagnalls, but every man makes his own Syntopicon, God forbid, and this one is [Mortimer] Adler’s, not mine or yours. To him, of course, ideas seem to be as objective and distinct as marbles, which can be arranged in definite, logical patterns. He has the classifying mind, which is invaluable for writing a natural history or collecting stamps.—Dwight Macdonald, “The Book-of-the-Millennium Club,” in Against the American Grain

If critics could be summoned back from the grave, Dwight Macdonald would be inundated with offers to review Charles Murray’s new book, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950. Cultural mandarins like Macdonald used to mock Great Idea categorizers like Mortimer Adler as hopelessly middlebrow. But today the category “middlebrow” scarcely exists, and cultural mandarins mourn the shortage of academics willing to read, much less teach, the Western canon. So Chatterbox doubts Murray’s Eurocentric book about civilization’s people (mostly men) and events “that matter” will stir half as much controversy as he hopes.

The novel feature of Murray’s book is a series of cultural and scientific rankings of history’s biggest brainiacs. Chatterbox’s appallingly swift skim left him mystified about Murray’s method, which measures eminence by identifying “significant figures,” weighting them with “index scores,” and plugging them into something called a “Lotka curve” (which sounds like a utensil for preparing dinner during Hanukkah). But since Murray doesn’t seem to be arguing this time out that blacks are genetically inferior to honkies, Chatterbox isn’t going to sweat figuring it out.

Instead, Chatterbox sought simply to satisfy his curiosity about Murray’s rankings by comparing them to his favorite new metric, the number of citations in’s “Search Inside the Book” feature. (Murray must be kicking himself that this wasn’t available while he was writing his book.) Chatterbox makes no a priori claim that the number of Amazon hits any one of Murray’s epoch-making geniuses receives constitutes a more reliable index than Murray’s own. No doubt Murray would condemn this attitude as symptomatic of the very relativism and subjectivism that is weakening Western civilization’s dominant role in human progress. Nonetheless, Chatterbox will brave on.

On Page 126, Murray fields and ranks history’s all-star physics dream team. They are, in descending order:

1. Isaac Newton
2. Albert Einstein
3. Ernest Rutherford
4. Michael Faraday
5. Galileo Galilei
6. Henry Cavendish
7. Niels Bohr
8. J.J. Thomson
9. James Maxwell
10. Pierre Curie
11. Gustav Kirchhoff
12. Enrico Fermi
13. Werner Heisenberg
14. Marie Curie
15. Paul Dirac
16. James Joule
17. Christiaan Huygens
18. Walter Gilbert
19. Thomas Young
20. Robert Hooke

At the risk of sounding politically correct, Chatterbox doubts the sisterhood will be pleased to see Marie Curie judged less eminent than her husband, especially considering Chatterbox’s memory from high school that it was the other way around. (Marie won two Nobel Prizes to Pierre’s one.) Also, Chatterbox would place Einstein ahead of Newton, but that may just bespeak sentimental attachment.

Now let’s look at the Amazon rankings:

1. Albert Einstein (6,287 hits)
2. Isaac Newton (4,000)
3. Niels Bohr (1,286)
4. Galileo Galilei (1,248)
5. Marie Curie (1,176)
6. Michael Faraday (912)
7. Werner Heisenberg (842)
8. Enrico Fermi (779)
9. Robert Hooke (633)
10. Thomas Young (582)
11. Ernest Rutherford (429)
12. J.J. Thomson (309)
13. Pierre Curie (303)
14. Paul Dirac (274)
15. Christiaan Huygens (268)
16. Henry Cavendish (219)
17. Walter Gilbert (160)
18. James Maxwell (148)
19. Gustav Kirchhoff (72)
20. James Joule (86)

Einstein and Newton switch places in the top two, Robert Hooke moves up 11 levels, Heisenberg moves up six, Maxwell drops nine, and Rutherford drops eight. In general, the Amazon rankings aren’t all that different from Murray’s.

But cherchez la femme. In the Amazon rankings, Pierre Curie drops three levels, and Marie Curie zooms past Pierre almost to the top, just behind Niels Bohr and the three most famous physicists in history (Einstein, Newton, Galileo). What does Murray have against Marie? Even in Murray’s own book, Marie gets two individual cites, and Pierre gets none (with a third cite referencing “the Curies” collectively). Marie and Murasaki Shikibu, author of the Tale of Genji, are Murray’s two brightest coeds—ranked way ahead, for instance, of Virginia Woolf—but Murray still makes Marie stand in her hubby’s shadow. Maybe that has something to do with Murray’s conviction that because Marie made her reputation on “achievements that were concrete rather than abstract,” she illustrates the folk wisdom that women are better than men at remembering where the car keys are. Hmm. Maybe Murray’s book is going to gratify his appetite for controversy after all.