These are a few of the eminences appearing on a list of the "top 100 living geniuses" compiled by the UK office of the global consulting firm Synectics and published on October 29.
Among the other musicians on the list are composer Brian Eno (tied for no. 15), composer Henryk Górecki (one of eight individuals ranked at no. 32, along with chess master Bobby Fischer, linguist/philosopher Noam Chomsky, and the rock star once again known as Prince), Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Stevie Wonder (both at no. 49, in a cluster that also includes Meryl Streep and Henry Kissinger), rocker David Bowie and first lady of soul Aretha Franklin (both at no. 67), film composer and erstwhile Boston Pops conductor John Williams (in a group at no. 72 that includes film producer George Lucas, for whom Williams wrote the score to Star Wars), and country music legend Dolly Parton (in a six-way tie for no. 94).
To develop the list, a team from Synectics e-mailed 4,000 "known people" in Great Britain, asking each respondent to give a list of ten people currently alive whom he/she considered a "genius." (No definition of the term or guidelines were provided.) From the 600 replies received, the team eliminated the deceased, the unidentifiable and self-nominations and ended with a list of more than 400 candidates (almost two-thirds of whom were either British or American).
Synectics then assembled a six-person panel "with expertise in the fields of creativity and innovation" (per the firm's final report) to score the 400+ nominees on a 1-to-10 scale on each of five characteristics of genius: Paradigm Shifting, Popular Acclaim, Intellectual Power, Achievement and Cultural Importance. (The characteristics were given relatively specific definitions, which are included in the report.) The candidates' total scores were then added up and the "top 100 living geniuses" were ranked. There was no grade inflation with this panel: the highest score given was 27 out of 50.
Tied for first place on the list are Timothy Berners-Lee, one of the creators of the World Wide Web, and Alfred Hofmann, the scientist who first synthesized LSD. At no. 3 is financier and philanthropist George Soros, followed by Matt Groening, creator of the comic strip Life in Hell and the television series The Simpsons. Tied at no. 5 are biochemist Frederick Sanger and statesman Nelson Mandela; physicist Stephen Hawking and Nobel Prize-winning playwright Dario Fo are both ranked at no. 7. Philip Glass shares ninth place with mathematician Grigori Perelman and architect Oscar Niemeyer.
This list should, of course, be taken with a few shakersful of salt — and not only for the obviously subjective nature of both selection and ranking. The list has the occasional misstatement of fact (Leonard Cohen, the poet, rock musician and Canadian icon tied with Domingo et al. at no. 58, is called an American), odd classification (Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in a five-way tie for no. 20, are described as "publishers"; for Barenboim, who has Israeli, Argentine and Spanish citizenship and lives in Berlin, the nationality given is "n/a") and editorial comment (Richard Branson, the entrepreneur who founded the Virgin enterprises — record labels and airlines — and who has a gift for getting himself mentioned in the media, is listed as a "publicist").
Whatever the merits of any single ranking of the world's "top living geniuses," lists like this one are always good for entertainment and recreational argument. And we ourselves can't resist a list that ranks the Dalai Lama with Spielberg, Bill Gates with Osama Bin Laden, and Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling with fevered filmmaker Ken Russell and Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov (who invented you-know-what).
The "Synectics Survey of Contemporary Genius 2007" is available at www.synecticsworld.com. Have your humor and indignation ready ...