Niels & Me: Dysgraphia – A history of science footnote.

One of the symptoms that, I think most, sufferers from mental illness share is the feeling of being alone with their daemons. “I’m the only one who feels like this!” “Why have I alone been afflicted?” This feeling of isolation and of having been somehow singled out for punishment in itself causes mental distress and deepens the crisis. An important step along the road to recovery is the realisation that one is not alone, that there are others who suffer similarly, that one hasn’t been singled out. I can still remember very clearly the day when I became certain that I am an adult ADD sufferer and a lot of my symptoms, including several that I didn’t regard as part of my illness, fell into place, received a label and a possible path back to mental health. As I have already related in my previous post I had very similar feelings on discovering dysgraphia and realising that it was one of my central daemons. One of those revelations concerning dysgraphia actually has a close connection to my history of science obsession and as this is a history of science blog I would like to tell the story here.

As should be clear from the name of this blog my main interest as a historian of science lies with the mathematical sciences in the Early Modern Period, however I try not to be too narrow and get stuck in a historical cul-de-sac, only able to understand a very narrow field of science over a very short period of time. In order to maintain a broad overview of the history of science I buy and read general surveys of the histories of other disciplines in other periods. One such book that I own is Robert P. Crease and Charles C. Mann The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics[1], which, if my memory serves me correctly, I bought on the recommendation of dog owner, physics blogger and popular science book author Chad Orzel; a recommendation that I would endorse. I vividly remember, shortly after I bought it, curling up in bed with the book for my half hour read before going to sleep and waking up rather than dosing off, as I read the revelatory words on the first pages of chapter two, The Man Who Talked. I’m now going quote some fairly large chunks of those pages:

Bohr’ working habits have become legendary among his successors, part of the lore of science along with Einstein’s flyaway hair and Rutherford’s remark that relativity was not meant to be understood by Anglo-Saxons. Bohr talked. [emphasis in original] He discovered his ideas in the act of enunciating them, shaping thoughts as they came out of his mouth. Friends, colleagues, graduate students, all had Bohr gently entice them into long walks in the countryside around Copenhagen, the heavy clouds scudding overhead as Bohr thrust his hands into his overcoat pockets and settled into an endless, hesitant, recondite, barely audible monologue. While he spoke, he watched his listeners’ reactions, eager to establish a bond in a shared effort to articulate. Whispered phrases would be pronounced, only to be adjusted as Bohr struggled to express exactly [emphasis in original] what he meant; words were puzzled over, repeated, then tossed aside, and he was always ready to add a qualification, to modify, a remark, to go back to the beginning, to start the explanation over again. Then flatteringly, he would abruptly thrust the subject on his listener – surely this cannot be all? what else is there? – his big, ponderous, heavy-lidded eyes intent on the response. Before it could come, however, Bohr would have started talking again, wrestling with the answer himself. He inspected the language with which an idea was expressed in the way a jeweller inspects an unfamiliar stone, slowly judging each facet by holding it before an intense light[2].

Now I would never be so presumptuous to compare myself to Niels Bohr but this paragraph resonated with me on so many levels that I almost felt sick with excitement when I read it. With slight differences that is how I think, discover, formulate my ideas and my theories. In more recent years I sometimes feel really sorry for my listeners and try to throttle back the waterfall of words that pour out of my mouth; in earlier years I was not aware of my, basically anti-social, behaviour lost in that stream of consciousness word flow. However it was a paragraph two thirds of the way down the following page that made me sit bolt upright in bed.

As a schoolboy, Bohr’s worst subject had been Danish composition, and for the rest of his life he passed up no opportunity to avoid putting pen to paper. He dictated his entire doctoral dissertation to his mother, causing family rows when his father insisted that the budding Ph. D. should be forced to learn to write for himself; Bohr’s mother remained firm in her belief that the task was hopeless. It apparently was – most of Bohr’s later work and correspondence were dictated to his wife and a succession of secretaries and collaborators. Even with this assistance, it took him months to put together articles. Reading of his struggles, it is hard not to wonder if he was dyslexic[3]. [my emphasis]

I’m not a big fan of historical diagnosis by hearsay of illnesses that one or other famous figure from the past might have suffered. You could write an entire medical dictionary containing all the complaints that researchers have decided that the artist Van Gough suffered, according to their interpretation of the available facts. However my own personal situation leads me to the conclusion that Messrs. Crease and Mann are wrong and that Niels Bohr was not dyslexic but dysgraphic.

If you suffer from a disability that has caused you years of mental stress, then to discover that a famous historical figure suffered from the same ailment and despite this handicap was successful can be an incredible boost. Knowing that Bohr needed assistance to write his papers takes away some of the shame that I feel in having to ask people to check and correct the things that I write, as I said at the beginning, it’s knowing that you’re not alone.




[1] Robert P. Crease and Charles C. Mann,The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Revised ed., 1996.

[2]Crease & Mann p. 20

[3]Crease & Mann p. 21

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Filed under Autobiographical, History of Physics, History of science

7 responses to “Niels & Me: Dysgraphia – A history of science footnote.

  1. Jeb

    ‘knowing that you’re not alone’ and with Bohr seeing a method of working that is entirely familiar and perfectly understandable.

  2. Murray Gell-Mann was another famous physicist who has struggled with writing all his life though I don’t know if his writer’s block, which he chalked up to self-defeating perfectionism, is also a manifestation of the same sort of dysgraphia you describe in Bohr and yourself. I do note that all three of you are people with considerable linguistic creativity. You and the others write memorably when you manage to write at all and come up with apt phrases—Gell-Mann (quarks, eight-fold path, etc.) was one of the greatest namers since Adam in the Garden of Eden. It has to be especially frustrating to find it painful to write when you have a way with words and, indeed, luxuriate in them.

  3. Jeb

    When you are inspired by a truly great teacher and communicator many things become possible. No need for these things to cause the issues they do.

    “The entire term we spent on one line from The White Devil has ingrained in me the value of analysing the text…

    He was phenomenally kind. He tailored his classes for us as individuals. Each one of us felt that our abilities were being brought to fruition.”

  4. Jeb

    Bohr looks like he is doing far more than merely exploring his own ideas. It looks far more special and rare than that. A true educator who understands the processes as the collaborative act that it should be.

    Or at least he certainly looks like one from that brief description.

  5. DCA

    I remember reading that the series of textbooks by Landau and Lifshitz only existed because the latter wrote them, drawing on the former’s lectures. Whether this meant that Landau didn’t want to write at all, or simply wasn’t interested in converting his lectures into a book (a lot of work) I do not know. E.B. Wilson did the same for Gibbs’ lectures on vector methods, but Gibbs certainly was not averse to writing — he just didn’t want to take the time to do so, for that particular subject.

  6. Thony,

    I have been traveling for the entire month and until now missed your post(s) about your dsygraphia. I suppose the “reasonable” period for response has already gone, but I could never let such a thoughtful piece of work pass without mention. Congratulations on a really well composed set of observations about learning and more importantly, thanks for sharing your personal story. As a lifelong dyslexic many of your words resonate with me deeply and to some extent echo and describe my own experiences.

    Judging from the comments to your posts, your original goal of bringing fellow sufferers in from the cold has scored several successes, and there is no value high enough that can be put on that. To those coping with learning difficulties and/or the associated constellation of mental illnesses, I would add a small piece of food for thought: Labels like dsygraphia and dyslexia are quite useful as handles in discussions like this. Yet they can also be a trap for those struggling to understand their own condition, especially those suffering in isolation. The temptation is to feel that once a diagnosis has been made, and named, that 1) the condition is well understood, 2) that clinicians are standing by with effective treatments, and 3) that one must henceforth live with limitations implied by the label. None of these things are necessarily true, as exemplified by your own arduous path, as well as by mine.

    It is natural for anyone having unique difficulties to feel “abnormal,” but in truth there is a spectrum of learning ‘styles’ and a ‘tools’ that work for some and not for others. Adult ADD, Asperger’s syndrome, dsygraphia and dyslexia are umbrella terms that describe symptoms that often occur together in individuals. For some of these, medical or physiochemical explanations have been found; many others are still a mystery. The trick is not to wear the diagnosis as a straightjacket.

    An honest look at the modern education systems throughout the world makes pretty clear that there are no “normal” learners, only ones that get squeezed through the toothpaste tube with relative ease and others who get stuck or damaged in the process. I urge anyone (of any age) who find themselves stuck with reading, writing or other learning difficulties to seek a diagnosis, but not to live under it’s shadow, and not to be defined by it. Some difficulties may be alleviated pharmaceutically, while others need creative, lifestyle based solutions. Niels Bohr’s solution of giving dictation when he could not effectively write by hand is a perfect example of the kind of solutions that need to be broadcast and tolerated more widely.

    Full disclosure: approximately twenty spelling/grammar errors were corrected in the writing of this reply ;-)

    -Paul Engle

    • Paul, thank you for a wonderful comment on my dysgraphia posts. I agree with everything you say and thank you for saying it.
      Only twenty errors and corrections! On a bad day that would be good for me ;))

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