Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon

I’ve been reading the works of Neal Stephenson lately, particularly his “Baroque Cycle” and Cryptonomicon, which is something of a precursor to the later series. I recommend them highly. What follows is a particularly thought-provoking section of Cryptonomicon:

Soon, Alan got his Ph.D. and went back to England. He wrote Lawrence a couple of letters. The last of these stated, simply, that he would not be able to write Lawrence any more letters “of substance” and that Lawrence should not take it personally. Lawrence perceived right away that Alan’s society had put him to work doing something useful– probably figuring out how to keep it from being eaten alive by certain of its neighbors. Lawrence wondered what use America would find for him.
He went back to Iowa State, considered changing his major to mathematics, but didn’t. It was the consensus of all whom he consulted that mathematics, like pipe-organ restoration, was a fine thing, but that one needed some way to put bread on the table. He remained in engineering and did more and more poorly at it until the middle of his senior year, when the university suggested that he enter a useful line of work, such as roofing. He walked straight out of college and into the waiting arms of the Navy.
They gave him an intelligence test. The first question on the math part had to do with boats on a river: Port Smith is 100 miles upstream of Port Jones. The river flows at 5 miles per hour. The boat goes through water at 10 miles per hour. How long does it take to go from Port Smith to Port Jones? How long to come back?
Lawrence immediately saw that it was a trick question. You would have to be some kind of idiot to make the facile assumption that the current would add or subtract 5 miles per hour to or from the speed of the boat. Clearly, 5 miles per hour was nothing more than the average speed. The current would be faster in the middle of the river and slower at the banks. More complicated variations could be expected at bends in the river. Basically it was a question of hydrodynamics, which could be tackled using certain well-known systems of differential equations. Lawrence dove into the problem, rapidly (or so he thought) covering both sides of ten sheets of paper with calculations. Along the way, he realized that one of his assumptions, in combination with the simplified Navier-Stokes equations, had led him into an exploration of a particularly interesting family of partial differential equations. Before he knew it, he had proved a new theorem. If that didn’t prove his intelligence, what would?
Then the bell rang and the papers were collected. Lawrence managed to hang onto his scratch paper. He took it back to his dorm, typed it up, and mailed it to one of the more approachable math professors at Princeton, who promptly arranged for it to be published in a Parisian mathematics journal.
Lawrence received two free, freshly printed copies of the journal a few months later, in San Diego, California, during mail call on board a large ship called the U.S.S. Nevada. The ship had a band, and the Navy had given Lawrence the job of playing the glockenspiel in it, because their testing procedures had proven that he was not intelligent enough to do anything else.

My questions:
Were they right?
What does this fictional anecdote suggest about the limitations of intelligence testing?
How well do you think Lawrence did on the non-math portion of the exam?

Incidentally, a later portion of the novel deals with a Marine who claims that several Japanese soldiers whom he was attacking were eaten by a giant lizard. Psychologists hold that his subconscious mind simply couldn’t cope with the things he found necessary to do to heroically slaughter those soldiers, and conclude that his experiences on Komodo are a complex hallucination/rationalization constructed by his mind. As he is obviously mentally unstable and therefore unfit for normal duty, he is assigned to other things.


4 Responses to “Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon”

  1. This brings to mind Steve Sailer’s point that with a high IQ you can fool a personality test, but if you’re smart enough to fool an IQ test your high score is warranted. This example doesn’t seem plausible (it is fictional evidence, after all) because he would be smart enough to know he was supposed to give a quick answer (which Eliezer might call guessing the teacher’s password) and move on. He can always rework the problem without assuming a frictionless spherical cow later.

    • Actually, people with genius IQ levels are not really as smart as you’d think…since they are so intelligent, these people are often consumed by their own thoughts and fixations and cannot be called upon for a simple “street-smart” answer.

  2. I don’t think hallucinations are the result of stress. I think human beings just tend to imagine the existence of agents that aren’t really there. Hence religion and other varieties of superstition. Bryan Caplan has a different theory of hallucination you can find from here.

  3. I think the point of this fictional evidence was that Lawrence Waterhouse was brilliant, but extremely unworldly. His intelligence was sharply limited to certain domains; beyond those domains, it was extremely poor.

    I’ve met people (often mathematicians) who approached that level of helplessness.

    I favor the hypothesis that ‘intelligence’ has multiple domains or facets and that a person can excel at some while being utterly incompetent at others. True intelligence is then a matter of balance between the competing domains.

    The point about the Marine is that he saw a Komodo dragon attack his enemies. The psychologists are not scientific – they just make up stuff to justify the conclusions they reach, and since they don’t yet know about Komodo dragons, obviously the experience must have been a hallucination.

    Since they have no real understanding of human psychology, they cannot apply it to recognize that the Marine is actually perfectly sane, and thus cannot deduce that the experience is valid and there was a previously-unknown creature on the islands.

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