Are great men born, or made?

History has witnessed several great personalities, the existence of whom is questioned deeply by this polarizing enigma. Most people lie on either side of the spectrum, hardly anyone seems to be a centralist or one with mixed opinions.

Some people have formed various opinions based on certain historical facts. In ancient Rome, it was believed that people with an aquiline (or Roman) nose had innate greatness. The example of Alexander the Great and some other great philosophers was cited as evidence (I too have an aquiline nose). Doctrinaires of astrology heavily believe in luck and charms. Under the influence of such beliefs, many celebrities change the spellings of their names. Personally, I believe it is nothing more than a placebo.

 Conversely, others tend to completely deny the existence of fortune and destiny (including their own as well, which I find quite ironic). When Taylor Swift was asked how someone can achieve the level of success as her (if that is even possible), she replied that it can be done by sheer diligence and consistency. I disagree.

Terman Study of the Gifted:

Lewis Terman, an American psychologist believed that IQ was the ultimate deciding factor of whether someone would be successful. He conducted a life-long study on America’s finest brains, his initial notion being that this group would be the pioneers in academia and industry while running the world’s greatest organisations. To his utter dejection, 20-30 years into the study he realised that was not true at all. A small group of kids did perform as per his expectations (the top 15%), but there existed a substantial amount of people in the middle who led a mediocre life. Finally, the last group consisted of, in simple terms, utter failures. Terman was intrigued by their unpredictable performances even after having a genius-level IQ just like the people from the top-performing group. He noticed a pattern: the top performers came from affluent households while the “utter failures” were poor.

Why did I tell you this? To let you know that neither luck nor hard work alone can lead to a highly fortunate life— it’s a mix of both. It isn’t uncommon to see people relying completely on luck growing paranoid, as well as people failing miserably despite being determined and not giving up.

I don’t mean to simply opine in this article, I also intend to narrate a few stories of some heroes lost to time. They are geniuses in their domains who worked to their very best despite all odds, and yet, didn’t get the affluence they truly deserved. I empathise with them a lot.

Sergei Korolev

Sergei Korolev was a great contributor to the space age, and the mastermind behind the first rocket— the “Sputnik I” that helped send the first living creature (Laika, a dog), and the first human, Yuri Gagarin into space.

During the “Great Purge” under Stalin’s rule, about a million people were slaughtered, and Sergei was imprisoned after being accused of “deliberately slowing the work of the research institute”. Ultimately, he was tortured, tried, and sentenced to death, but even after managing to survive miraculously, he ended up in “Gulag”— a labour camp in Siberia where thousands died each month of starvation, disease or exhaustion.

Finally, when he was sent back to Moscow at the request of Glushko—the reason why he was sent to Gulag in the first place—he had to work under immensely aggravating conditions with the man who had sent him to prison for over half a decade.

After some remarkable accomplishments in space advancements, he finally gave in to the numerous injuries and diseases he had accumulated during his imprisonment and died in 1966.

While his achievements continue to remain unidentified and uncelebrated, there’s a picture of him in the International Space Station to reminisce about his contributions to space-tech advancements.

In the words of Glushko, “he was a sceptic, a cynic, and a pessimist who took the gloomiest view of the future.” 

“We are all going to be shot and there will be no obituary” (Khlopnut bez nekrologa, Хлопнут без некролога— i.e., “we will all vanish without a trace”) was one of Sergei’s most cherished expressions.

Franz Kafka

Wait, isn’t Franz Kafka considered incredibly noteworthy and eminent? Isn’t there an actual literary genre called “Kafkaesque”? Well, that wasn’t the case when he was alive.

Kafka had a lonely childhood and a tragic, troubled relationship with his father whom he described to have an “authoritarian and demanding character.” He was a weak, sickly boy as a kid, had anxiety issues, and battled depression in his youth. 

He loved a woman named Felice Bauer, whom he wrote to quite frequently but refused to meet in person most of the time. It was as if he craved human contact, yet wanted to be left alone. It was a result of the self-image he had developed from the insults hurled at him by his father throughout his youth that he failed to form any positive relationships throughout his life.

 Despite “The Metamorphosis” being his most influential piece of work, he was most appreciative of “The Judgement,” which was his autobiographical story.

Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and after staying severely ill for a few years, he died. Before he passed, he instructed his best friend Max Brod to burn all of his manuscripts. Brod decided otherwise and published his works including “The Trial,” “The Castle,” and “The Man Who Disappeared.”

Despite his undeniable talent for writing, he lived a cataclysmic and calamitous life, never receiving the prominence and public esteem he deserved.

Alan Turing

Widely considered as the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing did get some regard in his field (mathematics and computer science— but nowhere near the recognition he truly deserved.

He had a major bestowal, reducing the timespan of the second world war by a few years by collapsing the enigma that was considered unbreakable at that time.

Due to homosexuality being an arduous felony in England during his time, he was persecuted, and as an alternative to prison, he had to suffer chemical castration.

At the age of 41, he was found dead in his house. He committed suicide by eating a cyanide-infused apple. It is rumoured that Steve Jobs chose an apple with a single bite for the logo of Apple Inc. as his tribute to Alan Turing.

In 2009, British prime minister Gordon Brown released this public statement apologising for the harsh treatment given to Alan Turing:

“Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing after recognizing the appalling mistreatment he faced. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I, and we all are for what happened to him. On behalf of the British Government and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.”

Joselyn Bell Burnell

Joselyn Bell worked under Martin Ryle during her PhD in the field of astronomy, where she identified the very first pulsar. This discovery was a groundbreaking and revolutionary one, but she didn’t receive the deserved credit for this discovery.

Years later, her supervisor Martin Ryle and Antony Hewish (the head of Martin Ryle), received a Nobel Prize for the discovery of pulsars, with which came widespread exaltation.

Her role model, an illustrious personality in the field of astronomy, Fred Hoyle, was unhappy about Joselyn Bell not getting any credit for the discovery and expressed it publicly.

Although Joselyn did receive the “Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics” at the age of 76, she faced a lot of sexism, discrimination, and never got recognition at a younger age.

Final Thoughts

Culture is a significant determinant of the recognition and fame one gets. Many laudable artists, scientists, and pioneers never get their legitimate share of prosperity simply because of the culture they belong to (Sergei Korolev being an excellent example). Even today, Western artists and pioneers are called “international stars” and are endorsed interculturally, whereas artists with the same, if not more calibre from the Eastern world remain mere national stars.

Why? Well, the West is considered to be the leading example in every aspect. Not just in economy and technology, but also culture— the dominance in which has increased exponentially since the world wars. To make things worse, Eastern characters and figures are often mocked, stereotyped, and sometimes, even overly sexualised, leading to a foul image in the international audience’s mind. Other xenophobic elements also add to it.

Things might seem hopeless and increasingly unfair, but lately, Eastern culture has been spreading like wildfire this decade. From anime becoming a common entertainment genre all around the world and Bollywood movies being watched internationally, to BTS becoming the first band from the East to receive significance, things are surely changing for the better.

I am quite sure there are countless other artists, scientists, and creators of the past who are simply lost without any trace. 

On the other hand, the people whose stories I shared, their sacrifices (or bad luck?) didn’t completely go to waste. 

Franz Kafka inspires writers all around the world and often sparks the topic of mental health awareness among poets and authors.

Turing will always be cherished and admired for his contributions to computer science while simultaneously inspiring the LGBTQ+ community, albeit indirectly, to aim and achieve their goals in this field.

Joselyn Bell has donated millions of dollars she received in prizes to promote education for minorities in STEM. She once said, “I do think it’s important that there are role models for young women. So, OK, I’ll be it.”

The stories I shared were all tragic and clearly showed how innate greatness, hard work or even talent is just not sufficient sometimes. Life, in itself, is quite tricky. The fact that at least some people (like me, and now you) still know about them is hope enough. The mystery of innate greatness and fame is more complex than our comprehension and critical analysis. One simply can’t consider all the factors such as talent, luck, the capacity to work hard, familial background, geographical location, culture, and many more— though acknowledging them is incredibly necessary. The point is, life lies above all this. There is no one clear answer and perhaps there never will be. You can only control some of the factors and maybe life will eventually surprise you.

Written by- Devesh Anand Srivastava

Edited by- Ria Shridher

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