Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Published at asiancemagazine.com

Two of the smartest women I’ve known have had one-syllable surnames: Tina Su and J.J. Wu. Tina was prettier, but J.J. was smarter, smarter than I. I married Tina, and I co-authored technical papers with J.J., who had a deep, eventually unhappy, romance with another Caucasian scientist. Tina’s first marriage, to a Chinese scientist, had been unhappy, too. Neither brains nor beauty nor both guaranteed success. American poet Robert Frost wrote about the unexpected consequences of the options selected by a very pretty woman in “The Lovely Shall be Choosers.“ Still, one would like to be bright and good-looking, along with rich, and artistic and ….

I will immodestly quote myself from my memoir Ting and I:

Would you rather be beautiful (handsome, for men) or smart?

To sharpen that question, let the choices be

—average intelligence, 1 in 1,000 in good looks

—average looks, 1 in 1,000 in intelligence.

The advantages of being good-looking are many and well-known. Life, at least while young, generally goes more smoothly. People respond more favorably. Your other abilities are probably over-estimated because of it. People are drawn to you. And yet, and yet, you can draw the wrong kind of attention from the wrong people. Incest or recruitment into homosexuality or sexual molestation is more likely. You may tend to try to “get by on your looks,” rather than cultivate your other strengths. Your early choices may result in bad results.

Unusually pretty and unusually smart, Tina has been blessed. One of our nurses speculated that her wealthy ancestors in China were able to be highly selective in whom they chose for mates for their children. Eugenics in action.

In my mother’s era, women often found it wise to hide their intellects. Beauty trumped brains. I think that has changed, for the good. Being average in looks is not a major hindrance, and being smart is clearly a plus. Still, whether you are a man or a woman, you can make those around you uncomfortable by showing off your intellect. Use it to make better decisions, to progress at home or work. Don’t be too proud: Even if your intellect is as rare as 1 in 1,000, this country has 300,000 people as smart or smarter.

My brother is much more handsome than I. I realized this most dramatically when the two of us walked somewhere together and I noted women’s heads following us, something that had never happened when I walked alone. He’s had a fine career and a very happy marriage, but his best friend died in a motorcycle accident and an early deep romance dissolved painfully. Neither good looks nor high intelligence insulated him from loss.

When I was a researcher at IBM I was puzzled by the rapid rise in management of a fellow scientist of only moderate credentials and achievements. Those in the know pointed out that his tallness and good looks gave him the “IBM management look.” When you and I watch the news on TV, we are not surprised that the featured “journalists,” actually “news readers” turn out to be unusually good looking. A recent study of women in New York City showed they would find a shorter man making tens of thousands of dollars per year more about equally attractive as one an inch taller.

I could console myself that my intellect allows me to understand such issues, and thus compensate for my less-than-stellar looks, but life is not fair. The beautiful but not-so-smart may have no inclination to ponder such things. They shall be the choosers. I wish them well: they should choose wisely, if they can.

No comments:

Post a Comment