Real world superhumans

20 November 2018

Interview with

Rowan Hooper, New Scientist

Perhaps superhumans already walk among us! Rowan Hooper is the managing editor of New Scientist, and he’s just written a book - called Superhuman, about the people who have become the best of the best. So what’s their secret, and how do we all become a little bit super? Georgia Mills spoke to Rowan to find out...

Rowan - I've met people who are superhuman in range of different traits. So from intelligence to running ability to longevity to even happiness. So why don’t you pick me a trait and I’ll talk about someone who's at the peak of human potential for one of those.

Georgia - as a science podcast going to have to go with intelligence for the first one.

Rowan -  Okay so it's really interesting. How do you think about intelligence? You could think well I'll pick the person with the highest IQ but I wanted to try and think of different kinds of intelligence. So I went to meet Hillary Mantell so she's one of our greatest living novelists and I wanted to ask her about what is it about your ability your talent. Where did it come from and when did you first notice it. And I did the same for a Nobel Prize winner a scientist Paul Nurse and a chess grandmaster as well who'd been in the world top 10 and for all of them I asked you know where does your skill come from. And interestingly they all noticed something about themselves from a very young age. So the chess grandmaster - he started to understand numbers before he could understand letters. Hilary Mantel she didn't speak for two and a half years when she was until she was two and a half and her parents were getting bit freaked out about it and then she started speaking like an adult and she'd just been biding her time and suddenly this skill of language seemed to be there from a very early age with her and with Paul Nurse there was this incredible sense of curiosity that he's just nurtured and built on his his whole life and he always felt that there was something a bit different about him compared to other people in his family and so that this kind of superhuman intelligence in different forms was there from an early age. But they all nurtured it and built it up.

Georgia -  And what about some of the physical traits you encountered.

Rowan - I met some endurance runners people who've done some absolutely mind blowing feats of endurance. So I met a young woman called Petra Kasparova. She lives and works in London this year she won - it's not even a marathon - it's a six day race where you literally run for six days round and round a track in New York.

Georgia -  do you get to sleep?

Rowan -  You do get to sleep but it's up to you when and how long you sleep for so you have a little tent in the middle of the track, you can crawl off, go into the tent and then just get up and carry on running. So they basically have a few hours sleep now and again. And the winner is the person who's run the furthest in six days and she ran 370 miles so it's more than 14 marathons! Absolutely extraordinary and you know you’d walk past her on the street and you wouldn’t think there’s a superhuman and this is what I think's amazing about her - she’s not like a super human like we might think of from the comics but she has this incredible inner fire and kind of meditative power that makes a carry on - she just keeps going.

Georgia - I think I just spent the entire six days in a tent. So what really, can you nail down, makes someone a superhuman.

Rowan -  They all tend to have a sense of optimism and a can do attitude and a kind of dedication to what they do and they love what they do as well. So for the rest of us trying to think how can I be a bit better in my life. A really good thing is not to do things you don't really love. It sounds stupid but I think a lot of us do do things we don't love. We might stay in jobs we don't love or play an instrument or do a sport we don't really love it doesn't suit us. So I think the take home message really is to find something you actually really like doing, because all the people I met who got to the top of the game, who were the best in the world that their particular trait or ability they really love what they're doing and I think that's a great take home message.

Georgia - Right so yeah an average Joe like me if I wanted to, I don't know, become super powered just do something I love?

Rowan -  Yeah do something you love! Okay look,  let's set a limit here. You know you might not become superhuman but you'll certainly get better at something. It's the same in athletics. The people who get gold medals often they've tried many different sports at an early age before they find the one that they eventually go on to become a medalist for. The ones who don’t get medals tended to be ones who specialised earlier in a sport and didn't try other sports as they were growing up and training. So try different things until you find the one that's right for you.

Georgia -  Would you say that there is also a genetic component. I don’t think I'd ever be good at the high jump for example.

Rowan -  Well yeah I mean something like the high jump tall people are better and there's a big genetic component to height, but more generally there absolutely is a genetic component to expertise. You’re going to need genetic leg up. And what's also interesting is, it turns out from genetics studies we found out that the amount people practice something - that itself is genetic. We all know people who have got the sort of real fire in their belly, a real dedication, they get up in the morning start doing something or they learn something and they don’t give up - that kind of attitude itself seems to have a genetic component.

Georgia -  And given that there is this genetic component and given that humanity is constantly pushing ourselves, doing these crazy things, running for six days,  do you think that we're as a species getting more more super, if that makes  sense?

Rowan -  Yeah I do. We are we are getting better. I mean if you look at what the average person could do 100 or 200 years ago were better now, we're getting incrementally better, and I think that there’s a lot more potential left in us there's a lot more things we can do a lot more. So I think that's what's really interesting: we’re by far from the end of fulfilling our potential as a species, there’s loads more we can do.

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