12 JULY 2003, Page 28

Ravishing blondes did not queue up to become Mrs Einstein

The head of technology at Microsoft, the world's biggest software firm, is one David Vaskevitch. It is likely that he knows more about the immediate future of our lives, in so far as they can be determined by invention, than anyone, and is in a position to influence us markedly. He has clear ideas. The computer revolution is only just beginning. Between now and the end of this decade — seven and a half years — he asserts that the computer world will change more than in the previous half-century. In 1950 computers impinged only on big organisations. Now they affect individual lives in countless ways. But they do not enter the very core of our lives. That will soon change, he says: From being a head machine' the computer will be changed into 'a heart machine.'

I'm not sure what Vaskevitch means by this. His illustrations were not enlightening. He said that his 80-year-old mother finds her notebook computer indispensable because she uses it to play bridge with a dying woman in Australia. He sees computers as a source of friendship and affection and a way into the arts — music, painting, literature. Well, maybe. While pondering Vaskevitch's prognostications, I looked carefully at a big colour photo of him. He is, I suppose, in his fifties but looks older. His face gives the impression that it is moulded of some superior putty or wax. ready for installation in a scientific Madame Tussaud's gallery. The dome of the head is quite bald except for some white fluffy stuff over the back of his neck and ears. Below the ears and over the chin is a tenuous and asthenic growth of grey, white and possibly sub-brown hair, too long to be called stubble, too short to be dignified with the title beard. This extrusion of whisker has a crinite extension under the lower lip, and the upper lip is surmounted by a comose fuzz of the same colour and consistency as the chin-carpet. The whole could do with a Hoover, perhaps. It has a temporary, indeterminate look, as though Vaskevitch or possibly Mrs Vaskevitch is not quite sure whether a beaver is being or ought to be, or even can be. grown. It is still at the lab stage, not yet by any means a marketable product; possibly needing a ruthless razor to take it back to the drawing board and start again. This hirsute overlay or veneer to the lower part of the mug is crowned by a pair of small-lensed spectacles through which the software magister peers like a 17th-century Galen inspecting a difficult case.

You will gather that I do not find the appearance of this mentor of the future reassuring. Does that matter? Did the great scientists and technocrats of the past reassure people by their visages? At least 17 portraits of Newton were done from life, of which a dozen survive, plus portrait medals and busts. They give a collective impression of distance, iciness indeed; not exactly contempt but indifference. His first biographer and successor as Master of the Mint, John Conduitt, presented him as a physical marvel — 'fine head of hair, as white as silver, without any baldness, never wore spectacles, nor lost more than one tooth to the day of his death, a lively and piercing eye, a comely and gracious aspect' — and so on. But Conduitt was a hero-worshipper, a sycophant. Bishop Atterbuty, who was more objective, called Newton 'languid' and his appearance 'did not raise any expectations in those who did not know him'. To Thomas Hearn, he was `of no very promising aspect'.

If Newton was nondescript, the great Adam Smith was 'an ugly-looking devil', with huge yellow teeth with which he continually and noisily crunched lump-sugar. His absent-mindedness not only led him to fall into streams and once into a tanning-pit, but also made him unconsciously imitate the gestures and motions of people he saw in the street, sometimes to their fury. He muttered to himself, mouthing and grinning, and swayed as he walked, as if, at each step. he meant to change direction or even turn back; a 'vermicular' gait, as someone put it. Many thought him mad and anyone who could call Dr Johnson to his face 'a son of a bitch' was clearly daft.

Another physical oddity was Darwin, who came of ugly, not to stay repellent, stock. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a huge slob of flesh, his father, Dr Robert Darwin, even fatter, described by one eye-witness as 'the largest man I ever saw', an 'overfed hulk' with a tiny high voice. To look at him was 'a vertiginous experience' and his presence was 'like some immense gravitational field'. Charles Darwin himself was not so big, but his bushy brows, protuberant head and deep-set eyes alongside a concave jutting nose gave him a simian appearance which made him easy to caricature as one of his own gorilla apes. The eyes were intense and piercing, almost alarming, and he suddenly sprouted a bushy beard of Leonardo volume which turned him into a Moses. By any standards he was an odd looking fellow, who turned your eyes in the street and might be God or devil or tramp or antique

Diogenes just issuing from his tub. (Actually, he was an accomplished billiards player and a wizard at backgammon.) It would be hard to think of three such odd and unprepossessing men as Newton. Smith and Darwin; but much harder to think of any three books which have kept their stupendous lustre more comprehensively than the Principia, The Wealth of Nations and The Ofigin of Species. Truly, genius comes in strange guises, and Mr Vaskevitch's quasibeard or virtual beard may be no guide at all to the cerebral machinery of which it is the superficial foliage.

On the other hand, there is a deep instinctive feeling in us that good looks, health, brains and competence are somehow connected. Why are men programmed to prefer (other things being equal) pretty women with whom to mate? Why do nubile women pick out handsome men, if they can find them? Notions of beauty are conventional, but such conventions may reflect an instinctive recognition of other and more fundamental, if less visible, qualities. In general, and allowing for plenty of exceptions, I have found pretty girls more intelligent than plain ones. A tall, shapely blonde, far from being dumb, is more likely to have a higher IQ than the categorical opposite.

Prescriptive societies associated beauty with gifts of leadership. Handsome princes could breed best from flawless belles. That was why they were awarded the golden apple and why Paris stole Helen. The good looks of the gods and goddesses reflected their membership of the Pantheon — 'effortless superiority', to borrow an old 13alliol accolade. Apotheosis demanded glamour, as well as conveying it. Indeed, religion demanded good looks and perfect health for its hierarchs. Leviticus rd, 16-24 insisted that all priests be without physical blemish, and there were more stringent provisions for the High Priest, who was forbidden to come into contact with the corpses of even close relatives lest his pristine wellbeing be imperilled (Leviticus xxi, 1-5). It is an underlying thread, I think, in Charles Murray's study of how intelligence reproduces and fortifies itself, The Bell Curve, that mating patterns among the clever take in such considerations. His forthcoming book, the first attempt to quantify genius in terms of national, cultural and geographical distribution, may push the argument further. All the same, it is the exceptions that catch the eye. Ravishing blondes did not queue up to become Mrs Einstein.