When police traced the origins of a red laser dot to the third-floor window of the Grand Hotel in Stockholm, they were surprised to discover that the offending room belonged to Nobel laureate Kary Mullis. The esteemed scientist had been staying in the Swedish capital for days in anticipation of receiving the Nobel Prize and making his laureate speech. Mullis had developed a laboratory technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), in which a small amount of DNA can be copied in large quantities over a short period of time. The discovery was so significant that the New York Times described it as “dividing biology into the two epochs of before PCR and after PCR”.

Mullis, described by his peers as an “untamed genius”, had, from his hotel window, been toying with the Swedes for days. He’d shine the laser beam onto their newspapers, or on the sidewalk in front of them as they walked. A cab driver who was smoking a cigarette had the red dot placed in front of him. And when he noticed it, he got up and returned to his cab. “So I aimed it through the windshield onto his dashboard,” relates Mullis in his book, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field. “I thought it was a funny thing to do until the police arrived.”

In high school, Mullis designed a rocket fuelled on sugar and potassium, inside of which he launched a frog two kilometres high, not far from the flying altitude of planes. The frog, attached to a parachute, returned to Earth apparently unscathed, other than experiencing the wildest ride of its life.

Mullis, by most standards, would be called ‘intelligent’. He got his PhD in biochemistry from UC Berkeley. He says that his PCR revelation, which later won him the Nobel Prize, came to him one spring night while driving the Californian highway, route 128, from Berkeley to Anderson Valley, his girlfriend asleep in the car, the prize-winning idea becoming more lucid as the night wore on. Mid-journey he stopped his car, found a pen and some paper, and did a few quick calculations. “I had solved the most annoying problems in DNA chemistry in a single lightning bolt,” he declared. “Abundance and distinction. With two oligonucleotides, DNA polymerase, and the four nucleoside triphosphates, I could make as much of a DNA sequence as I wanted, and I could make it on a fragment of a specific size that I could distinguish easily.” He thought it must be an illusion. “Otherwise,” he continued, “it would change DNA chemistry forever.”

A stroke of genius, or whatever you may call it; Mullis’s intellect knew no bounds. Except when he proclaimed that HIV did not cause AIDS, and that climate change was a hoax. Mullis also describes a moment in his life when he noticed a talking fluorescent raccoon near his cabin, who may or may not have been an alien.

Cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner pointed out in the 1980s that intelligence was not singular, but rather ‘multiple’. Beyond calling someone intelligent, or stupid, we may display enhanced or superior capabilities in one or more traits, and he outlined eight – including interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence, body-kinaesthetic intelligence (meaning you are good at sport), even naturalistic intelligence, or the ability to care for animals and plants, or to classify natural objects.

Gardner’s take on intelligence was a leap from Lewis Terman, some sixty years earlier, who measured intelligence by how well someone performed on a 50-minute test, devised by him. The outcome of the test would grant them an intelligence quotient or IQ: 130 to 144: moderately gifted. 145 to 159: highly gifted. 160 to 179: exceptionally gifted. 180 and up: profoundly gifted. Terman introduced National Intelligence Tests for grades 3 to 8 in schools, aiming to group children into the gifted, or not so gifted, based on whether they could answer correctly as many questions as possible, such as Diamonds are obtained from (mines, oysters, reefs, or whales); A lake that touches Ohio is (Erie, Huran, Ontario or Superior); Is a memorable publication often trivial? Yes/No; Are steeples commonly found in barrels? Yes/No.

It was Terman’s solid belief that children possessing a high IQ would be more successful later in life. So adamant was he to prove this, that he rounded up 1,528 children with an average IQ of 140 – some 856 males and 672 females – and tracked them for the rest of their lives, collecting data in 1928, 1936, 1940, 1945, 1950, and 1955. Even after his death, further data was collected by Terman’s colleagues, making it the longest-running longitudinal study in the history of psychology. Terman was keen to show that his gifted children, which he lovingly referred to as his “Termites”, would perform above-average in life, professionally, socially, even so far as maintaining better health.

Today, when psychologists analyse the traits of highly successfully people, it’s not so easy to box them as Terman so eagerly sought to do with his Termites. Charles Darwin, for example, was not particularly gifted for his age when he left school. “I believe that I was considered by all my masters and by my father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect,” he writes in an autobiographical essay. Instead, Darwin mentioned a trait that other researchers, more recently, have started to pinpoint as crucial for success, and that’s curiosity. “I had strong and diversified tastes, much zeal for whatever interested me, and a keen pleasure in understanding any complex subject or thing,” he adds. Curiosity, it’s found, activates a network of brain regions known as the ‘dopaminergic system’, which not only motivates us to learn, but augments our capacity to retain the information over the long term.

Another trait highlighted by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania is ‘grit’, or perseverance and passion to pursue long-term goals. Duckworth thinks that grit will trump IQ or natural talent when it comes to success. Duckworth boxes it all up inside a neat equation:

Achievement = skill x effort.

In her book, Grit, Duckworth describes American novelist John Irving, the famed writer of 13 novels, as a dyslexic who earnt a C in high school English. “I was an underdog,” professes Irving. “If my classmates could read our history assignment in an hour, I allowed myself two or three.” Irving found that the road to success was to “overextend yourself”, meaning to have the stamina to keep working, to go slowly, to revise, rewrite, revise again, to pay twice as much attention. “I came to appreciate that in doing something over and over again, something that was never natural becomes almost second nature. You learn that you have the capacity for that, and that it doesn’t come overnight.”

Terman’s Termites did in fact do well in life. Two-thirds earned bachelor’s degrees, ten times the national average. There were 97 PhDs, 57 MDs, and 92 lawyers. A few were arrested, one went to prison for forgery, and five died in combat. But Terman didn’t snare the big fish, the Nobel laureates, missing out on Luis Alvarez, whose IQ came in too low for the Termites when tested as a child, hovering below 135.

Nevertheless, Alvarez went on to discover resonance staters in particle physics using the hydrogen bubble chamber, securing him the Nobel Prize in Physics. William Shockley, too, sat the IQ test but failed to make the grade. He later won the Nobel Prize in physics for research into semiconductors and his discovery of the ‘transistor effect’.

Kary Mullis, the Nobel laureate who was questioned by police for shining the laser dot – “Dr Mullis, have you been shining a red light out the window?” – contributes his success in life to neither IQ, nor innate talent, nor necessarily hard work for that matter; but rather playfulness. “I think really good science doesn’t come from hard work. The striking advances come from people on the fringes, being playful.”