On Friday, The New York Times published a story about Paul Frampton, the North Carolina particle physicist who went looking for love in Bolivia and ended up behind bars for smuggling two pounds of cocaine onto a plane. It’s a gripping account in many senses–Internet love, drug dealers at work, the Argentine justice system–but one of the most interesting underlying themes is that Frampton’s genius (and the huge ego tethered to it) may have contributed to his naivete.
Author Maxine Swann portrays Frampton as a man entranced by his own intelligence:
Eyes burning with schoolboy enthusiasm, interrupted now and then by a spasmodic cough–he has a lung condition, which the smoke-filled prison air worsened–he talked me through what he called his ’14 groundbreaking discoveries,’ which he had written out for me on a piece of notepaper. Frampton closed our interview half-seriously, half-impishly, with another kind of calculation: ‘I’ve co-authored with three Nobel laureates. Only 11 theoretical physicists have done that. Six out of those 11 have won Nobel Prizes themselves. Following this logic, I have a 55 percent chance of getting the Nobel.’
How Frampton, who holds an endowed chair at the University of North Carolina and has been an adviser to the Department of Energy, ended up in Devoto appears at first to be a classic tale: a brilliant man of science gets into trouble as soon as he tries to navigate the real world. Since his arrest, he has certainly cultivated this notion, burnishing his wacky-scientist profile with lines like ‘That’s my naïveté’ and ‘My mind works in a strange way.’
Frampton’s supposed cluelessness is also a symptom of his legal defense, which rests on the idea that he had no idea what was happening when he tried to smuggle drugs past airport security for his online love. Whether or not that’s the reality, it’s a recognizable trope: Incredibly intelligent people are often supremely confident in their intellects–and thus, may be more susceptible to scams. Frampton couldn’t conceive of the idea that a beautiful young model wouldn’t want to be with him, and went to huge trouble (and several years in a South American jail) because of that belief.
It’s a harrowing tale, and it’s certainly cautionary: There are many types of intelligence, and the belief that your particular talents are all-encompassing can be incredibly dangerous. Check out the full story (and awesome Wesley Allsbrook illustrations) here.