Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for June 17th, 2017

The drawbacks of genius

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I find the reality of mathematical research today—in which progress is obtained naturally and cumulatively as a consequence of hard work, directed by intuition, literature, and a bit of luck—to be far more satisfying than the romantic image that I had as a student of mathematics being advanced primarily by the mystic inspirations of some rare breed of “geniuses.” This “cult of genius” in fact causes a number of problems, since nobody is able to produce these (very rare) inspirations on anything approaching a regular basis, and with reliably consistent correctness…

Even if one dismisses the notion of genius, it is still the case that at any given point in time, some mathematicians are faster, more experienced, more knowledgeable, more efficient, more careful, or more creative than others. This does not imply, though, that only the “best” mathematicians should do mathematics; this is the common error of mistaking absolute advantage for comparative advantage. The number of interesting mathematical research areas and problems to work on is vast—far more than can be covered in detail just by the “best” mathematicians…

In some cases, an abundance of raw talent may end up (somewhat perversely) to actually be harmful for one’s long-term mathematical development; if solutions to problems come too easily, for instance, one may not put as much energy into working hard, asking dumb questions, or increasing one’s range, and thus may eventually cause one’s skills to stagnate. Also, if one is accustomed to easy success, one may not develop the patience necessary to deal with truly difficult problems.

Terence Tao, “Does one have to be a genius to do maths?”

Written by nevalalee

June 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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