The adventures of Terry Tao in the 21st century

Great New York Times profile of Terry Tao by Gareth Cook, an old friend of mine from Boston Phoenix days.

I’ve got a quote in there:

‘‘Terry is what a great 21st-­century mathematician looks like,’’ Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has collaborated with Tao, told me. He is ‘‘part of a network, always communicating, always connecting what he is doing with what other people are doing.’’

I thought it would be good to say something about the context in which I told Gareth this.  I was explaining how happy I was he was profiling Terry, because Terry is at the same time extraordinary and quite typical as a mathematician.  Outlier stories, like those of Nash, and Perelman, and more recently Mochizuki, get a lot of space in the general press.  And they’re important stories.  But they’re stories because they’re so unrepresentative of the main stream of mathematical work.  Lone bearded men working in secret, pitched battles over correctness and priority, madness, etc.  Not a big part of our actual lives.

Terry’s story, on the other hand, is what new, deep, amazing math actually usually looks like.  Many minds cooperating, enabled by new technology.  Blogging, traveling, talking, sharing.  That’s the math world I know.  I’m happy as hell to see it in the New York Times.


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9 thoughts on “The adventures of Terry Tao in the 21st century

  1. Murray says:

    On the other hand, a lot of the biggest results (e.g Wiles, Perelman, Zhang) come from the “lone genius” types, which is why they get the media attention. This sort of thing may not be a big part of your life, but even in the subject of twin primes which Tao works on, the biggest recent results by Zhang and Maynard / Tao were done through solo work. Not to mention the recent work on the ternary Goldbach problem and various other things.

    As for “Terry is what a great 21st-­century mathematician looks like”, I don’t think this is really for you or anyone else to decide. Different people have different styles, and this applies to great mathematicians too.

  2. Kevin says:

    In my limited experience it was a little of both. There was no way I could have learned all the tools and understood previous work thoroughly without the help of people who know more than me, but at the same time, any real progress came after hours of sitting at a desk, by myself, thinking.

    I’ve found even when collaborating with people, there will be periods of constant back and forth communication (throwing out ideas, poking holes in arguments, explaining a paper or having one explained to me, etc.) followed by periods of silence where my collaborator and I just sit and think. Maybe I’m weird?

  3. […] tip to Quomodocumque — who also has a quote in the […]

  4. JSE says:

    I don’t mean to suggest there’s no place for solitary contemplation in contemporary math, sorry! There is and there always will be. But I think we’re seeing the end of the popular story that math is ONLY that.

  5. Laci Pyber says:

    For a thought-provoking adventure of Terry Tao see the comments after the recent note
    “A nonstandard analysis proof of Szemeredi’s theorem” on Tao’s blog . I don’t understand why such a universal creative genius as Tao has to be so competitive sometimes. Paul
    Erdos (my spriritual grandfather) would not have liked this controversy.

  6. Tarasco says:

    If you are happy, I am happy :) we all have role models in our life.

    Saying that Perelman is unrepresentative of the main stream of mathematical work makes one think how you define main stream though. You average over all guys with a math degree? All people who do math research? Everyone with an NSF grant?

    No doubt there are streams and hot currents in math, but is there a main stream? Should there be?

  7. Jason Starr says:

    I guess what I have to say is obvious: The “lone genius” narrative is romantic, and, I imagine, makes great copy. Even if networks are more typical of actual mathematical practice, how do we “sell” that to the public? I agree that the Polymath projects make excellent narrative. The story about the character table of E8 is another great networking narrative. Are there other similar narratives? Has anybody made an effort to collect such stories about successful mathematical networks?

  8. Yiftach says:

    I am not sure it is good for us (whatever that means) to “sell” networks to the public. The problem in maths is not recruiting good people but creating more and better jobs. I suspect the “lone genius” story might actually be better for that.

    Of course these days there is a lot more collaboration, modern communication and modern transportation enable us to do so. However, as people mentioned above, there is still even within collaborative work a lot of thinking in isolation. Furthermore, many of the best results are still achieved by “lone geniuses” (Wiles, Perlman, Zhang and the are other maybe less famous stories).

    My impression is that Tao underestimate his own talent. Yes it is true that even if you are a genius you can learn from others and you can benefit from collaboration. It is also true that you need to work hard even if you are genius. But to do mathematical research you still need considerably more talent than the average person.

  9. @Jason

    the classification of finite simple groups? Ranging from Galois, Mathieu through the efforts of Gorenstein laying out the plan, the ATLAS authors (and their various contributions on the sporadic side) and onto Gonthier’s team and the future using formal methods to check, aside from people trying now to tie it all together on paper?

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