Tag Archives: genius

Should Andrew Gelman have stayed a math major?

Andrew writes:

As I’ve written before, I was a math and physics major in college but I switched to statistics because math seemed pointless if you weren’t the best (and I knew there were people better than me), and I just didn’t feel like I had a good physical understanding.

But every single mathematician, except one, is not the best (and even that person probably has to concede that there are still greater mathematicians who happen to be dead.)  Surely that doesn’t make our work pointless.

This myth — that the only people who matter in math are people at the very top of a fixed mental pyramid, people who are identified near birth and increase their lead over time, that math is for them and not for us — is what I write about in today’s Wall Street Journal, in a piece that’s mostly drawn from How Not To Be Wrong.  I quote both Mark Twain and Terry Tao — how’s that for appeal to authority?  The corresponding book section also has stuff about Hilbert and Minkowski (guess which one was the prodigy!) Ramanujan, and an extended football metaphor which I really like but which was too much of a digression for a newspaper piece.

There’s also a short video interview on WSJ Live where I talk a bit about the idea of the genius.

In other launch-related publicity, I was on Slate’s podcast, The Gist, talking to Mike Pesca about the Laffer curve and the dangers of mindless linear regression.

More book-related stuff coming next week; stay tuned!

Update:  Seems like I misread Andrew’s post; I thought when he said “switched” he meant “switched majors,” but actually he meant he kept studying math and then moved into a (slightly!) different career, statistics, where he used the math he learned: exactly what I say in the WSJ piece I want more people to do!

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Best Writing on Mathematics 2011, and Nathanson on massive collaboration

In my mail:  The Best Writing On Mathematics 2011 (Mircea Pitici, ed.) from Princeton University Press.  Just to get this out of the way:  I’m in here!  They reprinted my compressed sensing article from Wired.

You might now be wondering:  are there really enough popular math articles published in a given calendar year to fill up an anthology?  No.  There are not.  But this is part of the charm of what Pitici has done.  His very broad definition of “writing on mathematics” allows him to include useful professional advice for young mathematicians from Andrew Schultz, reflections on a career in math education from John Mason,  and academic-yet-readable philosophy (“What Makes Math Math?”) from Ian Hacking, whose The Emergence of Probability is my favorite book in history of mathematics.

I especially like Mel Nathanson’s pessimistic take on massive collaboration in mathematics — because it is a forcefully written, carefully argued case for a position with which I mostly disagree.  “I would guess that even in the already interactive twentieth century,” he writes, “most of the new ideas in mathematics originated in papers written by a single author.”  I would guess otherwise — at least if you restrict to the second half of the century, when joint papers started to become really common.   Mel calls me out for writing about Tim Gowers’ Polymath Project in the New York Times with “journalistic hyperbole” — and here he is right!  It is very hard, in the genre of 300-word this-year-in-science snippet, to keep the “gee whiz!” knob turned down and the “jury is still out” knob turned up.

Gowers claims the classification of finite simple groups as a pre-Internet example of massively collaborative mathematics.  Nathanson agrees, but characterizes the classification as fundamentally uninteresting, “more engineering than art.”  What would he say, I wonder, about recent progress towards modularity of Galois representations?  It’s very hard to imagine him, or anyone, seeing everything that’s happened in the last 15 years as a mere footnote to Wiles.  (But maybe some of the experts who read this blog would like to weigh in.)

Nathanson concludes:

Recalling Mark Kac’s famous division of mathematical geniuses into two classes, ordinary geniuses and magicians, one can imagine that massive collaboration will produce ordinary work and, possibly, in the future, even work of ordinary genius, but not magic.  Work of ordinary genius is not a minor accomplishment, but magic is better.

Yes, but:  magic can only happen in the already-enchanted environment created by the hard work of many minds, alone and in teams.  Math is like earthball.




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Eat this today — tacos al pastor pizza at Ian’s

While we’re on the subject of glorious culinary syncretism, I want to endorse in the strongest possible terms today’s special pizza at Ian’s:  a “tacos al pastor” pie with juicy chunks of marinated pork, fried onions, and pineapple over mozarella cheese and tomato-chipotle sauce.  It’s one of their finest achievements and I believe it’s today only.  Ian’s stays open until 3am, so there should be plenty of time to get down there if you’re out of state or something.

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Reuben pizza

This was supposed to be a post in honor of the genius of Ian’s Pizza, who have outdone their usual high standards with this month’s Thursday special, the Reuben Pizza. Make it your business to be somewhere near State Street on October 18 or 25 so you can sample it.

This won’t be exactly that post, because a bit of Googling revealed that the Reuben Pizza has a long history. The version at the Gaslight Restaurant in Huntingsburg, IN is especially well thought of. (That last link is from Reuben Realm, the kind of food-obsessive project the Internet was invented for.)

None of which really diminishes the greatness of Ian’s. I lived for seven years in New Jersey, which features some excellent pizza but suffers from a crushing pizza orthodoxy. Even something you can get in every mall, like pineapple, or barbecue chicken, is considered dangerously exotic. Here in Madison, pizza is much less of a high-church experience; they play around a bit. As most famously exemplified by our fair city’s signature pizza, Ian’s mac and cheese pie:

(image by Eating in Madison A to Z.)

Anyway, the reuben pizza. Crust, Russian dressing, corned beef, sauerkraut. Perfect, even for someone like me who doesn’t like mayonnaise on pizza. Who can say where the line is? Macaroni and cheese, corned beef, guacamole, a fried egg, Russian dressing, or chicken tikka masala on pizza are all terrific as far as I’m concerned. But I think ranch dressing on pizza is disgusting, and french fries on pizza are just too much (though the guys at Ian’s tell me their “steak, barbecue sauce, and fries” slice is second in popularity only to the mac and cheese.) What’s remarkable about Ian’s isn’t that they’ll dump any old thing on a pizza — anyone could do that. It’s the thought involved. As in their Friday special, the cheeseburger pizza. Now everybody makes cheeseburger pizza. But Ian’s chops up the pickle and puts that on too! That’s thoughtful. (This pizza, too, has fries, but here the fries are chopped into little cubes — I’m OK with this.)

I think what makes the pizza good is that it’s in complete consonance with the virtues of the original sandwich, which is to say, hot bread and melted cheese. Which makes me think: you know what would be a great pizza? The patty melt pizza. Hamburger, melted swiss, fried onions — and little fragments of grilled rye bread on top. With all due humility, I feel that this pizza, if realized, could be my greatest contribution to human civilization.

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