Sunday, July 26, 2015

Genius is not required for studying and doing math

The NY Times had a great profile of math genious Terry Tao recently, and compared to most other bios of mathematicians it actually makes some minor headway towards correcting the poisonous cultural bias that anyone doing math has to be a math god. An example:
At Princeton, crisis came in the form of the ‘‘generals,’’ a wide-­ranging, arduous oral examination administered by three professors. While other students spent months working through problem sets and giving one another mock exams, Tao settled on his usual test-prep strategy: last-­minute cramming. ‘‘I went in and very quickly got out of my depth,’’ he said. ‘‘They were asking questions which I had no ability to answer.’’ Immediately after, Tao sat with his adviser, Elias Stein, and felt that he had let him down. Tao wasn’t really trying, and the hardest part was yet to come.
Lots of math profiles emphasize hard work and grit, but only as applied to current research topics assumed to be inaccessible to regular readers. I like this section because it shows the importance of these behaviors early on in a career, where people can relate to them. I suspect a huge category of potential college students drop out of math-major tracks because they see themselves as not having 'it' (i.e. not being a math genious). But math can be learned and studied like anything else, and performing at a middling level is not shameful.

Whether there is in fact higher cognitive inequality in math compared to other academic disciplines remains to be seen. But regardless, given the future demands of technology and the skills required to maintain a competitive workforce, encouraging people to learn and utilize math is crucial. Depending on one's interests, graduating as a mediocre math major is probably a better long-term bet (in an uncertain world) than taking straight-As in political science degree (on average- some poli sci is very math-oriented).

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