Words to live by

Sell out crowds. Overflow rooms. Young fans looking for autographs after a ‘performance.’ Not things usually associated with a lecturer talking about prime numbers. But such was the case recently for 2006 Field’s Medal winner Terence Tao. The article Scientist at Work – Terence Tao – Journeys to the Distant Fields of Prime in the New York Times gives a profile of this young, talented mathematician, described as a ‘rock star’ and the ‘Mozart of math.’

Though Tao is obviously quite gifted (an understatement), the description of his childhood, and how his parents handled his talent, is very telling as well. [emphasis is mine]

[Terry’s father] Billy Tao knew the trajectories of child prodigies like Jay Luo, who graduated with a mathematics degree from Boise State University in 1982 at the age of 12, but who has since vanished from the world of mathematics.

“I initially thought Terry would be just like one of them, to graduate as early as possible,” he said. But after talking to experts on education for gifted children, he changed his mind.

His parents decided not to push him into college full time, so he split his time between high school and Flinders University, the local university in Adelaide. He finally enrolled as a full-time college student at Flinders when he was 14, two years after he would have graduated had his parents pushed him only according to his academic abilities.

The Taos had different challenges in raising their other two sons, although all three excelled in math. Trevor, two years younger than Terry, is autistic with top-level chess skills and the musical savant gift to play back on the piano a musical piece — even one played by an entire orchestra — after hearing it just once. He completed a Ph.D. in mathematics and now works for the Defense Science and Technology Organization in Australia.

The youngest, Nigel, told his father that he was “not another Terry,” and his parents let him learn at a less accelerated pace. Nigel, with degrees in economics, math and computer science, now works as a computer engineer for Google Australia.

But what really caught my eye was Billy Tao’s summary of how they approached their kids’ learning:

All along, we tend to emphasize the joy of learning. The fun is doing something, not winning something.

Words to live by, indeed.

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Use it or Lose it

“You’ve forgotten a lot of things you used to know, haven’t you Dad?”

This astute observation from my son came at the end of an interesting conversation we had about lunar eclipses. We were driving east on I-44 in Southwest Missouri as the sun went down in the rear-view mirror. A short time later, we saw the moon coming out from behind some hills in front of us.

When I pointed the moon out to my son, he said, “It’s supposed to be a full moon tonight.” Which was odd, since what we saw appeared to be a crescent moon. “Maybe it’s just blocked by some clouds,” I tried, not really believing it myself.

Not long after, we stopped for gas. On getting back in the car, we noticed that the moon was now a “half-crescent,” something that doesn’t normally occur. Knowing now that it wasn’t the clouds I offered the only explanation I could think of – a lunar eclipse.

I explained that the shadow on the moon was actually the shadow of the earth. Having never experienced one, and obviously never exposed to it in science class, he asked what, to me, was the best question possible: How exactly do eclipses work?

I won’t bother you with the details of the discussion that followed, but we got to the point where I had to say, “I used to know how to figure that out, but I’ve forgotten.” Which, I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, led to the question I opened this post with.

Part of it may be me getting old, but I think it mostly comes down to the old saying: Use it or Lose it. Mastery – fluency – in any pursuit requires constant practice. And one of the most important things that we can master, and thus continually practice, is the ability and desire to ask questions, to figure out how the world around us works.

For a lot of great photos of the 03 March 07 total lunar eclipse from around the world, check out the ‘loony’ group on flickr.

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Mastery: Setting the conditions for innovation

Achieving mastery in your field of choice allows you to see and understand connections from outside your own area of expertise. I can’t help thinking of Richard Feynmann’s excursions outside the world of physics as an example. The recent Science Daily story Mathematicians Unlock Major Number Theory Puzzle provides another (emphasis mine):

It was during a flight to New Hampshire that Ono realized the full depth and meaning of Zwegers’ work. Skimming a journal to pass the time, Ono happened upon an old article by George Andrews on mock theta functions. Suddenly, he noticed that some of the mathematics in the paper seemed to resonate with parts of the Harmonic Maass theory, which he and Bringmann just happened to be developing at the time, for other reasons.

Or, as Louis Pasteur said way back in 1854, chance (and aha!) favors the prepared mind.

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Telling your story with pictures

302800321_958f4d7821_m.jpgAt the last St. Louis Idea Market, Scott Matthews from XPLANE had us all create a visual explanation of how a toaster works. Among many observations I made from the exercise, key was how different people interpreted what was meant by “how a toaster works.” Some of us took it to mean “How do you make toast with a toaster” while others approached it from the “how does a toaster function” point of view. (It was pretty easy to pick out engineers in the crowd!) Scott has posted the scanned cards on Flickr. haentsch200.jpg

Photographer Volker Steger gave a similar visual story telling challenge to past Nobel laureates in the article and photo layout Nobel Notations in the December 2006 issue of Discover magazine, in which he asked these great minds to explain their prize winning achievements using crayons and a piece of poster board.

The scientists’ artwork draws out unexpected and often deeply personal details. Curl’s depiction of the buckyball’s creation hints at a dispute over the naming of the molecule. He favored “soccerene” for its soccer-ball shape, but his British cowinner, Sir Harold Kroto, nixed that idea, arguing that in England the game is called football and that the molecule ought to be called “footballene.” (In the end, it was named for architect Buckminster Fuller’s celebrated geodesic domes.)

If you would like to your own hand at a visual explanation for a scientific idea – and possibly win a prize – check out the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.