Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Field marshal

Buried away in the Beeb's bulletin that a mysterious Russian has refused the highest award in mathematics, is this heart-breaking paragraph regarding one of the other winners this year:

Tao received the award for a diverse body of work that, amongst other things, has shed light on the properties of prime numbers. Despite being the youngest of the winners at 31, he has a variety of mathematical proofs to his name and has published over 80 papers.

Eighty?! At the age of thirty-one?!

Maybe my professor was wrong. I would have been better off sticking to selling toothpaste. (Green tea or otherwise.)


Blogger gaddeswarup said...

Here is a more impressive one who died around his 21st birthday. From:√Čvariste_Galois
Hermann Weyl, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, said of this testament, "This letter, if judged by the novelty and profundity of ideas it contains, is perhaps the most substantial piece of writing in the whole literature of mankind."

8/23/2006 7:11 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Remember what I had mentioned to you about academic guilt :)? This person seems to be an exception, prolific and relevant (and right across town, may I add). But usually, the intellectual cause isn't advanced by paper-producing tenure-chasing automatons.

By the way, don't beat yourself over it. His 80 papers include a majority that have been co-authored with a set of colleagues. I knew a PhD student in engineering at my school who had 40 papers before he graduated. All co-authored.

8/23/2006 2:40 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

yes, i had heard of galois. i have no beef with genius - never made the mistake of comparing myself against one. it's the eighty publications that get to me...

hey, what you'd referred to was the guilt of intellectual non-advancement! i'm talking about the jealousy of eighty publications. difference.

co-authored or non-co-authored doesn't make *that* much of a difference to me. i mean, yes, in the natural sciences you sometimes have dozens of people credited on a single paper (i think the record was 1023 or something). but in fields such as math, business, or social science, i don't think that co-authorship (on a 2- or 3-authored paper) is in and of itself a sign of lesser contribution.

8/23/2006 8:57 PM  
Blogger km said...

And his name is "Tao". How cool is that!

"May I speak to Professor Tao?"

"Which one?"

"Tao of Mathematics"

(or, if his daughter marries a Jones, the wedding will be called the Tao Jones wedding. Har har.)

8/23/2006 9:13 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Hmm...depends. Quite frankly, the most common pattern that I see is that in a paper with numerous co-authors there is unequal division of labour. One person takes the initiative to do the bulk of the work and string everything together.

Others make minor contribution. But in the interests of academic co-existence, everyone gets equal billing. It's not a bad system, but can lead to some unfortunate consequences like tenure seekers piggy-backing on the graduate work of their students.

8/24/2006 3:52 AM  
Blogger gaddeswarup said...

I find that I am often a bit off target pushing my favourites whenever there is an opening.
As TM says there are problems evaluating multiple author papers. But these days even single author papers combine many strands and if not this author somebody else would have done it. With the opportunities now, all kinds of multiple efforts are possible. I think Tao as well as his colloborators are using the current opportunities. Tao explains his approach in:
I read somewhere else, people look for colloboration with Tao when they are stuck on problems. There are comments from some mathematicians about Tao's work in :
Coming back to TM's point, I think joint work sometimes increases the level of awareness and tension and seems to be more than just putting together two and two. Having done both types of work, I feel that my best work (of course nowhere comparable to the above) is joint work. I guess that my conclusion is that Tao is just a very clever guy using the available opportunities very efficiently.

8/24/2006 6:57 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...


i agree that the workload isn't usually shared equally on most multiple-authored papers, but 2- or 3-authored papers are okay as far as i'm concerned. plus, in my field, at least, people state equal authorship when it applies.

as for tenure seekers milking blood from grad students, heck, i'm all for it! :-D

i agree that joint work can be an extremely rewarding exercise. i personally, at the very least, need someone to bounce my ideas off, just to keep them (and me) on course. of course, collaborating can also be very frustrating at times, but that's part of the game! thanks a lot for the links.

8/24/2006 2:07 PM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

come on!! dont beat yourself up about how far are you from 80 papers eh??

Re your comment on the last post... i dont want any extra age!!
I feel old around the teeny bopper freshman types in school already!!...its depressing!

8/24/2006 8:59 PM  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

I know less than nothing about mathematics but I like what I read about this Perelman fellow in the papers. I really admire people like him who, in this day and age, can resist the lure of lucre and pursue whatever it is they're passionate about.

About this Tao fella, I'm just wondering, with the kind of web page he has, when does he get time to write his papers? Hell, he must be spending half the day just updating that page!

8/24/2006 9:29 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

ouch, that's an unkind cut. let's just say -- only a lifetime.

and about the teenybopper freshmen, one of my most eye-opening moments was going back to my old school after several years (ignoring the words of steely dan), and being struck by the thought: "who let all these *kids* in?" the funny thing, of course, is that i was thinking about the teachers.

agree totally about perelman. to steal a line from my next post (which is all but written), he reminds me of "freaks and geeks and simples". watch this space.

and about tao - heck yeah. geniuses run on another dimension. a few years ago there was a nytimes feature on sendhil mullainathan (mowgli-ish economist supreme), which said that he likes to come home and switch off at 5 pm. *FIVE* pm. [insert agonized cry of the heart]

8/24/2006 10:52 PM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

That's about a paper every 6 weeks for Tao (assuming he was a prodigy who started churning them out at the age of 21). Say he contributes 20 pages of research and writing per paper on an average, that would mean he has been coming up with about a page of novel thought every couple of days through his adult life. That's about as much intellectual output as a regular blogger such as yourself, so you have nothing to be ashamed of. He just got a head start on you.

8/24/2006 10:58 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

nice try :-D
the big assumption there is "blogging" = "intellectual output". HEH HEH HEH. not for my posts buddy!

i *can* however get consolation from the thought that he'd be awful as a music blogger. he opens his site with the refrain from "down under"!

8/24/2006 11:05 PM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

"Eighty?! At the age of thirty-one?!"

Good Lord! First author or co authored is not the point. I wouldn't mind co authoring half that number at 31.

8/25/2006 12:28 AM  
Blogger bandafbab said...

Tao is easily among the most influential and exciting mathematicians in the world today. He's been known for pathbreaking work for years and the amazing thing about his work is not his age, or number of papers but how he's managed to straddle different areas of mathematics. His papers are groundbreaking and it doesn't really matter if they're joint work or not. In this day and age of super specialised mathematicians his work is unique.

As for Perleman, the man is quite crazy. I attended his lectures at MIT when he announced his proof and his first lecture consisted of one single equation and a 40 minute stretch where he spoke without looking at anyone or writing anything. Once, he'd gone for a conference and walked 8 hours from the airport to the conference venue because he likes to walk. His Poincare papers were the only thing he published in the last 10 years and is the other extreme of what Tao is.

The important thing is that their papers (co-authored or not, age notwithstanding) have profound implications in mathematics.

8/25/2006 3:02 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...


ah, there you are. i knew you'd have something to say about these guys. thanks. and i agree - in any evaluating any body of work, the first criterion shouldn't be the number of first or multiple authored papers, but who interesting and important they are.

8/25/2006 9:09 AM  
Blogger bandafbab said...

A few interesting things I've heard about Tao from people I know in UCLA. He claims he wasted his first year in grad school because he "discovered the internet". He also loves to play video games. Maybe he's also a blogger and spends a lot of time blogging and reading other people's blogs!

8/25/2006 12:26 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

hah! should have been at a hundred by now. slowpoke.

8/25/2006 3:30 PM  
Blogger Old Spice said...

Know I'm late on this, but what the heck. If you think 31 year olds are bad, imagine my chagrin on finding out that both Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson were both younger than me. (They both featured on the Vanity Fair Oscar edition cover.) The numbers of Test Cricketers younger than 23 seems to keep going up, too. Life is passing me by, and all I seem to do is read other people's blogs. (And I don't suppose having 3,000 words on male homosexuality in 18th century England published at age 19 really counts as big-time publication, yet ... lots of catching up to do.)

By the way, I read Freakonomics over the weekend - it seemed to kind of fit with this post, not sure why - and was led to this piece. Quite long, but worth reading.

8/28/2006 1:09 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

yup, i remember the first time that a major sports figure burst onto the scene at an age younger than that of the eldest guy in my set. how we ribbed him. how short-sighted that was.

thanks for ze link.

8/28/2006 8:40 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home