Innate mathematical ability

This morning I had the great pleasure of reading an article on LessWrong on innate ability by Jonah Sinick. Jonah has been one of my greatest influences and inspirations, having interacted with him substantially. He is unusual in one of the best ways possible. I would not be surprised if he goes on to do something extraordinary.

When I catch up with Jonah, I like to talk with him about math, mathematicians, and IQ, which happens to be what that article of his on LessWrong is about. 😉 That article resonates with me deeply because I myself had similar experiences as he did. It is hypothesized by me that I was also twice exceptional, albeit in different ways, with its effects compounded by my unusual background, all of which mediocrities within the American public school system are not good at dealing with in an effectual way.

This writing of Jonah has brought forth reflections in my own mind with regard to mathematical ability, development, and style. I’ll say that as a little kid under 6, I was very good at arithmetic and even engaged in it obsessively. However, by age 8, after two years of adjusting to life in America starting off not knowing a word of English, I had forgotten most of that. I was known to be good at math among the normal normal students; of course, that doesn’t mean much. In grade school, I was not terribly interested in math or anything academic; I was more interested in playing and watching sports, particularly basketball and baseball.

I didn’t have any mathematical enrichment outside of school other than this silly after school math olympiad program. Nonetheless, I managed to test into two year accelerated math once I reached junior high, not that it means anything. In junior high, we were doing this stupid “core math” with graphing calculators and “experiments.” I didn’t realize that I was actually a joke at math until I failed miserably at the state mathcounts contest, having not prepared for it, unlike all those other tiger mommed Asian kids, who to me seemed way beyond me at that time. It only occurred to me that I might have some real talent for math when I made the AIME in 10th grade, taking the AMCs for the first time, being one of four in my high school of about 2000 to do so. I thought it was fun solving some of those math contest problems, which were more g-loaded, with an emphasis on the pattern recognition side.

It was after that I started to read up on the history of mathematics and mathematicians. I taught myself some calculus and was fascinated by it, not that I understood it very well. But I could easily sense that this was much more significant than many of those contrived contest problems, and soon, I began to lose interest in the contest stuff. It was also after that that I learned about proving things, which the American public school math doesn’t teach. I finally realized what mathematics is really about.

Like Jonah, I had some difficulties with careless errors and mental organization. I don’t think my raw intellectual horsepower was very high back in high school, but fortunately, it has improved substantially since then that it is for the most part no longer the major impediment.

I took calculus officially in 11th grade, and it was a breeze for me. I could easily compute the areas and volumes and such but the entire time, I felt quite dissatisfied, because I could not actually understand that stuff at a rigorous, theoretical level as I poured through our textbook that went up to vector calculus during lecture, which was rather inane, expected if one considers the mismatch between cognitive threshold relative to the distribution of ability of the students. I knew from reading online the rich world of math far beyond what we were covering, most of which I was not intellectually mature enough to access at that time. However, I vividly remember during summer after 11th grade, while attending a math summer program, I was able to comfortably write out the delta epsilon definition of limit with understanding of why it was reasonably defined that way. Still, I would say I was still quite weak in terms of both my mathematical maturity and overall intellectual ability. There were too many things I wasn’t aware of, including the g factor, that I easily would have been had I been higher in verbal ability, which would have enabled me to read, absorb, and internalize information much more rapidly and broadly. In contrast, Jonah had discovered independently, or so he says, the lack of free will at the age of 7!

I made some incremental advances in my math knowledge from reading and thinking outside of school the next year. As for contest math, I almost made the USAMO. Though I had improved, I was still not terribly quick and careful with solving contest style problems and doing computations. I think close to graduation, I also solved some Putnam problems.

Only in undergrad did I learn real math more seriously, but even there, nothing too advanced. US undergrad is a joke, and I also was one, just to a lesser extent than most of my “peers.” Almost certainly, Jonah, based on he’s told me, had gained much deeper and broader knowledge at the same stage, from the reading works of giants like Euler and Riemann.

I’ve noticed how there are a lot of Chinese-(American) kids really into those high school math contests, and they now also dominate USAMO and Putnam (though careful, as in the latter, there you’ve got some of Chinese internationals drawn from the elite from China). I will say that at the lower levels, many of those kids have some pretty low taste and an inability to think outside the system that would enable them to discover the existence of real math, as opposed to this artificial math game that they enjoy playing or are pressured to doing so for college. Though those contests have a high pattern recognition component to them, there is not really much depth or substantial math knowledge. It is also my belief, with reference to Jonah’s article, that math contests are mostly M loaded while real math is more V loaded. So this behavior is consistent with the lopsidedness in favor of M and perhaps also short term working memory of Chinese students. It has also been Jonah’s belief that controlling for g, these contests select for low taste and value judgement, and I surely identify with that perspective. So maybe college admissions are somewhat fair to assess an Asian penalty?

Of the thesis of Jonah’s article, a representative figure is Terry Tao. There, Jonah also pointed out that Tao’s research in math is more concrete and problem solving oriented by pure math standards, in line with what appears to be the same lopsided (modulo the absolute level, as Terry is a far far outlier) cognitive profile of his based on testing at age 9 and 10. Again, people enjoy what they are best at, and though, Terry Tao is almost certainly at least +4 sigma at verbal, he is far more rare, at least +5 sigma, a real übermensch, in the (in some sense dual) pattern recognition component, which means he leans towards the areas of math more loaded on the latter. I have heard the saying that even other Fields medalists are intimidated by Terry Tao. The breadth and volume and technical power of his work is almost unrivaled and otherworldly. The media makes it seem like Terry is a league above even the other Fields medalists. However, Jonah seems to believe that the deepest and most leading of mathematicians are the ones who are more theory builders, who create through leaps of insight and synthesis new fields and directions that keep mathematicians busy for decades, and even centuries. That would be say Grothendieck or SS Chern, and an ability that is more loaded on verbal ability, crudely speaking. Again, I have felt the same. This might explain why the advantage of Chinese students is not anywhere near as pronounced in math research as in contests, and why some people say that generally speaking, the Chinese mathematicians are more problem solving and technical than theoretical, more analysis than algebra. Likewise, we can predict the opposite for Jews who are skewed in favor of verbal. A corollary of this would be that the Jews produce the deepest thinkers, adjusted somewhat for population, which is almost certainly the case, if you look at the giants of mathematics and theoretical physics.

I’ll conclude with the following remark. I used to revere somewhat those who placed very highly on those contests, until I realized that many of them are actually somewhat weak in terms of deep understanding and thinking at a more theoretical level. Yes, I have met MOSPers who got destroyed by real math and who are not very intellectually versatile, with glaring weaknesses; I was quite surprised initially that even I seemed to be smarter if not a lot than some of them. Once upon a time, I couldn’t understand those who appeared very strong at real math (and often also science and/or engineering and/or humanities) who struggled with more concrete math and/or contest-style problem solving, like Jonah, who has written on LessWrong of his difficulties with accuracy on the trivial math SAT. I’ve met this other guy, who I thought was an idiot for being unable to perform simple computations, who is leagues beyond me in the most abstract of math, who writes prolifically about partially V-loaded areas of math like model theory. Now, the more metacognitive me has awakened to the reality that I may never by deficit of my neurobiology be able to fathom and experience what they’re capable of. After all, there are plenty I am almost certain are and are essentially doomed to be very delusional by nature relative to me, and since I’m at the far tail but not quite so much, there are bound to be people who view me the same. I can only hope that I can become more like them through some combination of exposure and organic neurobiological growth, but I as a realist will not deem that very likely.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.