I had the pleasure of chatting briefly with a math PhD student, with the conversation largely centered on what kind of math are you interested in. He is doing discrete probability and combinatorics, something along the lines of that. He said that he spent a year studying commutative algebra during undergraduate, but eventually decided that he would not do math that deep and instead is concentrating on an area with less requirement in terms of acquired knowledge and more low-hanging fruit to pick, the parts of math of a more problem solving nature. He went on to say that of the math undergraduates at his top (but not Beida or Qinghua) institution in China, by junior year, only five were studying the purist of pure math, and later during graduate school, all but one of them, who is now doing research in string theory, have given up, instead choosing not pure PDEs but PDEs for biology and the likes, to illustrate the low rate of success for pure pure math. I told him that I still want to do really deep math (of which we can use algebraic geometry) and see the parts of math not requiring deep knowledge as not as meaningful to do research in (of course, I don’t expect to succeed, realistically gauging that I am, while highly talented, not a genius). On that, he more or less said that you should try and that you never know unless you try. Of course, he did more constructively say that learning commutative algebra requires knowing deeply thousands of definitions, and just going through ten of them a day is already very good. Maybe attempting this is not terribly wise when I see people objectively smarter than I am who eventually chose easier fields, like theoretical statistics.
Now this brings me to reflect on why I am doing pure mathematics? Why am I devoting so much time and energy (with overall enjoyment and satisfaction at this point still pretty high) on this arcane, useless subject? How much of it is out of an ego to prove how smart I am versus the intrinsic thirst for the knowledge? Of course, the two are somewhat intertwined, as you’ll see in what I’m about to say.
As for my background, I studied some CS in college and also spent some years in the software industry, which I’ve grown very distasteful of. I don’t like CS people very much in general. They make a big deal out of low-hanging fruit. Like, MapReduce is trivial theoretically; it’s more about the engineering, in particular the locality to minimize network IO, which in distributed systems is usually the bottleneck. There is nothing deep about it. Algorithms is cool, and I enjoyed them, doing okay in some coding contests, solving say plenty of TopCoder 500s (but not quickly enough during the short 75 minute time frame of the contest). However, algorithms I view as more of a game, full of clever little tricks but of little substance, recreational math at best, at least the type of algorithms I did. Engineering wise, I see the value, but I don’t see myself as naturally inclined to it at all, and in fact, among the strong folks in that, I’m probably rather weak. I don’t think those people are terribly smart from an IQ point of view. They’re not as cultured in some sense. (That top MIT math major (though he works in combinatorics heh) says the same, that science is for high math high verbal people with refined intellectual tastes while engineering is for high math (note that this often does not even hold for software engineering) lower verbal folks of a dronish nature.) In any case, I don’t think I’m in the same species as all these people in software engineering who know absolutely nothing about continuous math, the type of math you see in physics, like I think that’s just bad, or at least different, taste, or simply lower IQ enough that they cannot even understand it. I thought at one point that I might want to do CS theory. Not anymore. I think that’s a cool field with many good problems, but again, much of it lacks depth and importance, often with little connection to the mainstream of mathematics.
I see mathematics as in some sense the pinnacle of human civilization and of human intelligence. I’ve probably said before that humans discovered literature, music, crafts, and engineering (non-modern) long long time ago, but mathematics took so long, which just goes to show how unnatural it is for the human brain. It is a pursuit of truth in the rigorous and absolute sense that one sees not in natural science either, though of course, the deductive method that underlies math is thoroughly used in natural science. Moreover the structures investigated in mathematics are of such a fundamental and pure nature which often appear in reality, though of course the purists, with the Greeks as the pioneers of that, view mathematics as a Platonic ideal to be investigated for its own sake independent of reality. What the Greeks did I would say is rather unnatural, because I recall early on, it did not feel so natural for me to disentangle mathematics with the reality, having seen it more as a tool for reality.
Mathematics is so full of substance, unlike almost all other subjects. It emphasizes high quality, with often deep, fundamental ideas explained in a few pages, in austere, terse language. It is a scientific study that tolerates absolutely no bullshit and aims for the simplest possible explanation of pure, strictly incontrovertible truth by logic. It is an escapism from the mediocrity and nonsense we see in much of the world and most humans too intellectually dazed for the clear thinking necessary to perceive mathematical truth.
I see my ever greater interest and appreciation, and of course, ability and knowledge, for mathematics as an inevitable consequence of my neurobiological maturation, which is fortunately to an extent far enough that I am able to experience as much of this world of truth invisible to most humans around me, though of course, I can only admire those true geniuses, those far superior brains, who can fathom so much deeper and more rapidly than I can. On this, I shall say that mathematics may well be what separates homo sapiens from whatever species eventually evolves beyond it. I would bet that in another millennia, we will have people for whom mathematics is as natural a language as natural language is to humans. Just as humans have evolved their brain and also their anatomy of throat and mouth such that learning (non-formally) and articulating language is instinctive, humans may evolve their brains further such that that holds for mathematics as well.
Over time, I’ve come to realize more so that mathematics is about the right mental perception. Ideally, one can see the mathematics in one’s head. Text is but a medium of transmission (with reading the fastest bandwidth in terms of information transmission to the human brain), but without a well-formed brain rational and composed, there is basically nothing one can do to genuinely absorb the truth that exists independent of one’s perception of it. It is often that one intuitively feels like one can understand certain mathematics one hears or reads, but looking more closely, one finds such is not the case, being unable to visualize it with enough clarity that one can independently explain it.
My learning of mathematics has been far from entirely smooth. I have despaired much about simply not being smart enough, especially upon seeing another seemingly effortlessly master what was utterly perplexing for me. Fortunately, that all improved over time. Though of course, as the Dunning-Kruger effect would say, the better you become the more can see your incompetence and your limitations. The experience of being able to experience the life of mind with ever more clarity, fine grain of control, and awareness has been an internally exhilarating experience.
Mathematicians are in some spiritual aristocrats, and mathematics arguably has more of an intellectual upper class air to it than any other subject. What is aristocracy? It is to many a relation by blood to those politically important or foundational. But is political power really the pinnacle of human experience? I say no, and I would say that it is the experience of the deepest scientific truths, one which requires both biological genius as well as the substantial cultural exposure that naturally comes with it, especially in today’s day and age of universal access to information. Human experience in any case hinges on consciousness, and one’s subjective conscious experience is always the product of neurons. Thus, mathematics has to it an aristocracy that no amount of money or political title or physical appearance or dress can buy; there is no royal road to mathematics, as Euclid said. So in some sense, mathematics is the greatest gift of God to a human he conceived on earth.
What are other characteristics of non-trivial engagers of mathematics that one easily associates with aristocracy? First comes to mind language and literacy. In virtually every culture, literacy was in the old days a sign of class, of privilege. In the West, it was the Catholic priests and in the East, it was the Confucian scholars. In virtually every religion or ideology or culture, the masters of that culture through literacy were highly esteemed. For example, in Jewish culture, there were the rabbis. Those with the most mastery of language where often the ones of authority, much owing to their exclusive access of certain information that facilitates political and mind control of plebs. From this, emerged learned aristocracies which developed their distinctive elite cultures, along with to some degree a distinctively evolved genetic line. These aristocrats evolved an ability to parse and memorize text far greater than the masses who had to labor in the fields. They developed and evolved a certain form of refinement and manners and self-control, as well as physical appearance, that came to be characterized as one of an aristocratic nature.
With this said, in the West, during the Renaissance and the subsequent scientific revolution, the men of science were often ones from a learned religious background of deep conviction in their religious faith who were intellectually courageous enough to go beyond it, to go about to discover scientific truth often with inspiration from the God they held deep in their hearts. They conceived of a much more rational and accurate world that turned out had been there all along without their knowing. All this eventually ushered in a new age of human history of exponential human discovery, of fundamental scientific truths, of unseen lands, of modern machines, that has culminated in the globalization we have today. All of this has much of its roots in mathematics.
To say all this would imply my yearning to become an aristocrat, which brings to another point, namely, that mathematics, while aristocratic, is more or less coldly meritocratic, and thus is aristocratic mostly in its intellectually noble content. For a brilliant kid from a poor background, mathematics is the most straightforward means of social mobility. Mathematics does not require expensive equipment or facilities or elite social connections. Provided a sufficiently high caliber mind, excelling in mathematics is relatively natural, since one can read on one’s own and solve mathematical problems on one’s own, starting with olympiad style problems at the secondary school level. Though we see plenty of mathematical families, mathematics is not grossly nepotistic as is say acting or offices of political power. In its purist essence, the culture of mathematics reveres genius from wherever he hails and despises any form of ascension based on social connections.
I have observed in those of high mathematical talent a propensity for what I would regard as refined taste in other areas as well, in music, in literature, in politics, and in aesthetics of human beauty as well. Speaking of which, math is widely considered as having the smartest people and being the most g-loaded subject (along with its nearest neighbor theoretical physics), because there is some evidential truth to that, that it is often the mathematicians who are the most versatile. Mathematicians are well known (at least to me) for their often extraordinary foreign language ability, along with what is not infrequently talent in engineering and music as well. So there really is much to suggest towards the bold hypothesis that the man of mathematics is the most ideal of man evolved on earth.
To conclude, I will note that I sincerely empathize with those who have had genuine struggles with mathematics or more extremely, who hate it, let alone appreciate it. By no means should one consider oneself as lesser if one is not good at mathematics as tempting as it may be. Though it is an intellectual pursuit achievements of which lie in the pinnacle of human civilization, there is almost no direct use in it, and the world does not need many mathematicians. In fact, there is, economically based on the very dismal job situation, quite a glut of mathematicians now, which makes it prudent for one to be discouraged from pursuing it as a career if one has not displayed extraordinary gift in the subject. Doing mathematics helps no one directly, but doing engineering or carpentry or nursing surely does, and as someone who has indulged so much in mathematics, I do feel guilty at times from my lack of contribution to the real world. Again, this is why I say that to go into mathematics, one ought to have a really good reason, part of why I have been inspired to write this post.