A revisit of the drama behind the Poincaré

I recall back in 2008, when I first cared enough to learn about mathematicians, I read a fair bit of the media articles on the proof of the Poincaré conjecture. At that time, I was clueless about math, and these mathematicians seemed to me like these otherworldly geniuses. I do remember thinking once to myself that maybe it would be kind of cool to part of that world. Except at that time, I was way too dumb, and maybe I still am. However, now I actually have some idea of what math research is about, unlike back then, when my conception of math and mathematicians was more of a naive popular one.

Naturally, from that I learned about Shing-Tung Yau. I probably read that Manifold Destiny article by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber that Yau was furious with, in response to which he hired a lawyer and had a PR site created for him to counter the libel (as perceived by him). That was pretty entertaining to read about.

The more I learned about math, about mathematicians, about how the world works, about the Chinese math establishment, and about Chinese language (which I’m pretty fluent with by now), the more accurately and deeply I could understand and thus appreciate all this. In particular, now that I know a little about Riemann surfaces, I feel closer to that rarefied world. I also read a fair bit in Chinese about that feud between Yau and Tian, which was also quite entertaining. If some of that stuff is actually true, then academia, even in its supposedly purest, hardest, and more meritocratic subject, is kind of fucked up.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of talking with a Harvard math undergrad who is also an IMO gold medalist. And we both mentioned Yau. 😉

What can I say about all the politics and fight for credit over whole Poincaré conjecture? Surely, it was kind of nasty. It’s fair to say that Yau was pissed (or at least disappointed) that his school (of Chinese mathematicians) lost to this lone Russian Jew. Maybe in some years time, I’ll be able to judge for myself, but for now, it seems like Perelman’s proof was correct from the start and that what Cao and Zhu, along with the other two teams of two did were merely verification and exposition of Perelman’s result. Of course, attributing a proof entirely to an individual is somewhat misleading, because anyone who knows how math works knows that any proof of a big theorem employs sophisticated machinery and theory developed by predecessors. I’ve studied enough math now to recognize to some degree the actual substance, that is, what is genuinely original, versus what is merely derivative. In the case of Perelman, they say he was using the Ricci flow developed by Hamilton. I’ve encountered many times that in learning, it is much harder to learn about a topic I have little exposure to vastly different from anything I’ve seen before than to learn what is structurally similar (albeit different in its presentation and perhaps also level of generality) to something I had thought about deeply myself already, or at least seen.

Aside from the Poincaré, the focus of that New Yorker article, the authors of it also made it seem as if Lian, Liu, and Yau stole Givental’s proof of mirror symmetry as well about a decade earlier. After all, Givental published first. I suspected that might have been the case. The narrative even made it seem somewhat like Givental was this super genius whose arguments were somewhat beyond the comprehension of Lian, Liu, and Yau, who struggled to replicate his work. Maybe because I still see, or at least saw, Jews as deeper and more original than Chinese are. Again, I still know too little, but it does seem like Jews have contributed much more to math at the high end even in recent years, say, the past three decades.

Well, I found a writing on that doctoryau website by Bong Lian and Kefeng Liu documenting the flaws and deficiencies in Givental’s paper. It looked pretty thorough and detailed, with many objections. The most memorable one was

p18: Proposition 7.1. There was just one sentence in the proof. “It can be obtained by a straightforward calculation quite analogous to that in ‘[2]’.” Here ‘[2]’ was a 228-page long paper of Dubrovin.

And I checked that that was indeed true in Givental’s paper. This certainly discredited Givental much in my eyes. It’s like: how the fuck do you prove a proposition by saying it’s a straightforward calculation analogous to one in… a 228-page paper!!!!!!!!

Not just that. There is also

p27: Proposition 9.6. In the middle of its proof, a sentence read “It is a half of the geometrical argument mentioned above.” It’s not clear what this was referring to (above where? which half?)


p30: Proposition 9.9. This was about certain uniqueness property of the recursion relations. The proof was half a sentence “Now it is easy to check” But, again since we couldn’t check, it’s hard to tell if it was easy or not

So basically at least three times Givental proves with “it’s trivial,” once based on analogy with a 228-page paper.

There are far from all. There are many more instances of Givental’s arguing what Lian-Liu-Yau could not follow, according to that document, the list in which is also, according to its authors, who advise strongly the reader to “examine Givental’s paper make an informed judgment for himself”, “not meant to be exhaustive.” So they’ve listed 11 gaps in that paper, one of which is glaringly obvious of a rather ridiculous nature even to one who knows not the slightest about mathematics! And they suggest there is more that, to my guess, may be much more minor that they omitted in that document so as to avoid dilution.

I’ve noticed it’s often the Chinese scientists who have a bad reputation for plagiarism, made more believable by the dearth of first-rate science out of Chinese scientists in China, though that seems to be changing lately. On the latter, many Chinese are quite embarrassed about their not having won a homegrown Nobel Prize (until Tu Youyou in 2015 for what seemed to be more of a trial-and-error, as opposed to creative, discovery) or Fields Medal. On the other hand, I’ve also heard some suspicions that it’s the Jews who are nepotistic with regard to tenure decisions and prize lobbying in science, and what Givental did in that paper surely does not reflect well. I used to think that math and theoretical physics, unlike the easier and more collaborative fields in STEM (with many working in a lab or on an engineering project), revere almost exclusively individual genius and brilliance, but it turns out that to succeed nowadays typically involves recommendations from some super famous person, at Connes attests to here (on page 32), not surprising once one considers the sheer scarcity of positions. Now I can better understand why Grothendieck was so turned off by the mathematical community, where according to him, the ethics have “declined to the point that outright theft among colleagues (especially at the expenses of those who are in no position to defend themselves) has nearly become a general rule.” More reason why I still hesitate to go all out on a career in mathematics. It can get pretty nasty for a career with low pay and probability of job security, and I could with my talents make much more impact elsewhere. One could even say that unequivocally, one who can drastically increase the number of quality math research positions (not ridden with too many hours of consuming duties not related to the research) would do more to progress mathematics than any individual genius.

I’ll conclude with some thoughts of mine on this Olympiad math that I’ve lost interest in that many mathematicians express low opinion of, though it clearly has value as a method of talent encouragement and selection at the early stage, with many Fields Medalists having been IMO medalists, usually gold. I recall Yau had criticized the system of Olympiad math in China, where making its version of MOSP gives one a free ticket to Beida and Qinghua, as a consequence of which many parents force or at least pressure their kids into Olympiad math prep courses as early as elementary school. Even there, several of the IMO gold medalists have become distinguished mathematicians. I have in mind Zhiwei Yun, Xinyi Yuan, and Xuhua He, all speakers at this year’s ICM. So the predictive power of IMO holds for the Chinese just as well as for the non-Chinese. I personally believe that Olympiad math is beneficial for technical training, though surely, the actual mathematical content in it is not that inspiring or even ugly to one who knows some real math, though for many gifted high schoolers, it’s probably the most exciting stuff they’ve seen. I do think though that one seriously interested in mathematics would have nothing to lose from ignoring that stuff if one goes about the actual math the right way.

It’s kind of funny. A few days ago when I brought up on a chat group full of MOSP/IMO alumni that now, almost half of the top 100 on the Putnam (HM and higher) are Chinese, one math PhD quite critical of math contests was like: “ST Yau would weep.” Well, I don’t think ST Yau actually regards Olympiad math as a bad thing (half tongue-in-cheek, I even remarked on that chat that doing math contests (as a high schooler) is much better than doing drugs). Many of the Olympiad/Putnam high scorers do quite well, and in some cases spectacularly so, in math research. One point I shall make about them is that they are, unlike research, a 100% fair contest. Moreover, the Putnam, which I placed a modest top 500 on, solving three problems, has problems which do not require specialized technical training as do the inequalities and synthetic geometry problems in Olympiad math that have elegant solutions. On that, I have wondered based on their current dominance of those contests: could it be that at the far tail, the Chinese (who did not actually create the scientific tradition themselves) are actually smarter than the others, including the Jews? Could it be that the Chinese are actually somewhat disadvantaged job placement and recognition wise in math academia out of a relative lack of connections and also cultural bias? What I saw in that sound and unobjectionable rebuttal of Givental’s paper, in contrast to what was presented in the media, only makes this hypothesis more plausible. I am not denying that Givental did not make a critical contribution to the proof of mirror symmetry. That he did, along with some other predecessors, seems to be well acknowledged in the series of papers by Lian-Liu-Yau later that actually gave the first rigorous, complete proof of mirror symmetry. Idea wise, I read that Lian-Liu-Yau did something significant with so called Euler data, and though not qualified to judge myself, I have every reason to believe that to be the case for now.

Cauchy’s integral formula in complex analysis

I took a graduate course in complex analysis a while ago as an undergraduate. However, I did not actually understand it well at all, to which is a testament that much of the knowledge vanished very quickly. It pleases me though now following some intellectual maturation, after relearning certain theorems, they seem to stick more permanently, with the main ideas behind the proof more easily understandably clear than mind-disorienting, the latter of which was experienced by me too much in my early days. Shall I say it that before I must have been on drugs of something, because frankly the way about which I approached certain things was frankly quite weird, and in retrospect, I was in many ways an animal-like creature trapped within the confines of an addled consciousness oblivious and uninhibited. Almost certainly never again will I experience anything like that. Now, I can only mentally rationalize the conscious experience of a mentally inferior creature but such cannot be experienced for real. It is almost like how an evangelical cannot imagine what it is like not to believe in God, and even goes as far as to contempt the pagan. Exaltation, exhilaration was concomitant with the leap of consciousness till it not long after established its normalcy.

Now, the last of non-mathematical writing in this post will be on the following excerpt from Grothendieck’s Récoltes et Semailles:

In those critical years I learned how to be alone. [But even] this formulation doesn’t really capture my meaning. I didn’t, in any literal sense learn to be alone, for the simple reason that this knowledge had never been unlearned during my childhood. It is a basic capacity in all of us from the day of our birth. However these three years of work in isolation [1945–1948], when I was thrown onto my own resources, following guidelines which I myself had spontaneously invented, instilled in me a strong degree of confidence, unassuming yet enduring, in my ability to do mathematics, which owes nothing to any consensus or to the fashions which pass as law….By this I mean to say: to reach out in my own way to the things I wished to learn, rather than relying on the notions of the consensus, overt or tacit, coming from a more or less extended clan of which I found myself a member, or which for any other reason laid claim to be taken as an authority. This silent consensus had informed me, both at the lycée and at the university, that one shouldn’t bother worrying about what was really meant when using a term like “volume,” which was “obviously self-evident,” “generally known,” “unproblematic,” etc….It is in this gesture of “going beyond,” to be something in oneself rather than the pawn of a consensus, the refusal to stay within a rigid circle that others have drawn around one—it is in this solitary act that one finds true creativity. All others things follow as a matter of course.

Since then I’ve had the chance, in the world of mathematics that bid me welcome, to meet quite a number of people, both among my “elders” and among young people in my general age group, who were much more brilliant, much more “gifted” than I was. I admired the facility with which they picked up, as if at play, new ideas, juggling them as if familiar with them from the cradle—while for myself I felt clumsy, even oafish, wandering painfully up an arduous track, like a dumb ox faced with an amorphous mountain of things that I had to learn (so I was assured), things I felt incapable of understanding the essentials or following through to the end. Indeed, there was little about me that identified the kind of bright student who wins at prestigious competitions or assimilates, almost by sleight of hand, the most forbidding subjects.

In fact, most of these comrades who I gauged to be more brilliant than I have gone on to become distinguished mathematicians. Still, from the perspective of thirty or thirty-five years, I can state that their imprint upon the mathematics of our time has not been very profound. They’ve all done things, often beautiful things, in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they’ve remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have had to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birthright, as it was mine: the capacity to be alone.

Grothendieck was first known to me the dimwit in a later stage of high school. At that time, I was still culturally under the idiotic and shallow social constraints of an American high school, though already visibly different, unable to detach too much from it both intellectually and psychologically. There is quite an element of what I now in recollection with benefit of hindsight can characterize as a harbinger of unusual aesthetic discernment, one exercised and already vaguely sensed back then though lacking in reinforcement in social support and confidence, and most of all, in ability. For at that time, I was still much of a species in mental bondage, more often than not driven by awe as opposed to reason. In particular, I awed and despaired at many a contemporary of very fine range of myself who on the surface appeared to me so much more endowed and quick to grasp and compute, in an environment where judgment of an individual’s capability is dominated so much more so by scores and metrics, as opposed to substance, not that I had any of the latter either.

Vaguely, I recall seeing the above passage once in high school articulated with so much of verbal richness of a height that would have overwhelmed and intimidated me at the time. It could not be understood by me how Grothendieck, this guy considered by many as greatest mathematician of the 20th century, could have actually felt dumb. Though I felt very dumb myself, I never fully lost confidence, sensing a spirit in me that saw quite differently from others, that was far less inclined to lose himself in “those invisible and despotic circles” than most around me. Now, for the first time, I can at least subjectively feel identification with Grothendieck, and perhaps I am still misinterpreting his message to some extent, though I surely feel far less at sea with respect to that now than before.

Later I had the fortune to know personally one who gave a name to this implicit phenomenon, aesthetic discernment. It has been met with ridicule as a self-congratulatory achievement one of lesser formal achievement, a concoction of a failure in self-denial. Yet on the other hand, I have witnessed that most people are too carried away in today’s excessively artificially institutionally credentialist society that they lose sight of what is fundamentally meaningful, and sadly, those unperturbed by this ill are few and fewer. Finally, I have reflected on the question of what good is knowledge if too few can rightly perceive it. Science is always there and much of it of value remains unknown to any who has inhabited this planet, and I will conclude at that.

So, one of the theorems in that class was of course Cauchy’s integral formula, one of the most central tools in complex analysis. Formally,

Let D be a bounded domain with piecewise smooth boundary. If f(z) is analytic on D, and f(z) extends smoothly to the boundary of D, then

f(z) = \frac{1}{2\pi i}\int_{\partial D} \frac{f(w)}{w-z}dw,\qquad z \in D. \ \ \ \ (1)

This theorem was actually somewhat elusive to me. I would learn it, find it deceptively obvious, and then forget it eventually, having to repeat this cycle. I now ask how one would conceive of this theorem. On that, we first observe that by continuity, we can show that the average on a circle will go to its value at the center as the radius goes to zero. With dw = i\epsilon e^{i\theta}d\theta, we can with the w - z in the denominator, vanish out any factor of f(z + \epsilon e^{i\theta}) in the integrand. From this, we have the result if D sufficiently small circle. Even with this, there is implicit Cauchy’s integral theorem, the one which states that integral of holomorphic function inside on closed curve is zero. Speaking of which, we can extend to any bounded domain with piecewise smooth boundary along the same principle.

Cauchy’s integral formula is powerful when the integrand is bounded. We have already seen this in Montel’s theorem. In another even simpler case, in Riemann’s theorem on removable singularities, we can with our upper bound on the integrand M, establish with M / r^n establish that for n < 0, the coefficient in the Laurent series about the point is a_n = 0.

This integral formula extends to all derivatives by differentiating. Inductively, with uniform convergence of the integrand, one can show that

f^{(m)}(z) = \frac{m!}{2\pi i}\int_{\partial D} \frac{f(w)}{(w-z)^{m+1}}dw, \qquad z \in D, m \geq 0.

An application of this for a bounded entire function would be to contour integrate along an arbitrarily large circle to derive an n!M / R^n upper bound (which goes to 0 as R \to \infty) on the derivatives. This gives us Liouville’s theorem, which states that bounded entire functions are constant, by Taylor series.


Why mathematics

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.

My awesome roommate

I recently met this cool guy because we live in the same place. Though he’s not that nerdy (by that, I mean super mathy), we still share many common interests. For instance, he expressed interest when I told him a bit about 艾思奇(Ai Siqi). Additionally, he told me about his appreciation for André Weil and Simone Weil, particularly her mysticism, which I found quite pleasing as I was reading about them not long ago. He also told me about this guy who is trying to understand Mochizuki’s “proof” of the abc conjecture despite being not long out of undergrad, who has plenty of other quirks and eccentric behaviors. Like, that guy joined some Marxist collective, and goes on drunken rants at 3 am, and is in general “aspie af,” something that he described me as too when messaging that guy himself. There is also: “he would literally kill himself if he had to do a tech job.” (laughter) That guy’s dad happens to be a (tenured) math professor from mainland China, more evidence that madness runs in families.

The guy that is the topic of this post himself did up to high school, as far as I know, in Hong Kong, so we have some more in common than usual culturally I guess. He was just telling me about how he had read 矛盾论, which I haven’t even read, at least not in detail, myself. He was saying, on the putative connection between scientific talent and Marxism, perhaps how dialectical materialism is inherently a very scientific way of thinking. I myself know basically nothing about dialectical materialism and even think it’s kind of high verbal low math bullshit, but I can tell that the materialist side of it is very scientific in its very nature, and similarly, dialectics is a very analogies/relationships way of thinking, which is something that high IQ people are by definition good at. Surely, there is much more I can learn from this guy, especially about Chinese language and culture and politics.

On this, I am reminded of another amateur (but professional, or better, level for sure) Marxist scholar, who is genuinely encyclopedic in his historical and cultural knowledge, in particularly a perceptive quote of him that made a deep impression on me:

Europe has always been in rebellion against itself, and continues to be so.  There was nothing but futility in the attempt by superficially Westernised Chinese to be authentically Westernised Chinese by being imitative and reverential of the current embodiment of those values.  You could only be an authentically Westernised Chinese by being a rebel against the current embodiments of Western values, at least in as far as they hampered China or seemed to be irrelevant.  And that’s why Mao was China’s best Westerniser to date, despite his very limited experience of the mundanities of Western life.

As I’ll detail in a future article, visitors to the Chinese Communist bases at Bao’an and later Yen’an noticed that these were the only Chinese in China who behaved more or less as Westerners would have behaved in a similar situation.  Other Chinese might speak good English, wear Western suits and sometimes show considerable knowledge of Western culture: but it was all imitation and the inner core was different and ineffective.  Western-trained engineers and geologists who returned to China kept their distance from hands-on practical work, because anything resembling manual labour would have lost them status in the eyes of Chinese intellectuals.  They were imprisoned by a tradition stretching back to Confucius and beyond.  Only a few broke these ancient taboos, mostly the Communists and some scattered left-wingers in the weak middle ground.  And it was the modernised Chinese in the Communist Party who chose to raise up Mao as the prime teacher of this new understanding.

I remember when my obsessively talented Russian friend once said to me that sometimes he feels like he’s another Pavel Korchagin, I thought he was ridiculous. Well, I’ll be equally ridiculous and say that I feel like I very much exhibit what Gwydion described in Mao that is “authentically Westernized Chinese,” which is very much the antithesis of what I see in most ABCs, despite being half an ABC myself.

If only more people could be like me…


Oleg is one of my ubermensch Soviet (and also part Jewish) friends. He has placed at (or at least near) the top on the most elite of math contests. He is now a math PhD student with an advisor even crazier than he is, who he says sometimes makes him feel bad, because he has done too little math research wise. However, this persona alone is not that rare. Oleg’s sheer impressiveness largely stems from that on top of this, he is a terrific athlete, extremely buff and coordinated, enough that he can do handstand pushups, to the extent that he regards such as routine. Yes, it is routine for a guy contending for a spot on a legit gymnastics team, but you wouldn’t expect this from a math nerd huh?

Today, I was talking to him and some others about gym. In particular, I was saying how I could at one point do 10 pullups but dropped down to 2 after a long hiatus. The conversation went as follows:

Me: Oleg I’m back to 5 pull-ups now
Oleg: that’s good although make sure you’re doing them for real
i still don’t believe you could do 10 but then dropped down to 2
Me: Oh I’m very sure they’re full pullups
Okay maybe it was 8
Oleg: i’d like to see evidence
Me: Alright I’ll have someone videotape me do pullups today in gym

And so I did.

Later, Oleg suggested something pretty funny:

i still think you should get tattoos and gain 25 lb of muscle, that would be hilarious
then walk up to girls and ask about their SAT scores
and say “oh, that’s too low, i don’t want to breed babies with you”
followed by a cackle
i’d watch that show

Not surprisingly, Oleg, as buff as he is, has had some success with girls, though he regards himself as shy and struggling in that regard. I keep telling him that he needs to marry a girl who’s both super smart and attractive like he is, so that he can optimize his chance of making superhuman babies. His only disadvantage now is that he’s a poor math PhD student, but he can easily change that by, say, joining DE Shaw, from what I’ve read is full of uber nerdy macho Eastern European men. He’s not very interested in money though, and expresses content with his graduate student stipend, which I find laughable.

I find it regrettable that most ubermensch men smart enough for legit doctoral programs in math and physics are unable to find a mate who is commensurate with them, ability wise, even with some adjustments, even when they’re well-rounded like Oleg is. Why is this? Excessive Aspergers? On that, I know someone who will say along the lines of

in an actual long-term relationship you have to share most of your life with the person, and if they don’t understand the way you look at the world then it creates friction
sure, the girl doesn’t need to understand high energy physics, I have other friends for that

Maybe some females could give us some advice, other than the cliche “hit the gym” that you’ll often hear from males. Such would be much appreciated! 😉

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.

Math vs engineering

I am currently a full time software engineer. I don’t really like the work and I mostly find it draining though I guess I’m not bad at it, though I’m definitely not great. Much of it is process and understanding of requirements and the specific codebase (that includes the tools it uses), which is more often than not not fun at all though I find it more tolerable now. It pays well but is low status, as Michael O Church loves to say. The work is rather lowbrow by STEM standards. I was thinking that it loads not very highly on g (at least line of business engineering) but rather highly on conscientiousness and ability to grind. The people who excel are at it are those who can do that type of work for long hours and not feel tired, and often ones who have the genes to sleep 5 hours a day and still be fine. It’s not a very attractive or sexy ability, but it is a very useful and respectable one. One of my colleagues spent 4 years working on FPGAs just to design one chip and he said after that experience, he’s not gonna do anything related to chip design again. I know that chip design is much more technically involved, much higher barrier to entry, and is actually the hardest to replicate part of computing. Anybody can build a website but only a few places have the expertise and infrastructure to make a good CPU. The latter requires a sophisticated industrial process, the fabrication part, which involves much advanced applied physics, none of which I know. I’ve heard that because fabs are a physical constraint which run in cycle, it is imperative to meet deadlines, which means you need the types who can pull all-nighters, who can toil day in day out in the lab on very detail oriented work (that’s often grindy, not artsy or beautiful like math is) with little room for error. It also pays less than software engineering, for obvious economic reasons. On this note, I recall adults knowledgeable were telling me not to major in EE because there are few jobs in it now. Electronics is design once mass produce. So many of them have been outsourced.

Engineering is hard hard work. Not intellectually hard (though there is that aspect of it too in some of it), but grindily hard. Plumbing is inevitable, and you have to deal with some dirty complexity. You need a very high level of stamina and of some form of pain tolerance that I don’t regard myself as very high in, though I’ve improved substantially. It’s not a coincidence that engineering is what makes the big bucks, for individuals (somewhat) and for economies (or execs in them). Rich countries are the ones who can sell high end engineering products like cars and CPUs.

Mathematics, theoretical science, on the other hand, is much more about abstraction of the form that requires a higher level of consciousness. Math and theoretical physics are far more g-loaded than engineering is and attracts smarter people, a different breed of personality, those with a more intellectual upper class vibe that I see largely absent in software engineering. These are used in engineering, but in it, they are merely tools with the focus being on design and on practical application, with cost as a major consideration. It is like how in physics, there is much mathematics used, but because math is just a tool for it, physicists can be sloppy with their math. Pure theoretical science is much more deep and far less collective and organizationally complex, with a pronounced culture of reverence for individual genius and brilliance. There is also an emphasis on beauty and on some pure elevation of the human spirit in this type of pure thought.

I myself am by nature much more in the theoretical category though I am for now in the practical one, pressured into it by economic circumstances, which I am looking to leave. I will say though that I have derived some satisfaction and confidence from having some practical skills and from having done some things which others find directly useful, as well as having endured some pain so I know what that feels like. In the unlikely case that I actually make it as a mathematician, I can say that unlike most of my colleagues I didn’t spend my entire life in the ivory tower and actually suffered a bit in the real world. I can thereby be more down-to-earth, as opposed to the intellectual snob that I am. I will say though that I do genuinely respect those who are stimulated by engineering enough to do it 24-7 even in their spare time. I don’t think I will ever be able to experience that by my very makeup. However, I do at least suspect that I am capable of experiencing to some extent a higher world that most of those guys fail to, which should bring me some consolation.