Some thoughts and historical background on those stereotypes of Asian scientists not having that rock the boat creativity personality conducive to “zero to one” work

I wrote this to Steve Hsu after he discussed the matter in the title of this post to me.

I saw a wechat moment involving 吴文俊 Wu Wenjun who did seminal work in algebraic topology and later automated theorem proving who I mentioned.
The Chinese who first did seminal work in modern science tended to be in pure math the field that is aside from a brain at the far tail arguably lowest barrier to entry. In theoretical physics the arbiter is experimental validation so there is more politics/connections/cred involved whereas for pure math if the proof is correct then it’s absolute truth.
Before 1950 Chinese in pure math already produced SS Chern (differential geometry) Hua Luogeng (analytic number theory and some other fields too to be fair he may well have been smarter and also more discerning than Terry Tao) Weiliang Chow (algebraic geometry) Wu Wenjun (algebraic topology), Chern and Chow stayed in US after PRC was founded while Hua and Wu returned. Hua’s student Chen Jingrun proved best current result towards Goldbach conjecture (every sufficiently large even number is sum of two primes or sum of prime and semiprime). I read that he and his students in the 50s in China did some seminal work in several complex variables that was published as a monograph that was translated to Russian and then English. Also Zhang Yitang’s breakthrough started with his learning the work of Chen Jingrun as a teenager on his own before he went to college at age 23.
To be fair pure math got only more abstract and esoteric and divorced from the rest of science after WWII. Chinese mathematicians were still kind of minor the really mainstream stuff was happening in US France USSR Japan. To my take it was really only Chern who really revolutionized math and he was born in 1911.
As for physics aside from Yang and Lee in theory I know there was a guy 赵忠尧 who experimentally discovered but likely didn’t fully explain the positron in the early 30s (at Caltech I believe), I think he had to go back to China after getting his PhD and if not for that likely he would’ve done more there and maybe actually gotten full credit for that thing. Back then there was just much more low hanging fruit. Nowadays we’ve kind of reached a bottleneck in science.
In experimental physics I also know of 王淦昌 who led a team that discovered some particle while in USSR in late 50s but it was not quite Nobel prize level maybe close. And of course there were some ethnic Chinese in US like Steven Chu who did win Nobel in experimental physics.
Certainly it was very difficult to do such level work in China or in the four Asian tigers due to lack of powerful scientific community at the forefront in those places. I think Japan was different after WWII they already had first rate science of their own by then. So naturally the best Chinese in pure science were the ones who went to US and stayed before PRC or went the Taiwan/HK route afterward. Mainland China really only had access to USSR in 50s and also during that era the best people tended to be pressured into applied work.
Again the era of fundamental advances seems to be kind of over. There hasn’t been much serious breakthrough in science and technology since end of cold war. World Wide Web and AI doesn’t really count in my view. Nothing compared to semiconductors and satellites and computers and lasers which all happened during cold war. AI is just a natural product of advances in computing power and GPUs.
My Indian friend also said that Indians did better in pure physics than Chinese due to Brit education. CV Raman Bose Chandrasekhar their elite got into modern science arguably earlier than the Japanese too let alone the Chinese. Modern science is a Western thing East Asians just got into it quite late with Chinese much later than Japanese and Koreans even later really.
Access and tradition matters a lot too it’s not just about g or the right maverick personality. It’s just too bad that East Asians didn’t create modern science or anything close to it on their own despite obviously being quite gifted in it based on their achievements after they got into that stuff. But not long after it became kind of saturated.
You’re free to publish this on your blog credit me for it of course.
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May Day in China

In China, people have May 1st thru May 4th off. Because of that, I am meeting some people and also taking some time to wind down. There is also that May 4th 2019 is the 100th anniversary of that May 4th Movement back in 1919 which was crucial towards the founding of communist party, etc, and we are seeing some stuff on TV with Xi Jinping and other high up party people in relation to that.

I won’t go much into the background of that, not that I know too much about it. Basically, it was a protest out of the decision in the Versailles Treaty to hand over the colonies in Shandong (Qingdao in particular) relinquished by Germany to Japan instead. I’m not all that clear as to what happened in the end, I believe China was able to win back those places but with some heavy price. The movement was crucial towards the beginning of “Marxism” in China with people like 李大钊, 蔡元培, etc.

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Fun with Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer is an epitome of all that’s wrong with Silicon Valley, and the world at large, increasingly influenced by it, culturally, in quite an undesirable way. She is an obvious pseudo-nerd (where here, nerd = really smart talented honest technical person) posing as one for marketing, like much of the SillyCon Valley elite. I’m not being “sexist,” for all that James Damore has triggered. There are women who are genuinely technically competent with good character, and Marissa does not seem to belong in that category. I had to be reminded of her again. How?

Well, I talk frequently with this girl who did undergrad (in CS and math) at MIT, who is now at Uber. She’s not that nerdy though.

In a group chat, she was like:
sigh it makes me worried about planning on staying at uber for 4 years
An uber (no-pun intended) nerd guy responds:
it’s ok to stay at one company if your career is actually progressing
if not then you should leave
Her:
i just wanna get promoted and then leave
but it’ll probably take all 4 years
Me (tongue-in-cheek, for those too autistic to detect sarcasm):
Her name why don’t you become the Marissa Mayer of Uber instead
The same uber nerd:
nobody likes Marissa Mayer
Another guy:
i think my name just noticed that they’re both female
with his superior pattern-matching mind
Me:

Uber nerd’s name, if you could, would you do Marissa Mayer

Him:
idk, she’s old
The other guy:
uber nerd’s name needs someone to intellectually stimulate him

Face recognition in China

I recently learned that face recognition, led by unicorns SenseTime and Megvii, has reached the level of accuracy and comprehensiveness that it is percolating into retail and banking, and moreover police are using it to detect suspects, or so various media articles say, like this one. Just Google “face recognition china.” I’m both surprised and impressed. Of course, in hindsight, what they did was mostly collect, aggregate, and organize enough data to train the deep learning models to the level that they can be put to production. The Chinese government has, after all, resident identity cards for all Chinese citizens with photos. I was certainly somewhat envious of the people involved in that in China, and I feel like such a failure compared to them, and that my life has been so boring and uneventful in comparison. Of course, whether I’m suited to do deep learning is another matter. After playing a bit with neural nets, including on the canonical MNIST data set, I sure was disappointed, and I understood immediately why this guy, who is doing a machine learning PhD at Stanford, had said to me that deep learning is very engineering heavy. I wish I had the enthusiasm and motivation for stuff like GPUs. As for that, all I’ve done was play with CUDA in a way so minor almost as if I did absolutely nothing. Again I don’t see myself as terribly suited towards engineering (I’m too much a purist at heart), but I might eventually be compelled to become interested in that, and once I do, I don’t think I’ll do badly. This also makes me wonder what I would’ve ended up like had I stayed in China. I’m sure I would’ve been weird there too, though I would also be more like everyone else. I wonder what I would have ended up majoring in there, and what I would’ve ended up doing afterwards. I’d like to think that I would have gotten a much better education and cultural experience there, though of course, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. For instance, in America, Asian quotas means you are judged relative to other Asians, but being in China means that automatically, and China, by virtue of having low resources per capita, is, needless to say, a grossly competitive society with fewer second chances, and thereby even harsher on late bloomers, though surely, the gaokao happens at age 18, whereas in America, grades start necessarily mattering at as early as age 14-5, when many are still very immature. I must acknowledge that as much as I dislike various aspects of the American education system, it is extremely generous, from what I see, relatively speaking, in tolerating failure at a young age. In China, you test into a specific department at a university, and once you’re in, it’s very hard to change, which means some land in majors they end up finding themselves unsuitable for. At age 18, it’s really hard to make such a decision, especially when you don’t really know anything about the actual content of the major, which is usually the case when one is a clueless kid. This is why I say that before you commit officially to an area, always try to learn something about it on your own beforehand to increase confidence that you actually have at least reasonable, and preferably high, talent for it.

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My whole experience with the American school system

I accidentally stuffed my face last night and found myself too uncomfortable from that to do anything productive, to my great disappointment. So I verged onto non-technical topics again, and in particular, I reflected somewhat on my personal experience growing up as a Chinese immigrant kid in America, and I write this with a hope that it might be inspiring to others with a similar background.

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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.

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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 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.

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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. Continue reading “My awesome roommate”

Oleg

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?

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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 +3 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.