I should be blogging about useful stuff, like my workshop on Dialog that is coming up soon in Barcelona, as part of ESSLLI 2015. But this week by a coincidence there are two great and very different mathematicians making rounds on the interwebs.
One in the Guardian, the other on the New York Times Magazine. Both profiles are very well-written. The mathematicians also write very well, a big bonus.
Guardian has John Conway, and Andre Joyal just talked about his category of games in WOLLIC 2015, which I helped to organize. I saw Conway a few times in DPMMS in Cambridge, but never talked to him. He was already a big name and I was a shy young phd student and he soon departed for the US.
But there are several other players that appear in the article that I remember well. Prof Cassell's was the head of department when I arrived. Simon Norton was always in the common room and the backgammon ladder was the center of life, the universe and everything. I kept my distance, of course.
The other mathematician is Terry Tao in the New York Times. I only saw/heard Tao once, when he got a prize from Stanford and was around for several lectures. He was every bit as impressive as I expected.
Two different kinds of mathematicians, different styles indeed.
Love the Conway humble brag joke, not quite self-deprecating, but almost so “I do have a big ego! As I often say, modesty is my only vice. If I weren’t so modest, I’d be perfect.”
Love the down-to-earth, we can-do-this style of Tao, "The ancient art of mathematics, Tao has discovered, does not reward speed so much as patience, cunning and, perhaps most surprising of all, the sort of gift for collaboration and improvisation that characterizes the best jazz musicians. Tao now believes that his younger self, the prodigy who wowed the math world, wasn’t truly doing math at all." Tao, I think, then meant to quote Lockheart's Lament, but the quote didn't quite make it, a shame.
But I think I liked best the Charles Fefferman quote on this article "The steady state of mathematical research is to be completely stuck. It is a process that Charles Fefferman of Princeton, himself a onetime math prodigy turned Fields medalist, likens to ‘‘playing chess with the devil.’’ The rules of the devil’s game are special, though: The devil is vastly superior at chess, but, Fefferman explained, you may take back as many moves as you like, and the devil may not. You play a first game, and, of course, ‘‘he crushes you.’’ So you take back moves and try something different, and he crushes you again, ‘‘in much the same way.’’ If you are sufficiently wily, you will eventually discover a move that forces the devil to shift strategy; you still lose, but — aha! — you have your first clue." This just about takes me back to the picture of one of the first posts in this blog. Indeed, we fight it!