Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Sacred Genius

I recently finished The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biography of S. Ramanujan, but really also a partial biography of G. H. Hardy--two early 20th century mathematicians who changed the world of mathematics, and less directly the world we live in, through their groundbreaking work. Hardy lived a full life of involvement with mathematics, politics, sports, but not romance that there is record of. Ramanujan lived a life nearly consumed by mathematics--at least when he could keep himself and his family fed enough for him to take the leisure of mathematics. He lived a spartan life because he seemed to desire no more.

A friend brought to my attention (via The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt) an analysis of 19th century, American communal movements. The conclusion drawn was that movements survived proportionately to the amount of sacrifice required by the movement. It didn't work for secular movements, though. Without the 'sacra' of sacrifice, the deprivations didn't have the motivating power to help people work together over extended time.

I have grown up around mathematicians. Specifically serious researchers into pure mathematics. No fiddling around with the minutiae of applied mathematics to make beautiful theorems fit real world numbers. They are an odd bunch. I don't mean odd as in socially awkward or standoffish. They have a whole spectrum of personalities and inclinations. But when you get a glimpse of their working lives, of what goes on in their minds in their spare time, it is something unusual. Have you ever watched three men spending an evening working together by sitting around the living room, pad and pencil in hand, each staring at different sets of line drawings on their papers, not talking to each other for minutes at a time? The whole room silent, but if you say hello only two of them will notice and the third might not register the new sound? That's not typical even of the mathematicians I know, but it's also not unheard of.

Like most kids, I wanted to grow up to be a Nobel Prize winning scientist, or a sports star, or president, or something. I'm pretty sure scientist was most often top of the list, but definitely a scientist who discovered great things. That's not what I have become. I've become a teacher, a dabbler in many things, a consultant on modest research, and a father who spends a lot of time at home. I entertain myself with ordinary things and I'm good at wasting time and energy. But I get stuff done. I do some things very well.

I have no idea what my IQ is. I honestly don't see how it matters what anyone's IQ is if you aren't a researcher trying to understand trends in human development or societal development. I'm sure there are people with higher IQs than our great discoverers who have never done anything worth mention in a history book. Smart is good, but only one element in genius. Maybe I'm smart enough to be a genius. Maybe my kids are smart enough to be geniuses. But do I want to be? Do I want them to be?

From what I have seen of genius, it requires great sacrifice. Whether an atheist like Hardy or a devout Hindu like Ramanujan, both treated mathematics like a holy calling. It inspired them to forsake other pursuits, just as it has to some degree in all the mathematical researchers I have known. Yet both missed out on a depth of family life that I love. Genius seems to require living within a world that separates you from others, sets you apart, makes your life holy. But being apart comes at a cost. I love the fruits of the geniuses that have blessed my life. I enjoy those fruits daily, nearly constantly. Yet I don't know if I feel any calling strongly enough to make the sacrifices of genius, and I don't know if I want to. I don't know if I want my kids to. I just don't know.

No comments:

Post a Comment