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Portrait of Terence Tao [video] (youtube.com)
63 points by bhavishyad 62 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 12 comments

Terence Tao is so incredibly interesting and unpretentious. I've often found that math "geniuses" seem to be the least pretentious of the genius level people in academia/stem and I slightly wonder if that's actually true and if so, why?

He is also incredibly clear -- I've had the chance to hear a couple of his (technical) talks. He does not oversimplify, but has a way to explaining the heart of the issue in non-technical terms so one could follow without being an expert in the specific area being discussed. (Though I'd imagine experts would get even more out of his talks.)

That is no accident.

A requirement for clear speech is clear thinking. Very clear thinking is required to be a successful polymath in a technically challenging field.

In order to accomplish in a technical field, such as math, you need to think very "efficiently". It is possible to do this by spending so long coming up with a mental model of a specific area that your thoughts are efficient, but cannot necessarily be communicated to people except when their mental understanding is a reasonable match to your own.

However you cannot do this simultaneously in a great many areas. Therefore a polymath must find ways to construct models that are both simple and efficient. The underlying simplicity of their understanding then becomes evident in how clearly they can explain a precise understanding of whatever they are talking about.

Well phrased. It's no coincidence that Feynman, another famous polymath, was also famously clear and concise.

I agree with all that, though I also want to add that the converse is not true -- clear thinking is not, by itself, enough for clear exposition. The latter requires investing additional effort, which many people are unwilling or unable to make.

After they finish their work for the day, they have nothing left to prove. (Sorry).

Jokes aside, I think that's exactly it. Mathematicians aren't tempted in the way that others may be in connecting what they do to humanity. Not being in it to cure a disease, build a better mousetrap, or create a triumphant explanation for existence does wonders to keep the ego in check.

Difficulty of mathematics and the fact that they can be wrong can also keep ego in check.

In a related vein, the only debates I've heard where all participants will constantly flip back and forth between opposing positions and earnestly argue for each position before converging on a common understanding (all in the same debate) are discussions of math proofs. I don't know if this generalizes to mathematicians as people, but I find those debates much more fruitful and fun than other debates.


The blog of the man himself: Always fun to read, and especially rewarding if you thought you were familiar with what he's discussing...

The interview is more recent than 2006. The year refers to the year he received fields medal.

Thanks, I think we misread that.

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