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TheSingularMindofTerryTaoTheNewYorkTimes

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TheSingularMindofTerryTao
Aprodigygrowsuptobecomeoneofthegreatestmathematiciansin
theworld.
ByGARETHCOOK

JULY24,2015

ThisApril,asundergraduatesstrolledalongthestreetoutsidehismodest
officeonthecampusoftheUniversityofCalifornia,LosAngeles,the
mathematicianTerenceTaomusedaboutthepossibilitythatwatercould
spontaneouslyexplode.Awidelyusedsetofequationsdescribesthebehavior
offluidslikewater,butthereseemstobenothinginthoseequations,hetold
me,thatpreventsawaywardeddyfromsuddenlyturninginonitself,
tighteningintoanangrygyre,untilthedensityoftheenergyatitscore
becomesinfinite:acatastrophicsingularity.Someonetossingapennyinto
thefountainbythefacultycenterorskippingastoneattheSantaMonica
beachcouldapparentlysetoffachainreactionthatwouldtakeoutSouthern
California.
Thisdoesnttendtohappen.Andyet,Taoexplained,nobodycansay
preciselywhy.Itsadecades
oldconundrum,andTaohasrecentlybeen
workingonanapproachtoasolutiononepartfanciful,onepartoutright
absurd,likesomelostpassagefromAlicesAdventuresinWonderland.
Imagine,hesaid,thatsomeoneawfullyclevercouldconstructamachine
outofpurewater.Itwouldbebuiltnotofrodsandgearsbutfromapatternof
interactingcurrents.Ashetalked,Taocarvedshapesintheairwithhishands,
likeamagician.Nowimagine,hewenton,thatthismachinewereabletomake

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asmaller,fastercopyofitself,whichcouldthenmakeanother,andsoon,until
onehasinfinitespeedinatinyspaceandblowsup.Taowasnotproposing
constructingsuchamachineIdontknowhow!hesaid,laughing.Itwas
merelyathoughtexperiment,ofthesortthatEinsteinusedtodevelopthe
theoryofspecialrelativity.But,Taoexplained,ifhecanshowmathematically
thatthereisnothing,inprinciple,preventingsuchafiendishcontraptionfrom
operating,thenitwouldmeanthatwatercan,infact,explode.Andinthe
process,hewillhavealsosolvedtheNavier
Stokesglobalregularityproblem,
whichhasbecome,sinceitemergedmorethanacenturyago,oneofthemost
importantinallofmathematics.
Tao,whois40,satatadeskbythewindow,paperslyingindriftsatthe
margins.Thinandunassuming,hewasdressedinBirkenstocks,arumpled
bluegraypoloshirtandjeanswiththecuffsturnedup.Behindhim,asmall
almondcouchfacedaglyph
coveredblackboardrunningthelengthofthe
room.Thecouchhadbeenpulledawayfromthewalltoaccommodatethe
beatupTrekbikeheridestowork.Attheroomsotherendstoodafiberboard
bookcasehaphazardlypiledwithbooks,includingCompactnessand
ContradictionandPoincarsLegacies,PartI,twoofthe16volumesTao
haswrittensincehewasateenager.
FamecameearlyforTao,whowasborninSouthAustralia.Anold
headlineinhishometownpaper,TheAdvertiser,reads:TINYTERENCE,7,
ISHIGHSCHOOLWHIZ.TheclippingincludesaphotoofadiminutiveTao
in11thgrademathclass,wearingaVnecksweateroverawhiteturtleneck,
kneelingonhischairsohecanreachadeskheissharingwithagirlmorethan
twicehisage.HisteachertoldthereporterthathehardlytaughtTaoanything,
becauseTaowasalwaysworkingtwolessonsaheadoftheothers.(Taotaught
himselftoreadatage2.)
Afewmonthslater,halfwaythroughtheschoolyear,Taowasmovedupto
12thgrademath.Threeyearslater,atage10,Taobecametheyoungestperson
inhistorytowinamedalintheInternationalMathematicalOlympiad.Hehas

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sincewonmanyotherprizes,includingaMacArthurgeniusgrantandthe
FieldsMedal,consideredtheNobelPrizeformathematicians.Today,many
regardTaoasthefinestmathematicianofhisgeneration.
Thatspringdayinhisoffice,reflectingonhiscareersofar,Taotoldme
thathisviewofmathematicshasutterlychangedsincechildhood.WhenI
wasgrowingup,IknewIwantedtobeamathematician,butIhadnoidea
whatthatentailed,hesaidinaliltingAustralianaccent.Isortofimagineda
committeewouldhandmeproblemstosolveorsomething.Butitturnedout
thattheworkofrealmathematiciansbearslittleresemblancetothe
manipulationsandmemorizationofthemathstudent.Eventhosewho
experiencegreatsuccessthroughtheircollegeyearsmayturnoutnottohave
whatittakes.Theancientartofmathematics,Taohasdiscovered,doesnot
rewardspeedsomuchaspatience,cunningand,perhapsmostsurprisingof
all,thesortofgiftforcollaborationandimprovisationthatcharacterizesthe
bestjazzmusicians.Taonowbelievesthathisyoungerself,theprodigywho
wowedthemathworld,wasnttrulydoingmathatall.Itsasifyouronly
experiencewithmusicwerepracticingscalesorlearningmusictheory,he
said,lookingintolightpouringfromhiswindow.Ididntlearnthedeeper
meaningofthesubjectuntilmuchlater.
PossiblythegreatestmathematiciansinceantiquitywasCarlFriedrich
Gauss,adourGermanborninthelate18thcentury.Hedidnotgetalongwith
hisownchildrenandkeptimportantresultstohimself,seeingthemas
unsuitableforpublicview.Theywerediscoveredamonghispapersafterhis
death.Beforeandsince,theannalsofthefieldhaveteemedwithvariationson
thismisfittheme,fromIsaacNewton,thelonerwithasavagetempertoJohn
Nash,thebeautifulmindwhoseworkshapedeconomicsandevenpolitical
science,butwhowasrackedbyparanoiddelusionsto,morerecently,
Grigory
Perelman,theRussianwhoconqueredthePoincarconjecturealone,then
refusedtheFieldsMedal,andwhoalsoallowedhisfingernailstogrowuntil
theycurled.

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Tao,bycontrast,is,asonecolleagueputit,supernormal.Hehasa
gentle,self
deprecatingmanner.HeeschewsjoboffersfromprestigiousEast
Coastinstitutionsinfavorofarelaxed,nodramadepartmentinaplacewhere
hecanenjoytheweather.Inclass,heconveysasensethatmathematicsisfun.
Oneofhisstudentstoldmethathehadrecentlyjokedwithanotheraboutthe
manywaysTaodefiesalltheHollywoodmad
geniustropes.Theywillnever
makeamovieabouthim,hesaid.Hedoesnthaveatroubledlife.Hehasa
family,andtheyseemhappy,andhesusuallysmiling.
Thiscanbetracedtohisownchildhood,whichheexperiencedassuper
normal,evenif,tooutsideeyes,itwasanythingbut.Taosfamilyspentmostof
hisearlyyearslivinginthefoothillssouthofAdelaide,inabricksplit
level
withviewsofGulfSt.Vincent.Thehomewasdesignedbyhisfather,Billy,a
pediatricianwhoimmigratedwithTaosmother,Grace,fromHongKongin
1972,threeyearsbeforeTao,theeldestofthree,wasbornin1975.Thethree
boysNigel,TrevorandTerry,aseveryonecallshimoftenplayed
together,andafavoritepastimewasinventingboardgames.Theytypically
appropriatedaScrabbleboardforabasicgrid,thenbroughtinScrabbletiles,
chesspieces,Chinesecheckers,mahjonggtilesandDungeons&Dragonsdice,
accordingtoNigel,whonowworksforGoogle.Forstorylines,theyfrequently
drewfromvideogamescomingoutatthetime,likeSuperMarioBros.,then
addedlayersofcomplex,whimsicalrules.(Trevor,ajuniorchesschampion,
wastoogoodtobeat,sotheboyscreatedavariationonthatgameaswell:
Eachturnbeganwithadierolltodeterminewhichpiececouldbemoved.)Tao
wasavoraciousconsumeroffantasybookslikeTerryPratchettsDiscworld
series.Whenaclasswasboring,hedoodledintricatemapsofimaginarylands.
Bythespringof1985,witha9yearoldTaosplittingtimebetweenhigh
schoolandnearbyFlindersUniversity,BillyandGracetookhimonathree
weekAmericantourtoseekadvicefromtopmathematiciansandeducation
experts.OntheBaltimorecampusofJohnsHopkins,theymetwithJulian
Stanley,aGeorgia
bornpsychologistwhofoundedtheCenterforTalented

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Youththere.TaowasoneofthemosttalentedmathstudentsStanleyever
testedat8yearsold,Taoscoreda760onthemathportionoftheSATbut
Stanleyurgedthecoupletokeeptakingthingsslowandgivetheirsons
emotionalandsocialskillstimetodevelop.
Evenatarelativelydeliberatepace,byage17,Taohadfinishedamasters
thesis(ConvolutionOperatorsGeneratedbyRight
MonogenicandHarmonic
Kernels)andmovedtoPrincetonUniversitytostartonhisPh.D.Taos
applicationtotheuniversityincludedaletterfromPaulErdos,therevered
Hungarianmathematician.Iamsurehewilldevelopintoafirstrate
mathematicianandperhapsintoareallygreatone,readErdossbrief,
typewrittennote.Irecommendhiminthehighestpossibleterms.Yeton
arrival,itwasTao,theteenageprodigy,whowasintimidated.DuringTaos
firstyear,AndrewWiles,thenaPrincetonprofessor,announcedthathe
provedFermatsLastTheorem,alegendaryproblemthathadgoneunsolved
formorethanthreecenturies.Taosfellowgraduatestudentsspokeeloquently
aboutmathematicalfieldsofwhichhehadbarelyheard.
Taobecamenotoriousforhisnightshauntingthegraduatecomputer
roomtoplaythehistorical
simulationgameCivilization.(Henowavoids
computergames,hetoldme,becauseofwhathecallsacompletiststreak
thatmakesithardtostopplaying.)Atalocalcomicbookstore,Taometa
circleoffriendswhoplayedMagic:TheGathering,theintricatefantasycard
game.ThiswasTaosfirstrealexperiencehangingoutwithpeoplehisage,but
therewasalsoanelement,headmitted,ofescapingthepressuresofPrinceton.
Giftedchildrenoftenavoidchallengesatwhichtheymightnotexcel.Before
TaowenttoPrinceton,hisgradeshadflaggedatFlinders.Inacourseon
quantumphysics,theinstructortoldtheclassthatthefinalwouldincludean
essayonthehistoryofthefield.Tao,then12,blewoffstudying,andwhenhe
satdownfortheexam,hewasstunnedtodiscoverthattheessaywouldcount
forhalfthegrade.Iremembercrying,Taosaid,andtheproctorhadto
escortmeout.Hefailed.

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AtPrinceton,crisiscameintheformofthegenerals,awide
ranging,
arduousoralexaminationadministeredbythreeprofessors.Whileother
studentsspentmonthsworkingthroughproblemsetsandgivingoneanother
mockexams,Taosettledonhisusualtestprepstrategy:last
minute
cramming.Iwentinandveryquicklygotoutofmydepth,hesaid.They
wereaskingquestionswhichIhadnoabilitytoanswer.Immediatelyafter,
Taosatwithhisadviser,EliasStein,andfeltthathehadlethimdown.Tao
wasntreallytrying,andthehardestpartwasyettocome.
Thetrueworkofthemathematicianisnotexperienceduntilthelater
partsofgraduateschool,whenthestudentischallengedtocreateknowledge
intheformofanovelproof.Itiscommontofillpageafterpagewithan
attempt,theseasonsturning,onlytoarrivepreciselywhereyoubegan,empty
handedortorealizethatasubtleflawoflogicdoomedthewholeenterprise
fromitsoutset.Thesteadystateofmathematicalresearchistobecompletely
stuck.ItisaprocessthatCharlesFeffermanofPrinceton,himselfaonetime
mathprodigyturnedFieldsmedalist,likenstoplayingchesswiththedevil.
Therulesofthedevilsgamearespecial,though:Thedevilisvastlysuperiorat
chess,but,Feffermanexplained,youmaytakebackasmanymovesasyoulike,
andthedevilmaynot.Youplayafirstgame,and,ofcourse,hecrushesyou.
Soyoutakebackmovesandtrysomethingdifferent,andhecrushesyouagain,
inmuchthesameway.Ifyouaresufficientlywily,youwilleventually
discoveramovethatforcesthedeviltoshiftstrategyyoustilllose,butaha!
youhaveyourfirstclue.
Asagroup,thepeopledrawntomathematicstendtovaluecertaintyand
logicandaneatnessofoutcome,sothisgamebecomesaspecialkindof
torture.Andyetthisiswhatany
wouldbemathematicianmustsummonthe
couragetofacedown:weeks,months,yearsonaproblemthatmayormaynot
evenbepossibletounlock.Youfindyourselfsittinginaroomwithoutdoorsor
windows,andyoucanshoutandcarryonallyouwant,butnooneislistening.
Withinhisfield,Taoisbestknownforaproofaboutaremarkableset

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ofnumbersknownastheprimes.Theprimesarethewholenumberslarger
than1thatcanbedividedevenlybyonlythemselvesand1.Thus,thefirstfew
primesare2,3,5,7and11.Thenumber4isnotaprimebecauseitdivides
evenlyby2thenumber9failsbecauseitcanbedividedby3.Primenumbers
arefundamentalbuildingblocksinmathematics.Likethechemicalelements,
theycombinetoformauniverse.Toachemist,wateristwoatomsofhydrogen
andoneofoxygen.Similarly,inmathematics,thenumber12iscomposedof
twoatomsof2andoneatomof3(12=2x2x3).
Theprimesareelementaryand,atthesametime,mysterious.Theyarea
resultofsimplelogic,yettheyseemtoappearatrandomonthenumberline
youneverknowwhenthenextonewilloccur.Theyareatonceorderlyand
disorderly.Theyhavebeenincorporatedintomysticismandreligiousritual
andhaveinspiredworksofmusicandevenanItaliannovel,TheSolitudeof
PrimeNumbers.Itiseasytoseewhymathematiciansconsidertheprimesto
beoneoftheuniversesfoundations.Fromcounting,youcandevelopthe
conceptofnumber,andthen,quitenaturally,thebasicoperationsof
arithmetic:addition,subtraction,multiplicationanddivision.Thatisallyou
needtospottheprimesthough,eerily,scientistshaveuncovereddeep
connectionsbetweenprimesandquantummechanicsthatremain
unexplained.Imaginethatthereisanadvancedcivilizationofaliensaround
somedistantstar:TheysurelydonotspeakEnglish,theymayormaynothave
developedtelevision,butwecanbealmostcertainthattheirmathematicians
havediscoveredtheprimesandpuzzledoverthem.
Taosworkisrelatedtothetwinprimeconjecture,whichtheFrench
mathematicianAlphonsedePolignacsuggestedin1849.Goupthenumber
line,circlingtheprimes,andyoumaynoticethatsometimesapairofprimesis
separatedbyjust2:5and7,11and13,17and19.Thesearethetwinprimes,
andasthejourneyalongthenumberlinecontinues,theyoccurlessfrequently:
2,237and2,239arefollowedby2,267and2,269after31,391and31,393,
thereisntanotherpairuntilyoureach31,511and31,513.Eucliddeviseda

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simple,beautifulproofshowingthatthereisaninfinitenumberofprimes.But
whatofthetwinprimes?Asfarasyougoonthenumberline,willtherealways
beanothersetoftwins?Theconjecturehasroundlydefeatedallattemptsat
provingit.
Whenmathematiciansfaceaquestiontheycannotanswer,they
sometimesdevisealessstringentquestion,inthehopethatsolvingitwill
provideinsights.ThisisthepaththatTaotookin2004,incollaborationwith
BenGreenofOxford.Twinsaretwoprimesthatareseparatedbyexactly2,but
GreenandTaoconsideredalooserdefinition,stringsofprimesseparatedbya
constant,beit2oranyothernumber.(Forexample,theprimes3,7and11are
separatedbytheconstant4.)Theysoughttoprovethatnomatterhowlonga
stringsomeonefound,therewouldalwaysbeanotherlongerstringwitha
constantgapbetweenitsprimes.ThatFebruary,aftersomeinitial
conversations,GreencametovisitTaoatU.C.L.A.,andinjusttwoexhilarating
months,theycompletedwhatisnowknownastheGreenTaotheorem.It
couldbeawaypointonthepathtothetwinprimeconjecture,anditforged
deepconnectionsbetweendisparateareasofmath,helpingestablishan
interdisciplinaryareacalledadditivecombinatorics.Itopenedalotofnew
directionsinresearch,saysIzabellaLaba,aUniversityofBritishColumbia
mathematicianwhohasworkedwithTao.Itgavealotofpeoplealotof
thingstodo.
ThissortofcollaborationhasbeenahallmarkofTaoscareer.Most
mathematicianstendtospecialize,butTaorangeswidely,learningfromothers
andthenworkingwiththemtomakediscoveries.MarkusKeel,alongtime
collaboratorandclosefriend,reachestosciencefictiontoexplainTaosability
torapidlydigestandemploymathematicalideas:SeeingTaoinaction,Keel
toldme,remindshimofthesceneinTheMatrixwhenNeohasmartialarts
downloadedintohisbrainandthen,openinghiseyes,declares,Iknowkung
fu.ThecitationforTaosFieldsMedal,awardedin2006,isalitanyof
boundaryhoppingandnotesparticularlybeautifulworkonHorns

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conjecture,whichTaocompletedwithafriendhehadplayedfoosballwithin
graduateschool.ItwasanewareaofmathematicsforTao,atagreatremove
fromhisknownstampinggrounds.Thisisakin,thecitationread,toa
leadingEnglish
languagenovelistsuddenlyproducingthedefinitiveRussian
novel.
TheGreenTaotheoremonprimeswasasimilarcollaboration.Greenisa
specialistinanareacallednumbertheory,andTaooriginallytrainedinan
areacalledharmonicanalysis.Yet,astheytoldme,theproofdependedonthe
insightsofmanyothermathematicians.Inthegameofdevilschess,players
havenorealhopeiftheyhaventstudiedthewinninggamesofthemasters.A
proofestablishesfactsthatcanbeusedinsubsequentproofs,butitalsooffers
asetofmovesandstrategiesthatforcedthedeviltosubmitadeviouswayto
pinoneofhispiecesorshutdownacounterattack,oranendgamemovethat
sacrificesabishoptogainawinningposition.Justasachessplayermight
examinevariationsoftheRuyLopezandKingsIndianDefense,a
mathematicianmightstudyparticularlycleverapplicationsoftheChinese
remaindertheoremorthesieveofEratosthenes.Thewiseplayerhasavast
repertoiretodrawon,andthecraftyplayerintuitsthemovethatsuitsthe
moment.
Fortheirwork,TaoandGreensalvagedacrucialbitfromanearlierproof
donebyothers,whichhadbeendiscardedasincorrect,andaimedata
differentgoal.OthermaneuverscamefrommasterfulproofsbyTimothy
GowersofEnglandandEndreSzemerediofHungary.Theirwork,inturn,
reliedoncontributionsfromErdos,KlausRothandFrankRamsey,an
Englishmanwhodiedatage26in1930,andonandon,intohistory.Ask
mathematiciansabouttheirexperienceofthecraft,andmostwilltalkaboutan
intensefeelingofintellectualcamaraderie.Averycentralpartofany
mathematicianslifeisthissenseofconnectiontootherminds,alivetodayand
goingbacktoPythagoras,saidStevenStrogatz,aprofessorofmathematicsat
CornellUniversity.Wearehavingthisconversationwitheachothergoing

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overthemillennia.
TheGreenTaotheoremcaughtthemathematicalcommunitybysurprise,
becausethatproblemwasthoughttobemanyyearsfromsuccumbingto
proof.OnthedayIvisitedTao,weatelunchontheoutdoorpatioofthe
midcentury
modernfacultycenter.Workingonamodestplateofsushi,Tao
toldmethatheandGreenhavecontinuedtoworkaroundthemarginsofthe
twinprimeconjecture,ashaveothers,withalotofsuccessrecently.Itishis
sense,hesaid,thataproofiscloseathand,morethanacenturyandhalfafter
itwasfirstarticulated.Maybe10years,hesaid.
ItwasdinnertimewhenIheadedtoTaoshome,awhiteandtanfive

bedroomonthewesternedgeofcampus.Taowasoriginallygoingtotakehis
12yearoldson,William,toapianolesson,butWilliamhadreceiveda
callbackforaGoGurtcommercial.(HehasalreadybeeninaHondaad,in
whichheplayedtheroleofboywhosleepscontentedlyinthebackseat.)
WhileTaoswife,Laura,ferriedWilliamhome,theirdaughter,Maddy,4,
finishedhermealatanislandintheirspaciouskitchen.Shetookabiteofher
dessertacronutandthenclambereddownherstoolandbeganrunning
fromroomtoroom,armsraised,squealingwithdelight.
Taohasemergedasoneofthefieldsgreatbridge
builders.Atthetimeof
hisFieldsMedal,hehadalreadymadediscoverieswithmorethan30different
collaborators.Sincethen,hehasalsobecomeaprolificmathbloggerwitha
decidedlynon
Gaussianebullience:Hecelebratestheworkofothers,shares
favoritetricks,documentshisprogressanddelightsatanycorrectionsthat
followinthecomments.Hehasorganizedcooperativeonlineeffortstowork
onproblems.Terryiswhatagreat21st
centurymathematicianlookslike,
JordanEllenberg,amathematicianattheUniversityofWisconsin,Madison,
whohascollaboratedwithTao,toldme.Heispartofanetwork,always
communicating,alwaysconnectingwhatheisdoingwithwhatotherpeople
aredoing.

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InmyvisitwithTao,Inoticedonlyonewayinwhichheconformstothe
math
professorstereotype:anabsentmindednessthatdatestohischildhood.
Whenhewasaboy,heconstantlylostbooks,evenhisbookbagheputclothes
onbackwardorinsideout,orheneglectedtoputonbothsocks.(Thisiswhy
hewearsBirkenstocksnow.Onelessstep,heexplained.)Asheshowedme
aroundthehouse,hisgaitwasabitawkward,asif,atsomelevel,hewasjust
notthatinterestedinwalking.Iaskedtoseehisoffice,andhepointedoutan
unremarkablechamberoffabackhallway.Hedoesntgetasmuchdonethere
asheusedto,hesaidrecently,hehasbeenmostproductiveonflights,when
hehasablockofhoursawayfromemailandallthepeoplewhohopeforan
audiencewithhim.
AfterWilliamarrivedhome,withLauratrailingbehind,wesatdownfor
dinner:porkchopsintomatosauce,arecipetakenfromahandwritten
collection,itsnotebookcoveremblazonedwithateddybear,thatLaura
receivedasagiftfromTaosmother.Williamwasgregarious.TheGoGurt
callbackwentwell.(Heeventuallygotthepart.)Williamhassomeofhis
fathersnaturalfacilityformathematicsasasixthgrader,hetookanonline
courseinprecalculusbuthisrealpassionsatthemomentarewriting,
particularlyfantasy,andacting,particularlyimprov.Hewasalsoheavyinto
Minecraft,thoughhewasannoyedbecausehewashavingtroubleupdatinghis
hacks.Once,hesaid,heandafriendtriedtohackmathitselfbyprovingthat1
equals0,butthenrealizedthatitisforbiddentodivideby0.Taorolledhis
eyes.
Anefforttoprovethat1equals0isnotlikelytoyieldmuchfruit,itstrue,
butthehackersmindsetcanbeextremelyusefulwhendoingmath.Longago,
mathematiciansinventedanumberthatwhenmultipliedbyitselfequals
negative1,anideathatseemedtobreakthebasicrulesofmultiplication.It
wassofaroutsidewhatmathematiciansweredoingatthetimethattheycalled
itimaginary.Yetimaginarynumbersprovedapowerfulinvention,and
modernphysicsandengineeringcouldnotfunctionwithoutthem.

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Earlyencounterswithmathcanbemisleading.Thesubjectseemstobe
aboutlearningruleshowandwhentoapplyancienttrickstoarriveatan
answer.Fourcookiesremaininthecookiejartheballmovesat12.5feetper
second.Really,though,tobeamathematicianistoexperiment.Mathematical
researchisafundamentallycreativeact.LorehasitthatwhenDavidHilbert,
arguablythemostinfluentialmathematicianoffindesicleEurope,heardthat
acolleaguehadlefttopursuefiction,hequipped:Hedidnothaveenough
imaginationformathematics.
Mathtrafficsinabstractionstheidea,forexample,thattwoapplesand
twoorangeshavesomethingincommonbutmuchofTaosworkhasa
tangibleaspect.Heisdrawntowavesoffluidorlight,orthingsthatcanbe
counted,orgeometriesthatyoumightholdinyourmind.Whenaquestion
doesnotinitiallyappearinsuchaway,hestrivestotransformit.Earlyinhis
career,hestruggledwithaproblemthatinvolvedwavesrotatingontopofone
another.Hewantedtocomeupwithamovingcoordinatesystemthatwould
makethingseasiertosee,somethinglikeavirtualSteadi
cam.Sohelaydown
onthefloorandrolledbackandforth,tryingtoseeitinhismindseye.My
auntcaughtmedoingthis,Taotoldme,laughing,andIcouldntexplain
whatIwasdoing.
Taosmostrecentworkinexplodingwaterbeganwhenaprofessorfrom
KazakhstanclaimedtohavecompletedaNavier
Stokesproof.Afterlookingat
it,Taofeltsurethattheproofwasincorrect,buthedecidedtotakethis
intuitionastepfurtherandshowthatanyproofusingtheprofessorsapproach
wassuretofail.Whilehewaswadingthroughtheproof,askingcolleaguesfor
helpintranslatingtheexplanatorytextfromtheoriginalRussian,hestruck
uponthenotionofhisimaginary,self
replicatingwatercontraptiondrawing
onideasfromengineeringtomakeprogressonaquestioninpure
mathematics.
Thefeatisasmuchpsychologicalasmathematical.Manypeoplethink
thatsubstantialprogressonNavier
Stokesmaybeimpossible,andyearsago,

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Taotoldme,hewroteablogpostconcurringwiththisview.Nowhehassome
smallbitofhope.Thetwinprimeconjecturehadthesamefeel,asenseof
breakingthroughthewallofintimidationthathasscaredoffmanyaspirants.
Outsidetheworldofmathematics,bothNavier
Stokesandthetwinprime
conjecturearedescribedasproblems.ButforTaoandothersinthefield,they
aremorelikeopponents.Taosopponenthasbeenknowntotaunthim,
convincinghimthatheisoverlookingtheobvious,ortofightback,making
quickescapeswhennoneshouldbepossible.Nowtheopponentappearsto
haverevealedaweakness.ButTaosaidhehasbeenherebefore,thinkinghe
hasfoundawaythroughthedefenses,wheninfacthewasbeingledintoan
ambush.Youlearntogetsuspicious,Taosaid.Youlearntobeonthe
lookout.
Thisisthethrillofit,andthedread.Thereisashiftingbeneaththe
ground.Thegameisafoot.
GarethCookisaPulitzerPrizewinningjournalist.Helastwroteforthemagazine
abouttheneuroscientistSebastianSeung.
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AversionofthisarticleappearsinprintonJuly26,2015,onpageMM44oftheSundayMagazine
withtheheadline:H1gh(e)r+Pwer.

2015TheNewYorkTimesCompany

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/26/magazine/thesingularmindofterrytao.html

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