When I arrived at NYU, a few classes at the Courant Institute cut me down to size rather quickly. This was no longer home for the small town boy, universally applauded for basement experiments ala Mr. Wizard or Bill Nye the Science Guy. No, this was the real world of mathematical minds - the best of breed. My childhood dreams and ambitions of being a mathematician evaporated quickly and within one year I had switched academic gears.
Always a lingering and nagging disappointment, I was only comforted decades later by two conversations. One was with a coworker who attended Princeton University and Oxford. When I asked what Princeton was like, he told me there was a lot of drinking and depression. Surprised, I asked why. He informed me that it soon became clear to most students that in every class there was that person that eclipsed the others, and you were not that person. These are the people that would go on to the rarefied heights that all the others had always assumed would be theirs.
I had a similar conversation with a leading French-American theoretical physicist and Senior Vice Provost at NYU, who received his bachelor's, master's and doctorate from Harvard University. In spite of his obvious brilliance and stellar achievements, the professor told me that when he arrived at Harvard, it was a rude awakening for him also to brush up against others of equal or even greater minds.
We all learned that we were not in Kansas anymore.
Mathematics itself is fascinating - the feelings most people seem to have about it range anywhere from just a sense of incompetency to fear, panic or outright terror. Much has been written about our world of innumeracy and why these things are true.
Another coworker, a gifted NYU student, could not fathom why I or anyone else would major in mathematics and subject themselves to such a fate voluntarily. Stating that I actually loved mathematics did not help clarify things at all, but only made the whole thing even more perplexing to her. At best, even though some people may have a facility for math, it is typically seen as a tool, certainly not an end in itself.
One of the reasons I selected NYU was its strength in mathematics. Unfortunately I did not realize how strong. The Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences (shown in the photo) at NYU is considered one of the most prestigious and leading mathematics schools and research centers in the world. You can read more about it here and at NYU's site here.
I walk by Courant Institute daily, its tower somewhere between torment and a tease for me. It is another one of New York City's many sirens, this one, however, lures only a few who can hear its call - "got math?" :)
About the Photo: The Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences is housed in Warren Weaver Hall, a 14-story high rise at 251 Mercer Street.