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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

got math?

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.


Rigel said...

Great as always, Brian. I's useful to be good at math but some college math stuff is just out there. And to think I actually considered minoring in math at one point... :)

Mary P. said...

Yeah, isn't it a shock to suddenly be in with others as good or better than you when you've always been the top?

Annie said...

aha...good to hear from another former mathematician. I majored in maths at! but when I first enrolled in honors maths, I found I didn't understand a word of it. I was very pleased to be able to transfer back to the regular stream of maths, and leave the honors maths for the real mathematicians!!

Brian Dubé said...

Rigel - I really did love math in and of itself though.

Brian Dubé said...

Mary P. - Shock is an understatement if you were thinking this was going to be ur career and the rug is pulled out from under you.

Brian Dubé said...

Annie - I would not consider myself a former mathematician. Just a former aspiring mathematician. :)

Anonymous said...

my brother got his BA from Columbia in 1963 summa cum laude in math and left his masters math program in 1964-5 at Northwestern, felt it was just so abstract and din't feel right anymore about it, he got a music MA from Columbia, didnt go into the prfessional music world, went into the computer consulting field, now retired he pursues music.
I feel that math is the essence of all but cherubic toothpicks with female sex organs like the Olsen Twins make 300 million while math professors who shape civilization make $69,000/yr plus a medical plan, I mean, how can I blame Brian for going in a different path than math. Also in America, people are proud and think they are oh so witty to be bad in math! Okaaaaay,....

Brian Dubé said...

Anonymous (Ferris Butler) - Amazing. And your brother does not help my math esteem. :)

Abecedarian said...

Real sages can think with BOTH the left and the right sides of their brain! I think what might set you above others is your ability to rise to a high level logically AND creatively. You're also curious and driven. So your abilities are less restricted... You are so lucky you can experience it all.
Sometimes rising to the very top of a math path requires such myopic focus they really stake a lot on one specialty.

Richard Friedman said...

Brian, I worked at CIMS, (or "the toot" as we called it) in the computer center, from 1965-68. I was in my early 20's. I loved math then, still do, but really early on I knew I'd never become a "real" mathematician, only an "imaginary" one (math joke there). And, I also wasn't good enough at Bridge or Go, and proficiency there seemed also to be a requirement.

However, I did get a job as a programmer in the computer center just when they moved the into Warren Weaver hall (the building in your photos). (CDC 6600)

I've written about those years here but you have to start at the bottom of the page and read up to do it chronologically.

It was REALLY exciting. On the top floor was a tea room, and every day at 3 they'd serve tea and cookies, and you had a chance to rub shoulders with some of the leading mathematicians in the world. I was in awe.

But it was a very competitive and prestigious place. And there were personal tragedies, and lots of craziness.

I even had the chance to meet Richard Courant, himself, usually in the elevator. He used to wear tennis shoes. And one summer his grandson worked in the center.

I had hoped that some of the math might rub off, but after 3 years there, I managed to get a job where I really wanted to live, at UC Berkeley. But that's another story.

Still, that picture of WWH brought back some incredible memories.

Brian Dubé said...

Richard - I love these stories. Isn't it awesome to rub up against all those minds?

Richard Friedman said...

Indeed. The trouble with being in extraordinary places when you're 21 years old is that you really don't appreciate (or fully understand) the significance of the moment until maybe forty years later. And, oddly enough, I never took any pictures while at CIMS.

Don't really know why. But I've searched my collection and that period is a big black hole. One would think that I'd have taken pictures of the computer room with it's massive 6600. But nada.

That was a period at CIMS when there still were a lot of the Courant-generation mathematicians and physicists working there, so it had a sorta European feel to it.

Also, CIMS was a center for applied math, at least then, while places like Princeton and Harvard tended toward pure math. So one of the professors I worked with was solving some complex hydrodynamics codes that took hours into days to complete on the 6600, then fastest "supercomputer" of the era. I only found out later that he was simulating an underwater atomic explosion. The center was funded by the Atomic Energy Commission (later the Dept of Energy) after all.