I just read this charming article by Lee Wilkinson’s brother on a mathematician named Yitang Zhang. Zhang recently gained some fame after recently proving a difficult theorem, and he seems to be a quite unusual, but likable, guy.
What I liked about Wilkinson’s article is how it captured Zhang’s eccentricities with affection but without condescension. Zhang is not like the rest of us, but from reading the article, I get the sense of him as an individual, not defined by his mathematical abilities.
At one level, sure, duh: each of us is an individual. I’m an unusual person myself so maybe it’s a bit rich for me to put the “eccentric” label on some mathematician I’ve never met.
But I think there’s more to it than that. For one thing, I think the usual way to frame an article about someone like this is to present him as a one-of-a-kind genius, to share stories about how brilliant he is. Here, though, you get the idea that Zhang is a top mathematician but not that he has some otherworldly brilliance. Similarly, he solved a really tough problem but we don’t have to hear all about how he’s the greatest of all time. Rather, I get the idea from Wilkinson that Zhang’s life is worth living even if he hadn’t done this great work. Of course, without that, the idea for the article never would’ve come up in the first place, but still.
Here’s a paragraph. I don’t know if it conveys the feeling I’m trying to share but here goes:
Zhang met his wife, to whom he has been married for twelve years, at a Chinese restaurant on Long Island, where she was a waitress. Her name is Yaling, but she calls herself Helen. A friend who knew them both took Zhang to the restaurant and pointed her out. “He asked, ‘What do you think of this girl?'” Zhang said. Meanwhile, she was considering him. To court her, Zhang went to New York every weekend for several months. The following summer, she came to New Hampshire. She didn’t like the winters, though, and moved to California, where she works at a beauty salon. She and Zhang have a house in San Jose, and he spends school vacations there.
So gentle, both on the part of Zhang and of Wilkinson. New Yorker, E. B. White-style, and I mean that in a good way here. It could’ve come straight out of Charlotte’s Web. And it’s such a relief to read after all the Erdos-Feynman-style hype, not to mention all the latest crap about tech zillionaires. I just wish I could’ve met Stanislaw Ulam.