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Eccentric mathematician

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.

11 Comments

  1. Paul Matthews says:

    If you think that’s eccentric, read about Grigori Perelman!

    • Steen says:

      I think that is part of Andrew’s point—Dr. Zhang is only *mildly* eccentric. It makes him easier to identify with, and it enhances the “he surprised everyone!” side of the story, whereas Perelman fits the “mad genius” archetype.

      Someone should a publication that uses rigorous randomization to select mathematicians/scientists to profile, to reduce selection bias for “success”.

  2. numeric says:

    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.

    Name the top three characteristics that make you, in your opinion, unusual

    • As I understand it, Gelman has some form of Tourette’s, which makes him unusual just from a pure frequentist perspective. In fact, if you choose a random Andrew Gelman uniformly from the population of Andrew Gelmans, the chance of him being simultaneously a Bayesian and a person with Tourette’s syndrome is much lower than the punchline of this joke would lead you to believe.

    • Phil says:

      I wouldn’t call these the _top_ three ways in which Andrew is unusual, necessarily, but here are some ways that Andrew is unusual that come to my mind (in addition to having an unusually strong work ethic and being unusually good at math etc.):

      For years, Andrew wore Hawaiian shirts to class every day. Then one day he switched to a jacket.
      For several years Andrew and I ate about once a month at a small Chinese restaurant near the UC Berkeley campus. Andrew always ordered the same thing: Spicy chicken over rice. One day he said “I’m tired of this, I’m never getting it again,” and he never did.
      Andrew read that people don’t eat enough vegetables in general, and that certain specific vegetables are particularly good for you. He said “how hard is it?” and started eating a green pepper, a..um, maybe a stick of celery and a carrot, every day. If he’s walking past a produce shop, he’ll stop in, buy one or another of them, and munch as he walks down the street. I don’t know if he still does this.
      . He routinely refers to papadum as “America’s favorite snack food.”
      He has not owned a car in many years, even before he moved to NYC, and relies on a bike for most transportation. He has a big boom box strapped to it so he can listen to music or news as he rides, or at least he used to have a bike like that. I once kibitzed while he picked out a new bike, and was surprised that he paid extra to get one that was a few pounds lighter than a competitor. I said “if you care about weight, why are you going to put all that heavy stuff on your bike?” (the boom box isn’t the only thing). He said “It works the other way around: since I’m going to put all that heavy stuff on the bike, the bike itself had better be as light as possible!” This is actually an important principle, not just a joke! People often say things like “if we spend a zillion dollars on the military, we can afford to spend ten billion dollars on education”…but that’s backwards! If we _didn’t_ spend a zillion dollars on the military, we’d be able to spend whatever we want on education.

      My feeling (as Andrew’s friend of longest standing) is that Andrew is _mildly_ eccentric, or perhaps you could say somewhat quirky. In some high-dimensional space of personality characteristics, he’s not outside the 10-90% range in any one of them, outside the 25-75 range in several, so he’s just a bit outside the volume that contains most of the rest of us. I sometimes assign epithets to friends so that when I tell a story to someone they can know who I’m talking about; Andrew is “my eccentric statistician friend.” Which overstates it just a bit, but I think that’s OK with epithets. (I have a black friend who once had dreadlocks, and who occasionally smokes pot. I used to call him “my tokin’ black friend”, but he thought that made him sound like a pothead, so I switched to “the dreaded Josh”. Those are still my favorites).

      • jimmy says:

        i remember seeing andrew in hawaiian shirts once or twice. but this only occurred during the summer i think. and definitely, never for class. i think he makes a point of always being in shirt and tie for class.
        andrew always has vegetables, often a full bag. he is frequently munching on them, and often sharing the vegetables.
        no more boombox on the bike. the bike has to have room for the kids now.

      • D.O. says:

        If I understand the “curse of dimensionality” correctly, in sufficiently high dimensional space, no one is in the center and everyone is near the edge.

  3. Roy says:

    I don’t know Andrew so I can’t comment on that, but I too enjoyed the article. But I thought it was less eccentricity and more the sense of modesty and interest in the subject matter and the problems at hand . There was an old-fashioned quaintness in his behavior and actions (and god let’s hope David Brooks doesn’t pick this up). I also thought the article did a good job about Zhang’s thesis and thesis adviser, one gets the feeling that this was messier than described.

    • Anonymous says:

      i get the sense that david brooks is more into the subtle wisdom of the crowd and the triumph of intuition over logical thinking, so i’d be surprised if he appropriated this kind of iconoclastic triumph for his purposes.

  4. Jacob says:

    I loved this article (this is one of those posts where I can’t tell if the months-long delay on posting is helpful or not). Along with the sense of gentleness that Andrew mentions, I really appreciated the sense that the writer respected Zhang for being a teacher; this respect is evidently not echoed by Zhang’s colleagues, however…

    “Zhang’s preference for undertaking only ambitious problems is rare. The pursuit of tenure requires an academic to publish frequently, which often means refining one’s work within a field, a task that Zhang has no inclination for. He does not appear to be competitive with other mathematicians, or resentful about having been simply a teacher for years while everyone else was a professor. No one who knows him thinks that he is suited to a tenure-track position. “I think what he did was brilliant,” Deane Yang told me. “If you become a good calculus teacher, a school can become very dependent on you. You’re cheap and reliable, and there’s no reason to fire you. After you’ve done that a couple of years, you can do it on autopilot; you have a lot of free time to think, so long as you’re willing to live modestly. There are people who try to work nontenure jobs, of course, but usually they’re nuts and have very dysfunctional personalities and lives, and are unpleasant to deal with, because they feel disrespected. Clearly, Zhang never felt that.””

    I also really admired that the guy started college at 23.

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