Innovation in Mathematics (It’s Not About the Lone Genius)

Dr. Jordan Ellenberg, a child prodigy and now a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, challenges “The cult of the child genius” in the Wall Street Journal:

There is a myth that progress in mathematics is driven by the cognitive one percent of one percenters, marked at birth, who blaze a path for the rest of humanity to trot along. But in the real world, math is a communal enterprise. Each advance is the product of a huge network of minds working toward a common purpose, even if we accord special honor to the person who sets the final stone in the arch. As Mark Twain said, “It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph…and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others.”

Dr. Ellenberg might have been reading my book Group Genius; in that book I show that Samuel Morse did not invent the telegraph in a brilliant burst of inspiration, but how instead it emerged from collaboration. The real stories of innovation are always collaborative and distributed. Ellenberg continues:

Terry Tao, a UCLA professor and a winner of the Fields Medal, the highest honor a young mathematician can achieve, once wrote: “I find the reality of mathematical research today–in which progress is obtained naturally and cumulatively as a consequence of hard work, directed by intuition, literature, and a bit of luck–to be far more satisfying that the romantic image that I had as a student of mathematics being advanced primarily by the mystic inspirations of some rare breed of ‘geniuses.'”

This is the reality of creativity and innovation in all of the arts and sciences, and that’s why we the real story is always one of group genius, not lone genius.


3 thoughts on “Innovation in Mathematics (It’s Not About the Lone Genius)

  1. This reminds me of Isaac Newton’s quote: ” If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

    It’s on the cover of a book of essays about math education, “On the Shoulders of Giants: New Approaches to Numeracy” Lynn A. Steen, editor.

    1. The creators who actually DO the work know how it really happens–collaboratively. The myths are largely propagated by others, looking into science (or math), wondering how it gets done.

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