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Genius in Mathematics and Theoretical Physics

  1. Jul 31, 2013 #1
    I am feeling quite low.

    Let me start by telling you a bit about myself. As a child I was always asking "why?" I was also very curious. When I got older I found I was not bad at "math" and science. I read books like men of mathematics and biographies on Feynman and I began to form plans about becoming a pure mathematician and or theoretical physicist. I dreamed of discovering the fundamental laws of the Universe and proving mathematical conjectures like the Riemann Hypothesis. I dreamed of becoming a modern Gauss, Newton, Einstein.
    My first wake up call were mathematics competitions and Olympiads, I was not very good at them (I am still not I can't solve a Putnam problem to save myself) and could not solve most of the difficult problems despite banging my head against them for hours. When I looked at the solutions I thought "How could I have ever come up with this?". None the less I read that one does not need to be great at mathematics competitions to be a great mathematician so I set to work at university with the aim of one day winning a Fields Medal. I saw people like Edward Witten, Michael Atiyah, Freeman Dyson, Grothendieck and thought "I am like them, I can do something ground-breaking like that". I set myself the goal of getting a Phd from Harvard or Princeton and eventually becoming a professor at the institute for advanced study. I told myself that my genius simply had not be recognized.

    Skip to sophomore year and I have a B- average in my mathematics and physics courses and I am feeling terrible. I am far from the best student in my classes, I am amazed at the way my colleagues pick up concepts and solve problems. I often forget details from class (my memory is fairly average) and my lack of revision has hurt my grades. The thing that has hurt them most however is the jealously of people who are more gifted than I (If they don't have to study as hard, why should I?). I have tried to focus on the mathematics (Why is this thing true) but I am continually reminded of my own failures compared to others.

    My dreams are in ruins and yet I keep dreaming of winning a fields medal or doing something great. Other times I see what the greats have done by the time they were my age (20 soon to be 21) and I realise that I just don't have what they have/had. Why are some people just so much smarter than me?
    I have read quotes by some mathematicians saying things like "There are two ways to do great mathematics. The first is to be smarter than everybody else. The second way is to be stupider than everybody else—but persistent.", but what is the point when the talented will think so much deeper and quicker? I have read Terry Tao's article about not needing to be a genius in math, but it does not seem to mean much coming from him. I have also read many of the threads on here but I have not found them to help me.
    What is the point in becoming a mathematician or physicist if I will never get a job at the institute for advanced study, win a fields medal or do something great?
    What is the point if I am subpar and cannot get a postgrad research position or I spend the rest of my life teaching undergrad engineers calculus 1? I have the passion but the failures are getting to me and I have little hope about the future. Should I drop out and do something else? How do you come to terms with not being the best or very good at what you really love?
    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 31, 2013
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 31, 2013 #2
    I think you have a few problems, all of which I've had at some point in time:

    1) you are suffering from grandiose perceptions of yourself. You need to really take a step back and reevaluate the source of these perceptions. I tend to get this way too. I'll come up with a big idea and will have all this enthusiasm but when I come across a road block I realize "Wow, that idea wasnt so great afterall..." With that said, I have come up with a few extremely good ideas (pertaining to engineering), that despite their roadblocks are worth the effort of further investigation. The point is, in the real world, you will have to try hard and you will probably fail many times, but if you dont give up, the fruits of your labor will be recognized.

    2)Considering the aforementioned, if mathematics truly isn't your talent, you need to recognize this and follow an alternative plan. Similar thing happened to me, I was going for a PhD, had a medical emergency, ended up having to drop out of the program. I was VERY heartbroken. I think I woke up crying at least once. MY family did not realize how important the degree was too me. Hell, I had your passion, I know exactly how you feel. The source of mine, however, was to get away from a bad family life and a rough past. If you leave mathematics, it will hurt badly, but you cant quit because you are useful for more than mathematics. If that was all you could do you would be hopelessly handicapped.

    3)Your goals are way too narrow. If you are going to be successful at anything, you cant set your goals so narrow that only one chain of events (out of 10^10^10 ish) will result in a career success. Consider what you would also be happy doing and consider those paths. Even consider some what if's - and don't be pessimistic when you do so.
  4. Jul 31, 2013 #3
    I can't think of doing anything else.
  5. Jul 31, 2013 #4
    First, you haven't even put any thought into it. Maybe this is wrong, but I doubt you even bothered to consider anything I said given your nature of your response. If you aren't going to be open minded, your probably going to burn out. So take some time, maybe a month, to seriously think about the things I mentioned earlier everyday.
  6. Jul 31, 2013 #5
    I have thought about giving up, and honestly I can't think of anything else that I am as passionate about.
  7. Jul 31, 2013 #6
    You'll never win a Fields medal, and you'll never be equal to people like Grothendieck. I'm sorry, but that's something you're just going to have deal with. You, and the vast majority of professional mathematicians working at universities around the world.

    There are two particularly troubling sentences in your post. The first is this: "...my lack of revision has hurt my grades". Well, you have to revise. There's no getting away from it. I went to an elite university, and the people who got the top grades revised hard for them. The people who were very talented and did little work got so-so grades. The idea of people cruising through to top honours based on natural talent alone is a myth. Success comes from using your strengths to overcome your weaknesses. Do you think every great mathematician has a great memory? Because they don't.

    The next is this: "What is the point in becoming a mathematician or physicist if I will never get a job at the institute for advanced study, win a fields medal or do something great?" Well, if you are truly interested in mathematics the answer to this question should be easy. If you become a mathematician or physicist you will be actively involved in the continuing construction of the tapestry of human knowledge. You'll be interacting with some of the finest minds in the world and contributing to the mathematical and scientific conversation of time. Most importantly, you'll get to have a career doing mathematics, rather than something else. If you're in love largely with the supposed prestige of being a great mathematician then you're destined for disappointment either way, because for all the adulation you may receive at conferences, in the real world you'll just be another moderately well paid professional with a stressful job.
  8. Jul 31, 2013 #7
    Theres a big difference between doing something and having goals and doing something to get those goals. Its nice to think about winning a Fields medal and solving RH, but at the end of the day, only a few people will get a Fields medal and only one (or a couple) will solve RH. You need to be okay with that, and not achieving those monster goals doesn't mean you're bad at what you do, or you're worthless at math.

    Right now you're a sophomore with a B- average. Time for a reality check. You aren't doing well with the material. You need to be okay with the fact you may never achieve these goals and actually dive into the subject. If you come out and realize "hey, maybe I'll never be Gauss part 2, but I really like this stuff" thats great. If you realize "hey, you know what? I don't really care so much about math now", thats awesome too. Remove the pressure from yourself and reevaluate.
  9. Jul 31, 2013 #8


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    Some advice from Fields medalist Tim Gowers:

  10. Jul 31, 2013 #9
    It sounds to me like you love the idea of being a one-of-a-kind, famous and recognized mathematician or scientist much, much more than you like math or physics themselves.
  11. Jul 31, 2013 #10


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    I am a firm believer that if you think you are a special snowflake, you will (on average) not be served well by such a thought.

    I am plagued by the constant knowledge that I am not the smartest person in the world.

    Not even in my field.

    Not even in my graduate program.

    I'm not even the smartest graduate student in my group.

    I can't control this. By intelligence, I mean whatever part of one's mental abilities are innate and not learned or practiced (I don't claim to be able to define it better than this). This is a sober and motivating realization. I don't care to be the greatest or the best, but I do want to work hard. This I can control. This I can do.

    When I stopped caring about honors or about standing, after I quit being bothered by those that came quicker to answers or who could store more data in their brain, it was then that I embraced true learning. It was then that I realized we are in this together! Through collaboration and ( slightly competitive) cooperation science is done.

    I am often one of the first researchers in the building and the last to leave. The rush of discovery is addictive!

    Who care about being better than others? Odds are you have less control over this than you think.

    You can be the best you can be.

    Work not to achieve but to create.
  12. Nov 1, 2014 #11
    A true genius don't think about Fields medals,you're just the average ambitious boy , even with straight A,thousands of colleges and hundreds of straight A students and not a single genius. Einstein — 'Intelligence is not the ability to store information, but to know where to find it'
  13. Nov 1, 2014 #12
    I agree with this. The only justifiable reason to go into any field is because you enjoy that field, per se. Prizes and awards end up functioning as attention parasites, enticing people to try to win them rather than following their love and enjoyment of the subject.
  14. Nov 2, 2014 #13
    A most riveting tale. Not really, but I was touched by your bravery and honesty, so I decided to create an account and commend you. After all, not many of your disposition have the courage to own up to the truth.
  15. Nov 2, 2014 #14
    Gee...if this bugs you so much, you better ask for a professional psychiatric help
  16. Nov 2, 2014 #15


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    I think you should get passionate about being on PF, be open and honest and you have well qualified people here that for free, will more than willingly, pass on advise and information to help you with any adversity you need to get past.
    You will have to "LISTEN WELL" and "TRY HARD".
    You have here, perhaps, a second family with no other motive in mind except to see you succeed in what you do, respect them and their time, it will be the best decision of your life.
    Stick around and show us how smart you really are:)

    I responded before I saw how old the thread is:(
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2014
  17. Nov 2, 2014 #16
    You're around my age and I want to tell you this secret I don't believe in modern geniuses,work very hard that's all that matters.
    Again i don't think a so called genius would whine on his weaknesses also the only objective measure of math ability is a good phd,if we were to pose the Grothendieck tribe as a standpoint it is flawed,at 22 he was baffling two Field medalists,i believe there are aliens out there,and he was far from bright at college but when it came to higher level maths the rest is history,several phd dissertations in few months .
    This is what i call genius not playing tea party with some undergrad math1 professors who were just blind even for Grothendieck...
  18. Nov 2, 2014 #17
    There is no genius there is only stupidity of many. A genius would have to suceed an inifnite amount of systems containing a number of individuals. Mathematics is a game the aim of every game is to beat all players on the game only idiots would call the ambitious irational, as it is the aim of the game.
    I do not think you have any problems, it just seems to me that you think you have lost,which I do not think you have, you just haven't won yet.
    The degrees and grades do not show mathematicall talent, so you shouldn't worry about them.

    By the way it is said Einstein couldn't even rember his telephone number it is said.
  19. Nov 2, 2014 #18


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    Staff: Mentor

    This this was necroposted and the op hasn't been here in over a year. Closed.
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