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Incompetent pure maths researcher?

  1. Feb 24, 2007 #1
    Is it true in general that if someone who does not show any talent in maths during school (i.e. performs average in maths competitions and tests) will not succeed in pure maths research if that person chooses to do so? Hence that person is not likely to become a professor if he/she chooses to be a pure maths academic and will mostly be doing teaching duties? Hence for these people, a more applied subject involving maths will be better suited.

    I am aware that hard work is most important but in the case of producing top quality pure maths published in repected journals, ability and talent is also an essential ingredient?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 24, 2007 #2


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    If you're not good at something, you shouldn't make it your profession. Most of the time, at some point one will stop you in trying to make it your profession, but some get through. These people are first of all unhappy themselves, and cause quite some harm, especially if they get to jobs with some responsability.
  4. Feb 24, 2007 #3
    NO. Showing talent in math is not about being able to solve tricky math problems.
    I have a professor who say's I'm very talented in Math he even wants me to do research with him so that I can take advantage of my talent. He decided this when I took a class from him in my second year as an undergrad (I am in my 3rd year now). However I am probably not good at contests. Last time I checked I wasn't. I took the AMC 12 in HS and didn't pass that test. During my second year I was taking a class with the professor who organizes the putnam at my school and he saw that I was doing well in the class (I was the best student despite there being mostly seniors and a grad student). He put me as 1 of the 3 people on the putnam team just based on my performance in his class. No doubt he saw that I might be talented in Mathematics.
    Well guess what I got on the putnam? 0. I couldn't do any of the problems. I attempted alot of them. I just could not solve any. I didn't train for it as many people do. The professor did not hold any training sessions that year as he did this year. I did not take the putnam this year because I decided I rather learn alot of math then take a train for and take a test about tricky problems.
    Obviously I am not a pure mathematician yet, but so far not being good at math contests and doing horrible on those exams has not done any harm to me.

    Now in almost all (probably all) cases the math a pure math researcher has to use and study is very abstract. You can solve all the tricky math problems you want but if you cannot handle thinking abstractly you probably won't be very good at math.
    On the other hand a person who is not good at contests and tricky math problems can become a pure math researcher because math is not about tricky math contests problems. Just this past wednesday one of the full professors at my school was telling some of us that he could not solve a putnam problem to save his life. I'm sure he was exaggerating a bit but the point was that he is not good at contests and he was never good at them. He says he's not clever.

    I'd say it would be a bad idea to go to applied where problem solving skill are more relevant.
    The first professor I talk about was great at contests if I remember correctly he got either a gold or silver or something in the international olympiad. Yet he is made to teach the precalculus class. He taught two lecture of it last quarter and is teaching one this quarter. He's a great lecturer and student love him so the administration probably thought it would be a good idea to have him teach those than have some one else who students won't like as much.

    If by ability and talent you mean what you said in the i.e. above then no. I think being able to understand abstract mathematics is more essential.
  5. Feb 24, 2007 #4
    True, after taking some pure maths, I feel that it's all about abstraction. But they will get 'tricky' when the level goes up - othersise most people would have done them and people who are good at maths contests hence tricky problems will be highly advantaged?
  6. Feb 24, 2007 #5
    What happens if you really enjoy it?

    Lucky there is no harm in pure mathematics, is there?
    Last edited: Feb 24, 2007
  7. Feb 24, 2007 #6
    Some of it is tricky some of it is just hard. For some you have to remember the right things. Some just take alot of patience. One of my professors told me that there was this thing that S.T. Yau published and my professor asked Yau how he was ever able to get that. Yau's answer was he calculated a certain thing for different manifolds for a period of two years or more. My professor said he did not have the patience to do that. You have to understand that for this you don't know whether your work will lead to anything worthwhile. This particular professor is one who got 3rd place on the putnam one. But all his ability to do tricky problems was irrelevant in that particular case.

    PS: Sorry if my retelling of what my professor told me is very vague. I cannot remember exactly what the subject matter was.
    It depends, probably if all other (or almost all other) important factors are equal then yes the person who is good at contests will have an advantage. But depending on the problem that might or might not be relevant.
  8. Feb 24, 2007 #7
    To me, I think the contest begins after graduate school, when you really have to start producing some interesting results. Whether or not you won the Putnam or whatever the hell it is, isn't going to generate publications for you. I am a retarded undergrad though, so my perception could be potentially displaced.

    In that respect, I think it's useless to ponder it.
  9. Feb 25, 2007 #8
    Could you define "school?" Because I consistently failed math up through seventh grade. As a matter of fact I was a year or so behind, until I finally made it into algebra 1 by some strange twist of fate. After that, up through my senior year of college I always got A's and B's in math, and got a degree in math. So if that's the sort of school you're talking about, then I'm living proof that you can do badly in math at school, and turn out to succeed in the field.

    Of course, if you're talking about college, then I would say that you probably can't expect to do well in professional mathematics if you don't do fairly well in your math classes. Junior and senior year is when you begin taking courses in advanced topics in math. Of course you'll occasionally run into the class that you just can't do well in (for some people it's rigorous analysis or algebra). But if you're failing advanced calculus, complex analysis, and probability theory, then you may have a problem.
  10. Feb 25, 2007 #9
    I was talking primary and secondary school.
  11. Feb 25, 2007 #10
    In that case, no I don't think your performance in these early years is all that important. Back in primary and secondary school, I was in the lowest possible math groups. Heck, I even recall a rather unpleasant parent-teacher conference that was convened specifically to discuss my many failures in mathematics. Yet as I said in my earlier post, I somehow got all A's and B's in math from grade eight up through my senior year of college. So I wouldn't really worry about how you did in math back in primary or secondary school. For that matter, I'm not really sure that one's performance in any subject at such an early age points to future success or failure in any particular field.
  12. Feb 25, 2007 #11
    I didn't know what the hell [tex]y=mx+b[/tex] was last year and now I am working through Hersteins Topics in Algebra, so I really don't think it applies. Just do your best. I know this doesn't necessarily imply you will be a good researcher but I am saying that all you can do is think the best you can.
  13. Feb 25, 2007 #12
    just because you aren't good at something doesn't mean you shouldn't peruse it, if thats what you enjoy.

    When I started out programming when I was younger I was terriable, couldn't seem to understand basic arrays for the longest time but one day it just clicked now i'm at the top of my class and IBM is going to be a possible co-op if I land this last interview.

    So hard work and determination will help you succeed in anything you really love, just keep at it, there will always be people better than you out there.
  14. Feb 26, 2007 #13


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    I wouldn't want the Dean or Chair of my department to be an idiot, do you?
  15. Feb 27, 2007 #14
    Given that person made it to that position, he/she would have to have shown exceptional results in their field.

    My question is more could an 'idiot' produce exceptional results (in the future)? If that person does and for a consistent amount of time then that person will no longer be an idiot and should be legitimate candidates for the senior posistions you describe.
  16. Feb 27, 2007 #15


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    Defence industry uses a lot of pure mathematicians for, eg. cryptography, communication...

    Going back to your OP.

    I think you need to show some talent at school but if you have to work extremely hard for those top grades, when someone else is coasting it but not acheiving the absolute top, I think the latter person, with a bit of hard work later in life, will do much better.
  17. Feb 27, 2007 #16
    But one of the problems is that you can't get this far by doing poorly in math courses. If you fail all your math classes, you won't get a Bachelor's, to say nothing of doing graduate work in mathematics. Certainly, there's usually opportunity for improvement in the academic world. For example, if you don't do so hot in your first two years of math, but then do very well in the second two years, then you should be all right. But at some point, you need to show consistent academic success.

    Also, the situation you describe isn't all too realistic. People who don't understand basic math (by which I mean first and second year calculus) probably won't understand advanced math either.
  18. Feb 27, 2007 #17


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    Being the Dean or Chair has nothing to do with results, so what are you talking about?

    Yes, there are Deans and Chairs running around that shouldn't be there. A few years with a bad Dean or Chair can ruin a department or program.
  19. Feb 28, 2007 #18
    The dean of faculty and chair of disciplines in my university are all professors and any professor would have to have shown exceptional results.

    Ironoically perhaps the dean of my university (as a whole) doesn't even have a Phd.

    The deans and heads should also have good advisors around them (i.e. other professors) so things may not be that bad.
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2007
  20. Feb 28, 2007 #19
    Good point, at some stage one would have to show some results. What I was trying to get at is that during your primary and junior, midddle secondary school years, you are quite innocent about things so if you do well in maths competitions, it tends to mean you are talented at it. This raw talent will stay with you and will be a big help later on, especially if you work hard later on, competing with somone also working hard but without your talent.
  21. Feb 28, 2007 #20
    Oh, you're still talking about these early years. That's an entirely different situation then. To be honest, I'm not so sure that talent shown in math in primary and secondary school will necessarily translate into success in college. For example, I know one person who was so advanced in math that he took calculus 1 in eighth grade. He got into Case Western and majored in engineering. Unfortunately he failed out after a semester. And among people I know who showed early talent in math, this isn't an isolated instance.

    I can't really give a recipe for success is university-level mathematics. But it seems to me as though performance in primary and secondary school doesn't matter all that much.
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