I've been thinking a lot about the genius myth, the notion that in order to be a successful in certain disciplines, you need to have a special innate talent that can't be learned. Last month, a study in Science found that fields whose practitioners buy into the genius myth, say, mathematics, have lower proportions of women than fields where hard work is emphasized. I wrote about mathematics and the genius myth for the American Mathematical Society's Blog on Math Blogs. As I said there, I am encouraged that, unlike some mathematicians of the past, prominent mathematicians today seem to emphasize the importance of hard work and enjoyment of math over an innate gift. But the genius myth, and the related idea that mathematical progress is mostly due to lone geniuses laboring in isolation, are still pervasive.
If successful mathematicians keep trying to combat the genius myth, why does it persist? One appealing scapegoat is "the media" and the way it portrays mathematicians. Movies like A Beautiful Mind and Good Will Hunting and magazine profiles of Yitang Zhang show us how different "math people" are from you and me.
On the one hand, stories like that do promote the idea that lone geniuses make the real progress in mathematics and that mathematicians have special gifts that can't be learned, to say nothing of the stereotypes about our social graces. On the other hand, movies and news articles tend to be about out-of-the ordinary people and situations; we watch a movie about John Nash because he's so different. I would love to see a movie about a warm, friendly colleague who has a successful research career but also remains devoted to her family, but it isn’t likely to be a Hollywood blockbuster.
So while I am still frustrated and bored with the “tortured genius with a lightning bolt of inspiration” picture of a mathematician, I don’t know that we should blame the media for choosing to run with it. I think the bigger problem is the idea that the John Nashes and Yitang Zhangs of the world are the only people who should be doing math.
Serena Williams is not like you or me. (Unless you’re reading, Serena, in which case, *faints*.) She went pro at age 14 and, through a combination of extraordinary athleticism and determination, has been ranked as the number one women’s tennis player in the world on and off for the past 13 years. She is both faster and stronger than most of her opponents, and she has deadly accuracy. The chances that a young tennis player will grow up to be as successful as Serena are minuscule, but I don’t think people worry that articles about Serena, or LeBron James, or any of the ridiculously talented athletes we pay billions of dollars a year to watch, will discourage kids from playing sports or wanting to be athletes.
The analogy isn’t perfect, but it's interesting to think about ways in which math is like sports. Realistically, you’re probably much more likely to make a living as a mathematician than a pro athlete, so if anything, people should be dissuaded more by Serena Williams than by John Nash. But we don’t just think of sports as a way to make money; we recognize that they enrich our lives whether we are sports geniuses or just enjoy playing pickup Ultimate with our friends. Can we get to a point where we see math as an activity that enriches our lives whether we are geniuses at it or not?
Maybe if we get there, we can also recognize that if we practice math, as we would practice serves or free throws, we'll get better at it. We aren't born knowing how to do any of those things, but we know that if we keep practicing sports, we will improve. We won't all get to the level of pro athlete, and we won't all end up as professional mathematicians, but that's not always the goal. We can encourage people to see their own willingness to practice and enjoyment of the subject—not their innate abilities—as key players in achieving success in mathematics. We can watch Serena dominate her opponents and read about Zhang's extraordinary journey to bounded gaps between primes, but we can still enjoy tennis and math without being them.