Prime a beautiful mind

Watch the YouTube video of 40-year old UCLA professor, Terence Tao, and you will gain an understanding of how the math prodigy took the scientific world by storm. A photo from the Australian-American’s early years shows a diminutive seven-year old, appearing an article with the hometown headline: “TINY TERENCE, 7, IS HIGH-SCHOOL WHIZ.” At age two he had taught himself to read and by age, 10, he became the youngest person in history to win a medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad. In a 2015 New York Times article he is quoted as saying:” When I was growing up, I knew I wanted to be a mathematician, but I had no idea what that entailed.” Today he counts the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics ie, the Fields Medal, and the MacArthur “genius” grant among his accolades.

By contrast to mathematicians portrayed on the silver screen such as John Nash, tormented by schizophrenia or Srinivasa Ramanujan, who had to overcome incredible hardship to make his mark in the field, Tao seems refreshingly normal for a genius raised in a typical family.   Tao, the eldest of three boys, was born in 1975 and recollects inventing board games in his youth with his siblings using a Scrabble board for a basic grid and then bringing in Scrabble tiles, chess pieces, Chinese checkers, mah-jongg tiles and Dungeons & Dragons dice. They turned to video games for storylines and to help invent their own sets of rules. Tao also had a vivid imagination, consuming fantasy books like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series and doodling intricate maps of imaginary lands when becoming bored in his high school class.

Terence Tao (Credit: Babenson at English Wikipedia)
Terence Tao (Credit: Babenson at English Wikipedia)his school classes.

By age 17, Tao had completed a Master’s degree and he moved to Princeton University to enroll as a PhD student. While Tao’s research years were dotted with the familiar frustrations of mathematicians seeking elegant proofs for different theorems, this prolific mathematician stood head and shoulders above the crowd with his contributions to a number of categories ranging from nonlinear equations to number theory. His best-known work involves patterns of prime numbers (numbers divisible only by one and themselves). Lest mere mortals think that he sticks to theoretical studies, the rest of us can breathe a sigh of relief that he has also advanced compressed sensing research, thus enabling engineers to develop sharper, more efficient imaging technology for MRIs, astronomical instruments, and digital cameras. Here is another one of his quotes that appeared in a 2008 Discover magazine article: “If there is something that I should know how to do but don’t, it bugs me,” he says. “I feel like I have to sit down and work out exactly what the problem is.”