Words to live by

Sell out crowds. Overflow rooms. Young fans looking for autographs after a ‘performance.’ Not things usually associated with a lecturer talking about prime numbers. But such was the case recently for 2006 Field’s Medal winner Terence Tao. The article Scientist at Work – Terence Tao – Journeys to the Distant Fields of Prime in the New York Times gives a profile of this young, talented mathematician, described as a ‘rock star’ and the ‘Mozart of math.’

Though Tao is obviously quite gifted (an understatement), the description of his childhood, and how his parents handled his talent, is very telling as well. [emphasis is mine]

[Terry’s father] Billy Tao knew the trajectories of child prodigies like Jay Luo, who graduated with a mathematics degree from Boise State University in 1982 at the age of 12, but who has since vanished from the world of mathematics.

“I initially thought Terry would be just like one of them, to graduate as early as possible,” he said. But after talking to experts on education for gifted children, he changed his mind.

His parents decided not to push him into college full time, so he split his time between high school and Flinders University, the local university in Adelaide. He finally enrolled as a full-time college student at Flinders when he was 14, two years after he would have graduated had his parents pushed him only according to his academic abilities.

The Taos had different challenges in raising their other two sons, although all three excelled in math. Trevor, two years younger than Terry, is autistic with top-level chess skills and the musical savant gift to play back on the piano a musical piece — even one played by an entire orchestra — after hearing it just once. He completed a Ph.D. in mathematics and now works for the Defense Science and Technology Organization in Australia.

The youngest, Nigel, told his father that he was “not another Terry,” and his parents let him learn at a less accelerated pace. Nigel, with degrees in economics, math and computer science, now works as a computer engineer for Google Australia.

But what really caught my eye was Billy Tao’s summary of how they approached their kids’ learning:

All along, we tend to emphasize the joy of learning. The fun is doing something, not winning something.

Words to live by, indeed.

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