August 5, 2009

Sometimes, I Pretend I'm This Guy

A couple of years ago I saw a special series in Smithsonian Magazine about innovators, one of whom was the mathematician, Terence Tao. I'm not at all on his level in any field, for several obvious reasons, but I go back to read the whole article from time to time, for inspiration.

One day [an engineer] told Tao about a problem he was working on... His reaction was vintage Tao. First he told Candes the problem was unsolvable. Then a couple of minutes later, he allowed that Candes might be on to something. By the next day, Tao had solved the problem himself. Not only that, the solution marked the birth of a new field..."

Knuston says that Tao has shown him how to chip away at a large problem a little bit at a time. "I'd say I don't understand why this thing would be true. He'd say it reduces to checking these 17 cases, and they all work. I'd say that's awesome, but we obviously can't publish that. But after a while, we'd unwind it to three cases, and then we could publish."

The heart of Tao's gift may simply be his ability to let his thinking roam freely toward an unseen horizon. "Terry is unusual in how open-minded he is... when we started, a lot of senior mathematicians probably would have said that the idea won't work, that it was ludicrously ambitious. He was willing to try all lines of inquiry."
I'm not too shy to admit I have moments (probably of delusion) where I dream about being this guy's counterpart in the field of New Testament History. More likely, I'm just a guy who's "on to something". If that's true, I sure hope I find the open minded professor who's intrigued by my amateur work so far, because I sure don't expect to make much academic hay without know-how.

Speaking of collaborators - Tao's had over 50, with whom he's co-published many of his almost 200 articles (since 1996) and one of his six books. But heck, since I'm not credentialed enough for a byline, I'm looking to give all my ideas away "free to good homes". (I'll settle for a footnote. ;)) So where is my Terence Tao, of New Testament History? Who's interested in what I'm "on to" that can take it to the next level? Anyone(s)? If not, then I've got a loooooooooooooooooooong road ahead of me (and a lot left to learn).

Either way, I'll keep at it. And since Tao teaches at UCLA, here's a quote from basketball great John Wooden:
"Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
Thanks, coach. I definitely need to remember that.


w said...

Why Wooden is such a great coach,

Anonymous said...

Hang in there! You might be the next Terrence Tao in NT History, as you wish. Keep up the good work, Bill.

Your friend,

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

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