Terence Tao is the "Mozart of Math"

Terence "Terry" Tao, one of the greatest living mathematicians in the world, taught himself to read at age 2. He was schooling his 11th grade calculus teacher by age 7, mastering college-level calculus by age 9, then, a year later, became the youngest person in history to win a medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad. This prodigy continues to win prestigious awards and to inspire aspiring mathematicians, but what makes him truly unique? His personality. As the chair of mathematics at UCLA put it, "Terry is like Mozart; mathematics just flows out of him, except without Mozart's personality problems; everyone likes him."

Paul Erdős, one of the 20th century's most prolific mathematicians, teaching Terence Tao in 1985.

A Deeper Understanding

Tao always loved math, often swapping coloring books for math workbooks as a child, but he claims that his true understanding of math didn't come until much later, after all the "prodigy" press. He explains the restraints of his early math education to the New York Times: "It's as if your only experience with music were practicing scales or learning music theory." Real-world applications of math in research are a different ball game, but that's where this UCLA mathematics professor really shines.

According to a UCLA press release, Tao was awarded the Fields Medal—essentially the Nobel Prize for math—"for his contributions to partial differential equations, combinatorics, harmonic analysis and additive number theory." Recognition is great, but what really makes Tao passionate about mathematics is the community. He goes beyond the classroom to engage with the greater math world through his active blog and numerous collaborations.

UCLA mathematics professor and Fields Medal winner Terence Tao.

Keep On Climbing

As the New York Times notes, the real tricks to mastering mathematics are actually imagination, experimentation, and "the sort of gift for collaboration and improvisation that characterizes the best jazz musicians." Tao elaborates in the press release: "I've never really been satisfied with just solving the problem. I want to see what happens if I make some changes; will it still work? If you experiment enough, you get a deeper understanding."

And then what? Keep chugging along. Tao explains that math is more like rock climbing than some glamorous pursuit."It's not about being smart or even fast," Tao added. "It's like climbing a cliff: If you're very strong and quick and have a lot of rope, it helps, but you need to devise a good route to get up there. Doing calculations quickly and knowing a lot of facts are like a rock climber with strength, quickness and good tools. You still need a plan—that's the hard part—and you have to see the bigger picture."

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Written by Curiosity Staff June 5, 2017

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