Math vs. Verbal prodigies
The Siemens Westinghouse competition just announced its 2005-2006 math, science and technology winners, and the projects are stunning as always. You can read about them here.
One of the winners is a young man named Michael Viscardi, a mathematically gifted student who is also homeschooled. The press release says:
“Michael Viscardi’s project, entitled On the Solution of the Dirichlet Problem with Rational Boundary Data, develops exciting new approaches to a mathematical problem first formulated in the 19th century by the French mathematician, Lejeune Dirichlet. His research, in an area of mathematics called complex analysis, shows solutions to the Dirichlet problem which are, in many important cases, what mathematicians call ‘rational functions.’ Elegant, simple and useful, ‘rational functions’ are particularly amenable to computer implementation. …
"‘Mr. Viscardi dazzled us with his creative use of the mathematical language,’ said judge, Dr. Steven Krantz, Professor of Mathematics at Washington University in St. Louis. ‘His research is profound, substantial and complete, with potentially important practical applications ….’”
The phrase “creative use of the mathematical language” stuck with me.
You see, while mathematical prodigies making creative use of the language are rare, language prodigies are even more rare. Plenty of gifted kids learn to read young. But almost no new, widely available literature is created by people under age 20. I was struck by Davidson Fellow Laureate Heidi Kaloustian’s comment in The Prodigy Puzzle (NY Times magazine) on whether she hoped to publish her work:
“I wouldn’t dream of trying” she said. “I have so much more to learn.”
I can think of a few practical reasons for this dearth.
New research in science and math often happens within the academic world. Sure, universities have their politics, but a proof is a proof, a result is a result. A real world implication is great, but not absolutely required.
Literature, on the other hand, is a commercial business. Books are published not just because they are good, but because acquiring editors could see a market and thought the author had a good “platform.”
Second, more people view themselves as qualified to produce literature than new mathematical or scientific findings. Few people would send in an article to a peer-reviewed science journal without being a working scientist in the field. But scores of folks are typing away on what they believe to be the next great American novel, even if they’ve never published a thing in their lives. This volume means the publishing industry has set up a more intimidating process of agents as gatekeepers. A gifted child is unlikely to have the connections to get an agent to read a manuscript, and a manuscript sent unsolicited to a publisher will not be read.
But there’s a matter of skill, too. Literature deals with the scope of human experience, and even a very imaginative gifted child will have trouble writing about the disappointments and wisdom that come with age. Stories by children often feature the most dramatic of life events – deaths, usually. It is the one thing they know to be momentous enough to justify a story. But this lends a melodramatic tone to student writing. Audiences prefer true tension to deaths.
I also think young children with writing talent aren’t nurtured the way mathematicians are. Sure, few gifted kids are nurtured. But on the margins, we recognize math to be a “tough” field, and so a child with talent there is more likely to be recognized as precocious and sent to higher levels. What are higher levels of writing? Because we believe math and science are “tougher,” winners of those contests get more press. We believe that anyone can write. So young writers are simply encouraged to be creative.
To make a living as a writer, though, that creativity needs to be honed and trained. Given how infrequently it is, and the commercial savvy a young writer would need to navigate the publishing world, it’s no wonder you read of so few literature prodigies.