Originally posted by sonhouse
And by extension from the tone of this post, also you, right? Do you consider yourself retired? You seem to have lived an exceptionally rich and gifted life and I would think you would think total retirement anathema to your life. I think you would just go after other goals. Maybe back to theater? Or never left?
I am no longer a teenager (when I was most interested in IMO-type problems), and I
would feel silly if I attempted to act exactly like I was then. Life has inevitably changed
me, even if I could almost squeeze into some of the clothes that I wore back then.
My point is that even some exceptionally mathematically gifted people choose not to
become professional mathematicians for the rest of their lives. Indeed, it seems to be
becoming less common for someone to stick to the same career path from youth to retirement.
Many participants in the IMOs don't choose careers in mathematics or even in the
branches of science or engineering in which applied mathematics is important.
A member of the one of the earliest US teams in the IMOs decided not even to major
in mathematics as an undergraduate, preferring history instead. After decades of
working outside mathematics, however, in his middle-age he returned to it and earned a PhD.
By the way, one of his American teammates at the IMO did not get the opportunity to
make any contribution to mathematics because he died in an accident soon after it.
Some people used to scold me by telling me that if I finally decided to concentrate on
only one field (out of several), then I had the potential (I wish!) for greatness in that field.
I sincerely doubt that I could have become a great mathematician, though I could be
technically clever sometimes, because I lacked confidence in my creative potential
and, more importantly, I simply was not obsessed by it. It was not quite my passion.
Even if I had most of what was needed for greatness, I felt that I did not have everything needed.
And I lacked the ambition or the courage to work very hard unless I expected likely success.
I cannot say if I made the 'right' choice or even if there objectively was a 'right' choice.
I tended to enjoy exploring different fields (sometimes entering them by accident)
and becoming fairly good (better than most more experienced people) without really
making that much of an effort to develop my natural talent. I can say that I have become
good enough to return the ball most of the time in my exchanges with professionals.
In my view, one reason why fewer women become great in mathematics (or some other
fields) is that women tend to be less obsessive than men. By culture, if not by nature,
women seem better at multitasking, juggling several balls with only one pair of hands.
It's not unusual for a young woman to have to make a practical choice between pursuing
a PhD and having a baby, and if she unexpectedly falls pregnant, sometimes the choice
is made for her if she feels unable to go through with an abortion. Looking back on
their lives, do many women wish that they never had any children in order that they
could have had more opportunities to pursue their intellectual or artistic careers?
Andrew Wiles succeeded in proving (after building upon others' work) Fermat's Last Theorem
because he spent seven years devoting his life to that quest, while his family's other needs
were being care of. What would most people say of a woman who dared to make a similar decision?
Most likely that she was insanely selfish or 'unnatural' in devoting her life to contemplating
an abstraction rather than fulfilling herself though intimate matters of flesh-and-blood.
As the shadows lengthen in my day, however, I am glad to know some people who admire,
like, or even love me for being who I am, while not envying those women who may
happen to be a bit smarter, wiser, or prettier--or much richer.