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Why No Koreans Can Ever Win Nobel Prizes in Math

Why No Koreans Can Ever Win Nobel Prizes in Math

By James H. Choi
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Dear Sabio Students,

The short answer to title question is: Nobel Prizes for math don’t exist.  That’s why not just Koreans but no human beings ever won them.

Many speculate or joke why Nobel categorically excluded mathematics.  The theory that resonates with me is that Alfred was an immensely practical engineer who couldn’t stand to give a prize for a subject so abstract and removed from reality as mathematics.  But who knows?  You could come up with your own theory and muddy the waters further.

The most prestigious award in Mathematics is the Field Medal, often referred as Nobel Prize of Mathematics.

But the question is still valid if you change the prize name.  If so many Koreans students are scoring well in mathematics compared to those in other countries, how come no  Korean mathematicians ever won the Field Medal?  One typical answer is that Korea needs to teach more creative thinking and less rote memorization in the maths.  I don’t want to repeat that widely-known idea, but rather offer my own thoughts instead.

I would like to challenge why a nation needs a Field Medal recipient for its advancement.

  1. First, why do we need a mathematician of Nobel caliber?  It’s important to note that students’ attainment levels in math are spoken about only as they pertain to the economic growth of a country.  A smarter workforce is supposed to produce a higher standard of living.  By extrapolation, if at least some students can become Nobel-caliber mathematicians, they could raise the whole standard of living, proportional to their intelligence.  But that’s not the case.  Mathematics has no correlation to the living standard of a nation.  Even in business operations heavily reliant on math, such as the search engines at Google or logistics algorithms at Netflix, none of the complex math executed produces Field-Medal-winning mathematicians.
  1. Second, advanced mathematics doesn’t produce wealth.  It’s the other way around.  You need wealth to fund advanced math.  The same logic applied to the Ancient Egyptian standing army.  Ancient Egypt could have its standing army only because its agricultural production was high enough to afford the army, which was a luxury.  Of all scholars, mathematicians are perhaps least concerned about the economic growth of a nation as they pursue their studies.  Not one mathematician I know is doing his or her research so the nation can grow richer, or, so more people can eat better.  Every one of them studies math because it is fun.  Asking a mathematician, “Yes, but what can you do with your math?” instantly brands someone as an outsider to the field.  Having Field Medal recipients in a nation is no just as useful as having Olympics gold medal winning athletes.

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/6378458/Column/Info/English/SpecialEvents.gifFor the sake of argument, let’s assume a Fields medalist could benefit the country, and nations should therefore strive to produce a mathematician of such caliber.  After all, there is some “soft power” advantage of having World Cup winning team or Olympics Gold Medal winning athletes in one’s country.

The way to produce Field Medal winner is not by promoting more math classes or exams.  On the contrary, mathematicians of such level can be produced only by promoting idleness.  After one attains a certain level of traditional mathematics study, the further progress will hinge more and more on imagination.  Creativity in mathematics is not something teachers can drill into their students’ minds.

Creativity is spurred while someone is idle, lazing, feeling leisurely.  The fruits of having such leisurely time are typically distributed like a Gaussian, or the bell curve.

On the far left side of the mean (center) of the curve, you have students who went the wrong way; they maybe went to prison, for instance.  In the middle you have the majority: a lot of people unable to accomplish anything apart from watching a few TV shows.  On the far right end of the bell curve, you have a few people who have enough leisurely time to focus their attention on some interesting problem and win the Fields medal.

But the only method of producing this caliber of mathematician — the ones on the right side — is guaranteed to produce a lot of below-average results too because by offering the freedom to succeed, you will also have offer the freedom to fail.

It’s unclear if a nation should be willing to bear such a cost of producing only a handful of brilliant mathematicians if the byproduct is masses of unskilled ones.   Therefore, I’m always skeptical of the argument that Korea should be producing more Nobel-Prize-level mathematicians.  For the nation as a whole, a widespread high-level competence in applicable engineering-level mathematics seems far more desirable than hosting a vast nation of mediocre mathematicians and just a few brilliant ones.


Categories: How to study
  1. November 16, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    YAY no errors!

  2. J.R.
    December 9, 2021 at 11:47 am

    There are 5 or 6000 colleges, and 3000+ research grade level colleges (universities) in the U.S. I believe. Even if you have at least 3 mathmaticians (with at least master’s degree level to teach) in the field to teach, that’s at least 15,000+ graduate research level mathmaticians in this country – and start counting how many more students, and STEM area faculties are out there. o.1% or o.001% of them to get a medal is not that hard for the U.S. And that culture, I think, stirs up innovation, technical advancements and improve a nation’s economy – it sure does a better job than the Kardashians or Paris Hilton.

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