Opinion 46: Mathematics is an OLD Person's GAME (Provided You Stay Away from the Mainstream)

By Doron Zeilberger

Written: May 24, 2002

One of the many things that outrage me in G. H. Hardy `apology' is the sexist and agist statement: `Mathematics is a young man's game'. Speak for yourself, G.H.! Just because YOU were finished after forty (or whenever) does not mean that the rest of us are.

In fact, it is true that if you stick to the mainstream, or keep doing the same old things, then you get burnt out. BUT, if you stay on the fringes, free to ponder your own ideas, then you can keep on going for ever. For example, Roger Apery, who at the age of 62 did his immortal irrationality proof, or Louis de Branges, the former `outcast' (because he did the unpardonable mistake of publishing `erroneous' results), who at 54 proved the Bieberbach conjecture.

Even if you are a mainstreamer, you can change fields. Like Lippman Bers who taught himself Teichmuller theory in his mid and late sixties. Or, like Norman Levinson, who at 64 proved that at least one third of the zeroes of Zeta(s) lie on the critical strip. Better still, you can constantly keep creating NEW fields, making sure to be excused out of the bandwagon once they become `fashionable', like 88-year-old Israel Gelfand, who in collaboration with Vladimir Retakh and Robert Wilson created non-commutative linear algebra a few years ago.

But perhaps most important, since math will soon become an experimental science, where experience, maturity, and patience are just as important as `brilliant flashes', we are guaranteed that math will become more and more an old PERSON's game.

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