From the cover of a memoir by Emory mathematician Ken Ono, recently published by Springer.
Quanta Magazine interviewed Emory mathematician Ken Ono about his new memoir, “My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count,” which he co-authored with the late Amir Aczel. The book describes how Ono grew up under such relentless pressure to succeed that he developed a crippling fear of failure that caused him to drop out of high school. He eventually found his way to the path of a successful math career, guided by various mentors and by the story of Indian math genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, who endured struggles of his own.
As Ono explains in the Quanta interview:
“For whatever reason, we live in a culture where we think that the abilities of our best scientists and our best mathematicians are somehow just God-given. That either you have this gift or you don’t, and it’s not related to help, to hard work, to luck. I think that’s part of the reason why, when we try to talk about mathematics to the public, so many people just immediately respond by saying, ‘Well, I was never very good at math. So I’m not really supposed to understand it or identify with it.’ I might have had some mathematical talent passed through my father genetically, but that was by no means enough. You have to be passionate about a subject.
“At the same time, I want it to be known that it’s totally okay to fail. In fact, you learn from your mistakes. We learn early on if that you want to be good at playing the violin, you’ve got to practice. If you want to be good at sports, you practice. But for some crazy reason, our culture assumes that if you’re good at math, you were just born with it, and that’s it. But you can be so good at math in so many different ways. I failed my [graduate-school] algebra qualifications! That doesn’t mean I can’t end up being a successful mathematician. But when I tell people I failed at this, nobody believes me.”
Read the whole interview in Quanta.
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