Learning from TED: September 10, 2013

Well, it has been some time since I watched a TED talk, and this morning I decided it was time to rectify that situation.  I was delighted to see a talk on the home page that spoke to my current work situation: Adam Spencer: Why I fell in love with monster prime numbers.

Adam Spencer is a radio host and comedian in Australia.  A radio host and comedian who studied math at the PhD level before giving it up.  As he said:

Put simply, in a room full of randomly selected people, I’m a maths genius. In a roomful of maths Ph.Ds, I’m as dumb as a box of hammers. My skill is not in the mathematics. It is in telling the story of the mathematics.

I could relate to that.  Not that I am capable of doing PhD level math, but I started university as a math major.  It didn’t take me long to realize that, compared to the other students at my high school, I was a math whiz.  But compared to people who could go on to do PhD level math, I was an idiot.  So I changed majors.  But, like Spencer, I did not give up my love of math.

Spencer talked about how he had to add a slide to his TED presentation after it had been sent to TED because the newest (at least as of when his talk was delivered in February, 2013) had just been discovered. He talked about how shared computing was allowing us to make discoveries about prime numbers in the same way it is allowing us to search for life outside of our own solar system.  He said:

We live in an age where some of the great breakthroughs are not going to happen in the labs or the halls of academia but on laptops, desktops, in the palms of people’s hands who are simply helping out for the search.

And to me, that is truly exciting.

Spencer concludes his talk with these words:

That’s what is so exciting for me about this prime number. We thought it might be there, and we went and found it. That is the essence of being human. That is what we are all about. Or as my friend Descartes might put it, we think, therefore we are.

One thing I learned from this talk is that I am still a math geek.  I used to think that I wasn’t really.  Spencer says that, once you are bit with the math bug, it stays with you.  The fact that I loved this video coupled with how much I live helping kids with math all day has really allowed me to see my own lingering geekiness.  And that makes me truly happy.

Another thing I learned was that I should be doing more of this shared computing.  We have run SETI@home for more than a decade, but that has been all.  There are many other projects that I — and you — could be assisting.

I enjoyed this talk this morning.  But now I have to get ready for work!


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