High School Dropout Wins Presitigous Fields Medal in Math

June Huh dropped out of high school at the age of 16 to write poetry. He hated math in elementary school, yet ended up finding beauty in mathematics after taking an Intro to Algebra course during his 6th year of college. This year, he won the Fields Medal (Nobel prize for math).

Huh is an interesting character. He had difficulty navigating through normal life and only works 3 hours per day. During those 3 hours, he tries to do extremely focused work. But, if he has to do something like taking his kids to the doctor, it completely drains him and he takes the rest of the day off.

His father tried to force math onto him as a young kid as many parents do. Finally, he gave up and let him follow his own path. It wasn’t until during his 6th year of college that he took an intro to algebra course and learned that he enjoyed learning math from an eccentric professor.

You can read the rest of the story at the link provided. What I found so interesting is to think about how often we try to force people to go and particular path when following their own circuitous route may have been better off in the first place.

Below are a few quotes from the story:

On any given day, Huh does about three hours of focused work. He might think about a math problem, or prepare to lecture a classroom of students, or schedule doctor’s appointments for his two sons. “Then I’m exhausted,” he said. “Doing something that’s valuable, meaningful, creative” — or a task that he doesn’t particularly want to do, like scheduling those appointments — “takes away a lot of your energy.”

School was excruciating for him. He loved to learn but couldn’t focus or absorb anything in a classroom setting.

He tried his best to avoid math whenever possible. His father once tried to teach him out of a workbook, but rather than try to solve the problems, Huh would copy the solutions from the back. When his father caught on and tore those pages out, Huh went to a local bookstore and wrote down the answers there. “He gave up at that point,” Huh said.

He finds that forcing himself to do something or defining a specific goal — even for something he enjoys — never works. It’s particularly difficult for him to move his attention from one thing to another. “I think intention and willpower … are highly overrated,” he said. “You rarely achieve anything with those things.”

It took Huh six years to graduate. In that sixth year, he enrolled in a class taught by the famed Japanese mathematician Heisuke Hironaka, who won the Fields Medal in 1970. Hironaka was charismatic, and Huh quickly fell under his sway.

“Basically, he lectured about what he thought about yesterday,” Huh said — a very particular problem, and proofs that weren’t necessarily correct. What began as a 200-student class quickly dwindled; a few weeks later, only five students were left, Huh among them.

Huh discovered that this kind of mathematics could give him what poetry could not: the ability to search for beauty outside himself, to try to grasp something external, objective and true, in a way that opened him up more than writing ever had. “You don’t think about your small self,” he said. “There’s no place for ego.” He found that unlike when he was a poet, he was never motivated by the desire for recognition. He just wanted to do math.

Hironaka, perhaps recognizing this, took him under his wing. After Huh graduated and started a master’s program at Seoul National University — where he also met Nayoung Kim, now his wife — he spent a lot of time with Hironaka. During breaks, he followed the professor back to Japan, staying with him in Tokyo and Kyoto, carrying his bags, sharing meals, and of course continuing to discuss math.

He goes for a long walk after lunch each day, then returns to his office to do some more work (unless he’s already hit his three-hour quota) before heading home. He spends the rest of the evening with his family; they all go to sleep, together in one large bed, at around 9 p.m.

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