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Ageism and mathematics

May 19th, 2003

For those of us who are “of a certain age”, it’s encouraging to read this piece presenting some evidence against the presumption that, in the words of GH Hardy, “mathematics is a young man’s game”. The gender part of this claim was debated a little while ago, in relation to the highly mathematized fields of economics and analytical philosophy. The age part of it is also interesting and is related, as Jordan Ellenberg points out to the idea that mathematical progress is a matter of huge intuitive leaps.

It’s striking that, whereas vast amounts of intellectual energy and research effort have been expended on determining whether gender differences in mathematical ability are biologically or socially determined, discussion about age differences is still at the level of casual conjecture. Since discussion is at this level, I’ll throw in the casual conjecture that age differences in research output and creativity are due at least as much to socially determined career structures, as to the biological effects of aging.

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  1. The Anarchist
    May 19th, 2003 at 13:00 | #1

    Depends on what you mean by old. The article you linked to is about a breakthrough by mathematician who is nearly 40 — not a youth, but hardly in his dotage.

    Not many mathematicians do path breaking work after 40, however, which is perhaps why so many seem to make the mid career choice to move into university administration. Not just that, mathematics is a socially lonely pusuit. Andrew Wiles locked himself away in his study for seven years to prove Fermat’s last theorem. Not many people want to do that for their whole lives.

  2. Norman
    May 19th, 2003 at 19:37 | #2

    The clear and overwhelming evidence for the existence of innate differences between male and female brains isn’t talked about, because it’s deemed inappropriate to be aware of the evidence. The differences, however, no matter how true in general, contain exceptions and include significant overlapping.
    The same is true when it comes to the accepted notions on the effect of age on mathematical abilities. One way of looking at the differing dgrees of age-related difficulty experienced in the various academic areas that may help is this.
    In the humanities, new work is often based on us ‘hooking’ variations of well established concepts onto marginally different, but equally well established frameworks, and doing it in a relatively ‘novel’ manner.
    Ask that same [older] person to tackle something for which he does NOT have the relevant ‘hooks’, such as learning a new language or mastering a computer problem, and he’s likely to be a less competent performer. That’s when the professor emeritus asks his grandchild to programme the video.
    Mastering mathematics or learning a foreign language have always been known to become increasingly difficult with age, and at a faster rate than is the case with some other fields of knowledge. It would be surprise, in fact, if high level mathematical innovation wasn’t found primarily among younger researchers to a greater extent than was the case with high level humanities innovation.
    Some consider Galileo’s greatest writings were done when he was well and truly past 40. That may be true — although even here, he was merely publishing ideas he had hit upon in his youth, but never followed through. Speaking personally, though, if I could be 40 again, I don’t think I’d be spending my time on mathematics.

  3. May 19th, 2003 at 19:50 | #3

    If mathematics is a young man’s game, then I really have no hope. I was s**t at it at school, I’m still s**t at it as a youngish person of 28, and will no doubt get worse as I get older.

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