How an Inmate Serving a Murder Sentence Made a Huge Math Discovery
May 27, 2020 6:40 AM   Subscribe

 
Hard to argue that he isn’t making the best use of his time and talents here. Thanks for the post.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:05 AM on May 27


I wanted to know a little more about his math background: was he a mathematician or a math student before he was convicted of murder. From this article, it doesn't sound like it. He's a high-school dropout.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:05 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]


Wow it's almost like if we gave everyone equal opportunity at a stable life, education, and societal participation we'd find that most people are good people and have talents that deserve time, attention, and appreciation.
posted by FirstMateKate at 7:15 AM on May 27 [51 favorites]


Brings to mind the Steven Jay Gould quote:

"I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops."

And prisons. I'm glad Havens found his true talent and calling. I'm sad that he found it when he did.
posted by tclark at 7:30 AM on May 27 [48 favorites]


An excellent story, thanks for the link. So many people with so much potential who might never get a chance to explore it.

On a more positive note, reminded me a little of Milutin Milankovic who worked on his theory of climate change being related to planetary variations while imprisoned during the beginning of the first world war. Now known as Milankovitch cycles and (part of) why we have glacial periods in earth history.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 7:47 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]


Havens features prominently in the excellent book Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:00 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]


This is a great and inspiring story; to be able to write and publish an article under these conditions is an amazing achievement. All inmates should be supported in this way.

But "huge math discovery" seems to unnecessarily oversell it. The article was published in the 23rd-ranked journal in the subfield. By that standard, I'd think there are thousands of "huge" math discoveries each month.

That doesn't make his work any less impressive. Very few novels, articles, publications, plays, poems, or paintings are "huge." A song is worth writing even if it doesn't go platinum, etc.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:10 AM on May 27 [6 favorites]


But "huge math discovery" seems to unnecessarily oversell it.

"Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said by me? Does this need to be said by me now?"
posted by Etrigan at 8:17 AM on May 27 [23 favorites]


Nothing in this comment thread "needed" to be said. Chill out with the moralizing.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 8:26 AM on May 27 [23 favorites]


"Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said by me? Does this need to be said by me now?"

As someone whose knowledge and understanding of mathematics asymptotically approaches zero, I found the context helpful.
posted by inire at 8:27 AM on May 27 [5 favorites]


As someone whose knowledge and understanding of mathematics asymptotically approaches zero

Now look here, this obviously, self-demonstrably false representation of yourself shall not stand...
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:40 AM on May 27 [5 favorites]


[Hi, this is a weird thing to fight over. How about call it a "publishable" math discovery and leave it to people whether they think that's "huge" or not.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:44 AM on May 27 [17 favorites]


I have a publication in that journal!

Anyhow, that's awesome to hear. Good for him!
posted by vernondalhart at 9:19 AM on May 27 [9 favorites]


As far as I'm concerned any result in number theory is a huge result.
posted by phliar at 9:30 AM on May 27 [5 favorites]


'Good Will Hunting' brought out the question: could an amatuer math savant actually walk into an academic math department and wow the scholars? According to ask my brother the Mathematician, the answer is yes it can happen, high math is more of a natural sense for abstract visualization than just training. There are unrecognized savants out in the world.

(On the other hand, there are also crackpots, who I think don't really listen to criticism? And tend to prefer quantum physics to math.)
posted by ovvl at 10:48 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]


I actually think it is important to say this isn’t savant-level. Why?

Because it’s still serious talent and no small amount of hard work (even harder given the circumstances involved). Getting any mathematical result published is a huge accomplishment even if the result is not worldshaking.

And I also think that there are a lot more people with mathematical capability at this still unusual level, than there are Good Will Huntings. And we as a society should do a better job of identifying talent and nurturing it, even when that talent is ordinary talent and not “oh wow this changes everything” talent. It could easily still be “changes this one life” talent.
posted by nat at 11:01 AM on May 27 [23 favorites]


Yeah, sorry I was using the term "savant" pretty loosely, not to the technical definition. My personal view was that the film 'Good Will Hunting' exaggerated the prodigy's talents (HES SMARTR THAN EINSTEIN!) in generic Hollywood overstatement, where the story of someone with reasonable unrecognized talent who eventually gets recognized would work in the narrative, but I left that part out of my comment..
posted by ovvl at 3:43 PM on May 27


could an amatuer math savant actually walk into an academic math department and wow the scholars?

The guy you're looking for is Srinivasa Ramanujan.
posted by axiom at 6:32 PM on May 27 [6 favorites]


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