We often hear about how scientific geniuses had an arts related hobby that contributed to their process, (Einstein and his violin are mentioned a lot), but we rarely get any detailed insight into how that artistic element factored in. Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily, I came across an article in Quanta Magazine about June Huh who had dropped out of high school to become a poet and just recently received the Fields Medal for his work in mathematics.
I will just say from the outset that poetry doesn’t figure heavily into his current practice. He admitted that he like the idea of being known as a famous poet, but wasn’t too excited about the process of writing famous poetry. Just the same, as a youth, he was terrible at math and cheated outrageously on all the math work his father gave him.
Ultimately though, the interest in poetry has informed his work in mathematics:
That poetic detour has since proved crucial to his mathematical breakthroughs. His artistry, according to his colleagues, is evident in the way he uncovers those just-right objects at the center of his work, and in the way he seeks a deeper significance in everything he does. “Mathematicians are a lot like artists in that really we’re looking for beauty,” said Federico Ardila-Mantilla,…
“When I found out that he came to mathematics after poetry, I’m like, OK, this makes sense to me,” Ardila added.
He has a strict schedule of devoting three hours a day to focused work. However, he finds he can’t dictate the subject he will focus on:
To hear him tell it, he doesn’t usually have much control over what he decides to focus on in those three hours. For a few months in the spring of 2019, all he did was read. He felt an urge to revisit books he’d first encountered when he was younger — including Meditations by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and several novels by the German author Hermann Hesse — so that’s what he did. “Which means I didn’t do any work,” Huh said. “So that’s kind of a problem.”…
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.”
Those last two sentences may provide a bit of insight and guidance. Advice to artists, especially writers, is to set aside a specific amount of time a day you will devote to your work. Instead of specific project, better advice might be to devote three hours to focused work without tying it to a specific project with the idea it may manifest in your work at a later date.
Reading the piece, it is clear that his mind operates differently than most people’s. Professors in his graduate program describe him as operating on such a high level, it was if he were a colleague rather than a graduate student. But another colleague said after talking to him about some simple calculus problems, he doubted Huh could pass a qualifying exam until he realized Huh was meticulously comprehending the fundamentals at a depth of understanding he would apply later.
The article is worth a read and is very engaging, if only to help get past attributing greater virtue to those who have reached a higher level of achievement. Huh clearly possess an immense intellect, but is also as flawed as anyone with some quirks he has had to overcome in order to be a good partner and parent.