Finally, Some Details About Artistic Practice Informing Scientific Genius

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.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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2 thoughts on “Finally, Some Details About Artistic Practice Informing Scientific Genius”

  1. This post has more than the usual number of typos. I assume you meant Einstein, not Eisenstein (I’ve not heard that the film director Sergei Eisenstein ever did much science). Also, it is very difficult to work “three years a day”, even for the most focussed of us.

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