13 November 2015

Chess game with the Devil

I had been meaning to read this article about Terry Tao for the last several months and I finally got around to it on a cozy Friday night at home. I really like it for the way it describes him as such a genial and friendly guy, and the story it tells about even Terrence Tao being intimidated when he arrived at Princeton. My favorite quote though is this one about what it's like to be a mathematician:

"The true work of the mathematician is not experienced until the later parts of graduate school, when the student is challenged to create knowledge in the form of a novel proof. It is common to fill page after page with an attempt, the seasons turning, only to arrive precisely where you began, empty-handed — or to realize that a subtle flaw of logic doomed the whole enterprise from its outset. The steady state of mathematical research is to be completely stuck. It is a process that Charles Fefferman of Princeton, himself a onetime math prodigy turned Fields medalist, likens to ‘playing chess with the devil.’ The rules of the devil’s game are special, though: The devil is vastly superior at chess, but, Fefferman explained, you may take back as many moves as you like, and the devil may not. You play a first game, and, of course, ‘he crushes you.’ So you take back moves and try something different, and he crushes you again, ‘in much the same way.’ If you are sufficiently wily, you will eventually discover a move that forces the devil to shift strategy; you still lose, but — aha! — you have your first clue."