Monday, October 20, 2008

Pierre de Fermat

Malcolm Gladwell writes in the October 20, 2008, New Yorker, that in our accounting of creativity we have forgotten to make sense of late bloomers. We expect poets, artists, and mathematicians to do their best work before middle age. We tend to accept the conventional wisdom that age is the enemy of creativity.

Mathematician Pierre de Fermat (1601–1665) had completed a manuscript for his pioneering work in analytic geometry by the time he was 35, but he also helped lay the groundwork for probability theory when he was 53. Fermat's example contradicts what G. H. Hardy said in his essay, A Mathematician's Apology (full text here):
"No mathematician should ever allow himself to forget that mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man's game." G. H. Hardy (1877 – 1947)
Hardy may have been right that original mathematics is the most difficult discipline to continue into middle age and beyond, but Gladwell says something else is going on. Gladwell's article covers the work of University of Chicago economist, David Galenson, who showed that there are two different life cycles of artistic creativity — the conceptual and the experimental. Gladwell writes:
"The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition."
Fermat was a lawyer first, and though devoted to mathematics, he never felt the need to publish. His work survives through correspondence and notes he made, rather than finished writings. It seems to me that he chose to be the experimentalist, and wasn't distracted by his own early success. Like Cézanne, Fermat was more interested in the process of discovery, and less distracted by his own success.

I usually end a post with a gratuitous link to some new artwork of mine. In this case, I'm connecting Fermat's spiral, which he discussed in 1636, to the first drawing for a new series — Fermat's Spiral. (More to come. . .)

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