Where are all the special people?

Somewhere along the way, I seem to have lost track of the geniuses in my life…

As some of you kind rajlab blog readers may know, I used to be in a band in college. (For the record, I’m now an assistant professor of bioengineering at University of Pennsylvania. A strange trip indeed…) We were a rock band, and I played the keyboards. I wasn’t really very good. I guess playing a bit of classical piano as a high school nerd doesn’t fully translate to being a rock star, somehow. But it was a ton of fun, and even though it never went anywhere (for me, at least), I consider myself lucky to have been friends with Miguel Mendez, who was the guy who played guitar, sang, and wrote most of the songs. Miguel is a genius songwriter, his lyrics in particular. His songs had that special genius quality that you just know when you hear, and they even if they weren’t good they were always great, if you know what I mean (sort of like Martin Scorcese movies). You can find some fraction of his music online, but he has tons of other recordings and songs that never to my knowledge even got recorded. Some of my favorites I think he only ever just played live for a few friends, like “Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Kant, Oi Oi Oi!”. Many of these songs still randomly pop into my head now almost 15 years later.

Miguel was from Long Beach (same high school as Snoop Dogg), and one of my fondest memories with Miguel was when I went down to visit him in Long Beach one summer when I was in college. He was staying at his mom’s house and not doing much in particular. It was pretty hard for him to get around also, because he–artist stereotype alert!–is an epileptic and so he wasn’t technically allowed to drive. (One of my favorite Miguel sayings was “Living in Manhattan without money is like living in LA without a car.”) We basically just hung out for a few days or a week or so. He showed me around the burrito joints and stuff, although I can’t really remember all that much of it. One thing I remember was meeting up with one of his friends in her mom’s mansion in Santa Monica, with her mom bombed out on Prozac on the couch–I was thinking “didn’t I see this in a movie somewhere?” Oh, and I remember Miguel getting me a pair of uncomfortable orange shoes at the grocery store for $5.

But otherwise, we just sat around the house. He showed me some of his old 4-tracks that he made music on when he was a kid, when he and his friend Farmer Dave used to try and show each other up with their latest awesome song. We talked about our rock and roll aspirations, which I had bought into at the time. Miguel said that he wasn’t afraid of being a rock star, and of the “moments of bad poetry” that went with it, as he put it. He also said that he always know that he was special, from a very young age; everyone told him so and he just knew it, on the inside. It was just a matter of which direction it would take when it expressed itself. I’m glad it took the form of music. When I was in Long Beach, Miguel gave me a tape of his “Machaca Beef” album, which was just him goofing around on a 4 track one summer at his mom’s. I’m pretty sure I’ve lost the tape now after all these years, but I really would love to find it again–it is still one of my favorites.

We all moved to NYC, and I eventually lost touch with Miguel and the band for various reasons. I sometimes wonder where he is and what he’s doing. I’m pretty sure he’s still in New York making music. And then, the other day, I was wondering where all the remarkable people I met in college were. I met a number of them back then. Some of them were, like Miguel, great at music. One guy was an amazing cook. Another guy, Jamie, was an incredible dancer and last I heard (which was many years ago), he was going on tour as a dancer with Paul McCartney. And I occasionally met some in class as well. You’ve probably met those types, too. They typically do math and physics, and are done with college by the time they’re 17 or something like that. I ran into a couple in high school, and then again in college. They’re not just regular smart, they’re so smart that the normal way things are done just don’t make any sense anymore. The two I remember from college were in high school at the time (!), and they were both in a graduate level algebra course that I took as a senior (taught by another genius, Robin Hartshorne). One was Gabe Carroll, who I think went on to win the Putnam four times or something crazy like that–I didn’t really talk to him at all, but I could easily tell his mathematical abilities were absolutely astounding. He would often ask questions in class that nobody but Prof. Hartshorne could even understand, and judging by the professor’s response, they were clearly substantial and insightful.

The other math supergenius I met in college was this kid named Dave (I can’t remember his last name, or whether I ever knew it to begin with). Dave was a quiet and unassuming guy who would just sit in the back of class and work out the math on a sheet of paper or in his head. I don’t think he even finished the class–probably found it a waste of time. I think I remember “working on math” with Dave once. At around the same time of this algebra class, Dave and I were both sitting in on a differential geometry course taught by Charles Pugh. It was insanely hard, and the homework problems were from this book by Hirsch, which I must still have lying around somewhere. The problems were so hard that I couldn’t really understand what the problems were even about most of the time. Dave and I sat in the math lounge one time, and I was furiously writing and talking about my thoughts. Dave was just sitting there, daydreaming and occasionally responding to what I was saying. Whatever he said was so nice and encouraging, sort of like how you tell your kids “good job!” when they’ve added 43 and 89. But it was clear that whatever thought I was laboring on now, his mind had already seen long ago, and that his thoughts were going off in new places, exploring ideas in a split second that I, sadly, would likely never experience myself. I imagine the connections he could make were quite beautiful, like a symmetry that only becomes clear once you have glimpsed both sides.

More often, though, I would run into Dave at the little alleyway that is Durant Food Court, aka the “Asian Ghetto”, where I would often go in the late evening to get some food (Vietnam Village was my favorite). We would talk about all kinds of things, often of the more philosophical nature that was my tendency at the time. It was very interesting to talk with Dave about his mathematical abilities. He had a remarkable ability to never make you feel worthless, but he also didn’t bore you with false modesty, like “Oh, I just took advantage of some opportunities when I was young” or whatever other bromides you often hear from gifted people. He spoke quite plainly about the fact that he had a rare mathematical talent without the slightest hint of braggadocio, which meant that we could quickly move on from the dull “Yes you are, no I’m not” exchanges and instead talk about more interesting things. Once, I remember we were talking about the creative process, comparing in particular math and music. I was saying they there were some inherent differences, while Dave was arguing that they were deeply, fundamentally the same. To which I replied “Math has never made me cry.” Dave said “That’s true… that is a qualitative difference…” and sat thinking for a while. One of the great things about Dave was that I knew he wasn’t thinking about how to out-argue me on this point (it would have been easy for him to “win”), but rather was considering what this meant, and how it might change how he thought about something. Dave was in many ways different than a lot of math whiz-kids in that he seemed much more interested in thinking about the world than in showing he could solve harder problems faster and better than you could. I wish I could remember more of our conversations.

One of the interesting things about these super math genius types is that they often end up in strange social juxtapositions due to their age. For instance: one of the people through whom I got to know Dave was this tall math/physics/computer science guy named Noah. Noah was an interesting fellow, who always had a story to tell, often involving experiences with psychedelic drugs (it was Berkeley). Noah told me that one time, Dave came to his house and wanted to smoke pot with Noah. Noah happily obliged, but pretty soon Dave just got way to high. So then Noah said, “Do you want me to drive you home?” To which Dave said “No way, I’m way to messed up. Hang on, I’ll call my friend and see if I can stay there.” So he called his friend and got the okay, and Noah drove him over there. Noah knocked on the door, and… his computer science professor answered! Noah was like “Uh… I’m here to drop off Dave…”, and the CS professor also looked at him awkwardly, said “okay” and they both just pretended like it never happened. Another time, I had Dave come to one of our music shows (you know, from the band I was in). I think he enjoyed himself, and we were all hanging out together outside when Dave’s mom came to pick him up, which felt somewhat incongruous to say the least. Jamie (the dancer) was there, and said super loudly “Oh, your MOM is here, oh that’s just so cute.” It was really obnoxious, and I think it really hurt Dave’s feelings, and to this day I regret not having told Jamie off about it. I guess it will have to remain a confrontation imagined rather than experienced, as is often the case.

The thing I’ve been wondering about lately is why I don’t encounter more of these people in my professional life. Where are they all? Seems like there are a large number of very smart kids, and yet the vast majority of the faculty I meet seem to have gone through the normal academic path at the normal academic pace (myself included). I think I know a couple people who were the prodigy types who are now faculty members somewhere, but now they just seem normal. And that’s when I realized that the reason I don’t notice all the smart kids is that I’m surrounded by them! It’s just that after so long, you get acclimated to them, and since you’re all doing the same thing and working on the same problems, you just don’t notice it anymore. People like Miguel and Dave always fascinated me because I could never understand how they were so good at what they were good at. But Miguel was always hanging out with other musicians who could understand, like his friend Joel Morales, who was also awesome at music. (Miguel used to say that the reason he thought Joel was better than him was that when people listened to Miguel’s music, people would say “How did you ever think of that?”, whereas Joel’s music would make them say “Why didn’t I think of that?”. Same applies in science a lot of the time.) And the halls of math departments actually do house a number of former math prodigies. Meanwhile, I feel like the people in my lab are awesome at what they do, and do work that very few other people in the world could. It’s just that we do it together, every day, all day, and so perhaps we (or at least I) take it for granted that we had to be special (and lucky) to get here and that we’re fortunate to be around so many talented people.

Some of the prodigies, however, disappear and are never heard from again. Some burn out, and some who aim for academia can’t make the transition from problem solving to research, which are two different things entirely. I think some end up using their “gift” in whatever way interests them most, which is of course all for the best–for instance, last I heard of one guy, he was really working hard on fully optimizing his home theater PC with some open source TV tuner. As for Dave, the very last time I saw him was at the food court, and he said he was going into the Peace Corps for a couple years. Wherever he is, I wish him well.