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The Moment

I interview a lot of mathematicians and one of my favorite topics is the origin story, the why behind their study of mathematics. I have received answers that range from heavy Martin Gardner influence to falling in sideways from engineering. One thing that I have not received is the story of a single moment, a single turning point that turned a civilian into a mathematician; this is just such a story.


I graduated from high school one year early. I think I was the only person who actually thought this was a good idea. My school did not especially want me to leave, and my father had informed me that even though I was graduating I was still too young to go to college and would be taking the next year off. Not that any of this bothered me at all, I was going to be able to exit the doors of my rural school before the rest of my class and never have to sit through another day of high school again. I was ecstatic.

I spent that year off waking with the sunset and going to sleep with the sunrise. I spent that year off in the local coffee shop with my friends doing nothing of any consequence. I spent that year off reading, watching TV, and goofing around on the internet. It was everything that I wanted it to be, but I was looking forward to going to college. I applied, and was accepted, to a program where I would learn to program video games. I was once again ecstatic, until I saw the bill. It was simply too much. Even with student loans I would not be able to afford one year, much less four, and so began my second year out of school.

I spent the second year doing much of the same things, but a decent amount of the sheen of the do nothing lifestyle had worn off. Most of the people I had spent my years in school with had now gone off to college, and here I was still stuck even though I had graduated before them. I was starting to feel a bit lost, a bit out of place as a townie. I had graduated knowing that I was destined to do something great, and here I was at 3 AM cruising science fiction message boards arguing about how the novels set after Return of the Jedi were superior to the Old Republic fare in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. This was my mental space when I went along with my father to a meeting about growing local commerce in his home town, where he was going to talk about how to run a local produce market.

The meeting was boring. Actually that is not right, the meeting was interminable, tedious, monotonous, tiring, dull, wearisome, irksome, and lifeless. Within 10 minutes I was ready to leave, and within 20 I was ready to volunteer to be the lamb that clearly needed to be sacrificed at the altar of the unholy deity responsible for the meeting in order to bring about its conclusion. After going to grab my fifth complimentary cup of watered-down coffee I flipped over the paper plate that had held the cookies I had eaten earlier and started to write. Well not write exactly, what I did was start to do derivatives and integrals. It had been nearly two years since I had studied calculus at that point but I found that the rust soon flaked off and I was chain ruling and + c-ing with the best of them. The meeting soon became the background noise for my rediscovery of mathematics, and before I knew it my father and I were driving home. My initial hatred of the meeting had long since abated as it had led me to one of the most important realizations of my life, I was going to become a mathematician.

One Comment

  1. Sean wrote:

    Thanks for sharing. It is uplifting to know that even with a couple of years of mental “rust”, a clever mind can reinvigorate itself so easily.

    I never planned to be a mathematician. But now that I have graduated with my PhD and look back on myself as a young person, I realize that I already belonged to that community, only because of the basic level of asking questions that is common to all of mathematics. It drove my teachers crazy.

    Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. ACME Science » Mathematical Origins on Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    […] you can head over to Second-Rate Minds and read an essay that was just published that tells my mathematical origin story: I interview a lot of mathematicians and one of my favorite topics is the origin story, the why […]

  2. Carnival of Mathematics 88 | cp's mathem-o-blog on Wednesday, July 25, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    […] Samuel Hansen wrote a great piece on his and Peter Rowlett’s Second-Rate Minds blog about the moment that turned him “from a civilian into a mathematician”. […]

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