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From Obscurity to Genius: The Deep Life of Yitang Zhang

April 1st, 2015 · One comment

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Bound Gaps Solved

Last year, Yitang (Tom) Zhang published a paper in the Annals of Mathematics titled “Bounded Gaps Between Primes.” The abstract for the paper is simple enough for a non-mathematician to understand. It states that for every positive integer n, the gap between the n-th and (n+1)-th prime number is no more than 70,000,000.

Don’t let the simplicity of the claim fool you: people have being trying to prove something like this for over 150 years.

At the time when Zhang submitted his result he held a “tenuous” temporary position in the mathematics department at the University of New Hampshire. As reported in Alec Wilkinson’s elegant New Yorker profile, before a friend set Zhang up with the New Hampshire position, he bounced around odd jobs, including a stint keeping the books at a Subway franchise.

Soon after his result was published, everything changed. His employer (wisely and with haste) made him a professor. He was invited to spend six months at the Institute for Advanced Study and accepted lecture invitations across the country. That same year, he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant.

What caught my attention about Zhang, however, was not the elegance of his result (which, as a lowly applied mathematician, I cannot come close to understanding) but the elegance of his work habits.

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Isaac Asimov’s Advice for Being Creative (Hint: Don’t Brainstorm)

March 27th, 2015 · 18 comments

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Asimov’s Lost Essay

In the late 1950’s, Arthur Obermayer worked for Allied Research Associates, a cold war-era science lab. During this period, his employer received a grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency to “elicit the most creative approaches possible for a ballistic missile defense system.”

Obermayer was a longtime friend of the famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Figuring that Asimov might know a thing or two about creativity, he brought him into the project.

The result was an essay, penned by Asimov, on the topic of creative breakthroughs. Oberymayer recently brought this essay to the attention of the MIT Technology Review magazine, which reprinted it in full.

The piece contains several original notions, but what caught my attention was its take on where creative ideas come from.

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Deep Habits: Think Hard Outside The Office

March 17th, 2015 · 13 comments

Reading Under a Tree

Deep Work After Hours

One lesson I learned after becoming a professor is that producing intellectual insights at a professional pace requires deep thinking beyond the confines of the normal workday. Though I’m quite good at protecting and prioritizing deep work against the encroachment of the shallow, the depth I can fit into my regular schedule is not sufficient.

My strategy is to maintain, at all times, a single, clear problem primed and ready for cogitation. I then set aside specific times for this deep thinking in my schedule outside work. I use many (though not all) of my commutes for this purpose. I also leverage long weekend dog walks and the mental lull that accompanies time-consuming house work.

(People sometimes ask what I do with the free time I preserve by not using any social media or web surfing. This is a large part of my answer.)

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Many Senators Don’t Use E-mail. This Shouldn’t Bother You.

March 14th, 2015 · 29 comments

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Redeeming The Luddite Caucus

Earlier this morning I was reading The Washington Post while watching the sun rise (I have two young kids at home: I find quiet where I can). A column by Catherine Rampell, titled The Luddite Caucus, caught my attention.

As I began to read, my interest transformed into concern.

In the wake of the recent Hillary Clinton e-mail story, many reporters, it turns out, have been asking other politicians about their digital habits. After reviewing these articles, Rampell reports that there are a surprising number of United States senators who rarely use e-mail — a list that includes: Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Pat Roberts, Richard Shelby, Orrin Hatch, and Chuck Schumer.

Rampell is shocked that so many senators “proudly abstain” from e-mail.

She accuses them of being “utterly uninterested” in “understanding the daily experience, workplace expectations or priorities of their younger constituents.”

She describes the senators as displaying “mindboggling levels of societal incuriosity,” to the point that this behavior should be considered “political malpractice.”

She concludes by asserting that contemporary technology use is a “necessary” condition for understanding “good tech policy”, rendering these senators unqualified to address laws that affect technology, privacy, labor, global competitiveness, and, for some reason, immigration.

As you might have guessed: I don’t buy this argument.

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You Are Where You Work: More Examples of Fantastically Deep Working Spaces

March 10th, 2015 · 19 comments

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about three writers who custom-built work spaces to help them go deeper with their craft. In response, many of you sent more examples of fantastic deep work spaces. I thought I’d share a few of my favorites, as the more I dive into this idea of “method working,” the more appealing it becomes…

David McCullough’s Cabin

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(Image from Reason and Reflection.)

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough, it turns out, writes his biographies in a eight-by-twelve cabin on the property of his Martha’s Vineyard farm. He calls it his “World Headquarters.” Supposedly, he once quipped, “nothing good was ever written in a large room.”

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Compelling Career Advice from Barack Obama

February 27th, 2015 · 28 comments

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A Compelling Answer 

Earlier today, a reader pointed me toward a blog post about Barack Obama from the Humans of New York project. The post quotes Obama’s answer to the following question: When is the time you felt most broken?

The president begins his response by recalling a doubt-ridden plateau in his political career…

“I first ran for Congress in 1999, and I got beat. I just got whooped…for me to run and lose that bad, I was thinking maybe this isn’t what I was cut out to do.”

What caught my attention (and the attention of the reader who forwarded me the interview) is the idea Obama leveraged to move forward…

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Deep Habits: Work With Your Whole Brain

February 24th, 2015 · 31 comments

Math Problem

Surprising Understanding

Last summer, I wrote a post detailing various strategies for reading mathematical proofs faster.

Last week, I stumbled across a new strategy that I think may be relevant for many different types of deep information processing.

I came across this strategy while peer reviewing a complicated computer science paper. As I read, I quickly became frustrated. I was processing lemmas and theorems, one by one, but as the details for each slipped from my short term memory to make room for the next, there was no sense of a coherent whole. It was as if I couldn’t get my metaphorical arms around this mathematical beast.

After an hour of this blind processing I decided to step back and try to summarize what I understood so far.

It was here that things got interesting.

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