Genius -- the evidence

Lyle Burkhead (
Sun, 26 Jan 1997 02:06:52 -0500 (EST)

Eliezer writes,

> My objection to this whole discussion is that, scientific as it may
> sound, factual as our intentions may be, ultimately you're going to be
> put in the position of saying to some woman: "You can never be a
> mathematical genius 'cause it ain't in your genes."

No. I have never said any such thing. As I pointed out last night:
back in October, before this discussion started, I invited QueeneMUSE
to study mathematics (and I got no response at the time). That
invitation applies to everybody. The vision is always there, for anyone
who wants to pursue it. I flatly deny that (male) mathematicians tell
female students that they can't be mathematicians. I'm not saying
it never happens, but it isn't typical.

I once took a geometry course from R. L. Moore, the originator of the
"Moore Method" of teaching mathematics, in which the students
prove theorems instead of using textbooks. He was a crusty old
bastard, as reactionary as any man I have ever known -- defiantly racist,
defiantly sexist; you name it, he was defiantly it. He didn't suffer fools
gladly, and was combative enough to challenge men 50 years younger
than himself to step outside and settle an argument with fisticuffs.
When I say defiant, I mean defiant.

There was a blind woman in the class. Dr. Moore was 86 at the time,
and starting to slip a little; it was obvious that he had to concentrate
with every bit of strength left in him to lead the class. And the blind
student, of course, also had to concentrate with all her strength to
visualize theorems that were difficult enough for normal students.
She wasn't a star student to begin with, and Dr. Moore might well have
brushed her off and told her not to waste his time. But no. On the
contrary. He stayed with her every step of the way. Whenever he
introduced a new definition or a new theorem, he made sure she got it.
We, the rest of the class, could NOT move on unless that blind woman
was there with us. (Dr. Moore was like Vyaas Houston in that respect.)
Dr. Moore and the blind student, doing geometry together, both
pushing themselves to their limit -- I will remember this scene as long
as I live.

His last Ph.D. student, before he finally retired, was another woman,
Nell Stephenson. I don't know whatever happened to her, but at the
time she got plenty of respect from her (male) peers. She was a star
student, acknowledged as such by everyone. If some idiot had had the
nerve to suggest that she couldn't be a mathematician, there would have
been hell to pay from Dr. Moore, as well as from Nell herself, and
all of her fellow students.

As for being a genius, she wasn't; she wasn't in the same league with
Abel or Riemann. But if she had been, that would have been fine with
Dr. Moore, and fine with her fellow students -- she would have been
even more of a hero in the math department than she already was.
Everybody was rooting for her. If there were any exceptions to this,
I wasn't aware of it.

My experience of mathematicians has been that they treasure every
spark of intelligence they find, anywhere -- not to mention every spark
of genius.

But Dr. Moore, as I say, didn't suffer fools gladly. He had all the
patience in the world with students who wanted to learn, but very little
with pretentious students who expected to be treated like geniuses
because of their test scores. And I'm afraid my patience is also coming
to an end.

> My response is, as always, "Insufficient Data".

Ok. I give up. I put a lot of work into that post the other night.
Wasted effort. It's time to move on to other things.