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David Baxter

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Why Prodigies Fail
Psychology Today Magazine, Nov/Dec 2005

Talent isn't enough. Commitment, perseverance and innovation help prodigies make a lasting mark.

In retrospect, it might not seem so impressive that music historian Charles Burney predicted an uncommonly bright future for the musical prodigy performing in front of him, a 9-year-old who possessed what Burney described as "almost supernatural talents." After all, who could fail to recognize that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was destined for greatness?

Betting on a prodigy, however, is anything but a sure thing. The majority of childhood prodigies never fulfill their early promise. "Perseverance is a key part of it," says Robert Root-Bernstein of Michigan State University. "Many of them say that their expectations were warped by their early experiences." When success comes too easily, prodigies are ill prepared for what happens when the adoration goes away, their competitors start to catch up and the going gets rough.

Parents and educators rarely pick up the slack. "I don't see anyone teaching these kids about task commitment, about perseverance in the face of social pressures, about how to handle criticism," notes Indiana University psychologist Jonathan Plucker. "We say, 'Boy, you're really talented.' We don't say, 'Yeah, but you're still going to have to put in those 60-hour work weeks before you can make major contributions to your field.' "

Even prodigies who avoid burnout and resist social pressures are unlikely to make a big splash as an adult. The problem, notes giftedness researcher Ellen Winner, is that to make a major contribution in the arts, and even the sciences "you need a rebellious spirit and the type of mind that can see new things." Most prodigies, however, are acclaimed not for their innovation but "for doing something that's already been done, like playing the violin in the style of Itzhak Perlman." Only prodigies who can reinvent themselves as innovators, she says, are likely to leave a lasting mark during adulthood.
 

David Baxter

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Numerical Nomad

Numerical Nomad
He's on a quest to solve ancient math quandaries?by way of arts and crafts. By Matthew Hutson
Psychology Today, Jul/Aug 2007

Erik Demaine was homeschooled by his artist father, finished college at age 14, became the youngest professor ever hired by MIT at 20, and won a $500,000 MacArthur genius grant at 22. So, is his head as big as his brain? No, he's having too much fun folding paper. (And juggling, and glassblowing, and doing magic and improvisational comedy.) Applying elegant algorithms and powerful computers to geometry puzzles, he takes his origami seriously?attacking mathematical problems he describes as beautiful, cool, and even sexy.

How did you react to the commotion surrounding MIT hiring you at age 20?
It's fortunate for me that I got to learn so much so early because it's a lot easier to learn things when you're young. Other than that, age is sort of an arbitrary number. I like to think that a lot of people could do what I did. But the education system isn't set up for this.

Why did you move around so often as a kid?
It was a joint decision between my dad and me to explore the world. My parents divorced early on, when I was about 1 year old. In the beginning, we spent a couple weeks in different places along the East Coast, and then started making longer stops in places like Miami Beach. We were nomads. We kept experiencing different cultures and people, always trying to exploit what was around us.

For example, I originally got to play with computers because a next-door neighbor had a RadioShack Tandy with BASIC on it. My dad and I wrote a simple text adventure game on the computer that told a story about the neighbor's dog, Layla.

Do you feel you missed part of childhood, such as bonding with peers?
Yes and no. One of the nice flexibilities in homeschool is you can define your peers to be whatever you want. My so-called peers could be kids of different ages; they could be adults who knew interesting things. I think it still influences the way I collaborate with people.

You've had an unusually high number of research collaborators: 196.
It gives a social aspect to problem solving, which is fun. You can talk about math in almost any context. We can hike the Machu Picchu trail and solve mathematical problems at the same time. And the more people I work with, the more ideas and tricks I can pick up. There's always a danger of spreading yourself too thin, but that's better than getting stuck in one little niche.

And now your father is among your research partners.
We have a really close relationship, particularly because of all the traveling we did. We have a zillion shared experiences. He did glassblowing, jewelry making, silversmithing, and whatnot for many years. I enticed him into mathematics when I started doing the computational origami thing. We still live together and work together on math and on art, and it's pretty special. We have almost a different language for communicating with each other.

Which designation are you most proud of: MacArthur Fellow or Tetris Master?
Well, they were both surprising! The MacArthur was a nice feeling because, other than getting a job at MIT, it was the first real validation that people really cared about the things I was doing. Sometimes I've been criticized for solving problems that aren't important in practice.

Do you care about how your research can be applied?
What drives me is the beauty of the mathematical problem. One of the things we are working on now is this protein-folding problem, which could help cure diseases. That is nice as a side effect, but the big draw is finding cool geometry.

Does your office reflect your creative mind?
It's a mess. I have a ball that turns into a Frisbee, and a whole bunch of glass. There are pan pipes from Peru and take-apart packing puzzles. When people come into my office, it's fun to see how they interact with it. Some are completely oblivious to it. Some get totally distracted, and then I just leave them alone to play with the puzzles.

Is there anything you are bad at?
Windsurfing. And arithmetic. Once I discover I'm not good at something, I tend to stop doing it.

What's 56 divided by 8?
?Seven? There's a saying that there are three kinds of mathematicians. Those who can count and those who can't.

Do you consider yourself eccentric?
I guess I try to be. Something about being weird and different has always appealed to me.

I used to not eat chocolate at all because it was too popular. I wouldn't read the Harry Potter books for a long time, for the same reason. Eventually, I tried it and thought, "hey, this is actually fun."
 

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