Addendum to “Prolificity: Stock your head”

27 February 2006

When I jotted down my thoughts on keeping problems in mind that you could think about in the odd moments of the day, I had forgotten this anecdote from the late mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota:

Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”

I say “forgotten,” because I stumbled across it yesterday while on a laptop cleaning frenzy. I had jotted down Rota’s words a couple of years ago . . . and then neglected to keep them in my own mind during the interim.

The quotation is taken from Rota’s talk, “Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught.” (You can find a nice PDF version here.) In finding the links to it, I’ve discovered much more about Rota himself. He was a fascinating man and a great scholar, as this obituary from MIT makes clear. His work bridged mathematics, philosophy, writing, editing, and teaching. From what I can tell–especially given this page of remembrances and honors–Rota’s life presents a fine model of what a scholar should aspire to be. Besides the speech already quoted, I can recommend Rota’s lecture on “10 Lessons of an MIT Education.” Even if your field is not mathematics (mine certainly isn’t!), there is much of value there.


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