In the article “Scientist at Work-Terence Tao: Journeys to the Distant Fields of Prime”, originally published by the New York Times on March 13, 2007, author Kenneth Chang writes a profile about the accomplished mathematician Terence Tao. In this article, Chang decides to focus on the childhood, accomplishments and the media attention of one of the premier mathematicians worldwide in Tao. The author Chang quickly managed to grab my attention and eventually convinced me that scientific profile articles can be interesting. Furthermore, careful and dedicate research about Terence Tao definitely changed my views on scientific articles and that they can most certainly be interesting. Research also helped me discover that although the information is provided by an accomplished author and published in a renowned media outlet that the information provided is not necessarily correct.
Since it is an article published in the New York Times, I would cleverly note that this is written for anyone who reads the New York Times, whether by subscription in Brooklyn or by picking up a copy at their Manhattan block’s newsstand along with their morning coffee and cream cheese bagel, but more specifically it is written for those of us who are interested in scientific articles. Chang is an accomplished author, having studied science writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz and has an impressive résumé after writing for media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and the Greenwich Times. Therefore the intended audience is the people interested in reading a scientific article, such as a profile about a successful mathematician such as Terence Tao.
Personally, I am not a part of that intended audience, having a minimal interest in scientific articles. However, I am extremely impressed with Chang’s ability to make this interesting for people outside of the intended audience. He does this by focusing mainly on Chang’s childhood instead of taking a scientific look at Tao’s accomplishments in mathematics. Chang does mention the accomplishments and explains his works, but this is a limited portion of the article.
Instead Chang makes the readers envision a fun interaction between Tao and his four year old son. This interaction, in which he teaches his son William basic additions by using ten cookies, provide the audience with a small insight in the personality of a genius such as Chang.
This however, does not mean that Chang refrains from stating Tao’s brilliance in his text, as he seems to be greatly impressed with Tao’s accomplishments. He does so by showing his multiple awards and discussing the mathematical problems that he has solved in the past. He does not stop there, mentioning every part of Tao’s education, ranging from private school when he was barely three years old, to him attending college math classes as a nine year old and finishing his Ph.D. at Princeton University. Furthermore, Chang states the success Tao has had in solving problems such as Twin Prime Conjecture, which has earned him most of his recognition, and in the field of compressed sensing. The latter has drawn the attention from the military, who are looking to work with Dr. Tao’s mathematical findings to construct cameras which can compress data.
The vocabulary used makes the article very readable, as Chang refrains from using scientific language. Scientific language, in my honest opinion, makes a text less interesting because it forces the readers to focus on language and vocabulary instead of the content and topic discussed. Even though the profile is about a premier mathematician, the amount of numbers in the article are very limited. Which again, increases the readability of the text.
Furthermore, he makes great use of quotations by Dr. Tao, his colleagues and relatives. These views and opinions enhance the readers’ view into Tao’s personality and life. As Tao’s father explains the intelligence of a 2-year old Terrence Tao, “He probably was quietly learning these things from watching ‘Sesame Street’”(103). With this Chang is adding a sense of humor to the article.
Nonetheless, the frequent use of opinions of others and quotations leaves room for questioning the article’s credibility. They are opinions, not facts. There is no way to actually discover if the information provided about his childhood is actually true, because they are opinions.
Since Chang is so impressed with Tao’s accomplishments, he spends the entire article raving about his accomplishments, naming him a prodigy and one of the world’s top mathematicians. There is no part in the article where Chang actually questions Tao’s abilities as a mathematician. He quotes Field Medalist Charles Fefferman, saying about Tao that “He’s as good as they come. There are a few in a generation, and he’s one of the few.”(101). Fefferman shows a lot of praise for Tao’s abilities, noting that he is one of the premier mathematicians of this generation. However, this is his opinion, not backed by facts. Cleverly noted by Chang while stating Tao’s awards, Tao has won a Fields Medal. Noteworthy is that one can only win a Fields Medal if they are under 40 years of age. According to scientific blogger for National Geographic Greg Laden, a generation is approximately 25 years. Terence Tao was one of four winners in 2006, and in the last 25 years 25 mathematicians have won the award. This backs Fefferman’s statement that Tao is one of the premier mathematicians in the last generation, and shows why Chang could have chosen to use this in his article.
I will honestly admit, at first I assumed the information the author provides his readers with is very solid, since he states Terence Tao’s accomplishments and awards. However, after looking up more information on the article and reading the article myself on the New York Times website, I noticed that the newspaper actually provides a correction to their own article. Stating on March 13, shortly after publishing the article that “A profile of Terence Tao, a world-renowned mathematician, in Science Times yesterday referred incorrectly to work he did with another mathematician on prime numbers. They proved that it is always possible to find, somewhere in the infinity of integers, a progression of any length of equally spaced prime numbers — not a progression of prime numbers of any spacing and any length.” The information proves that even the information provided in a scientific article by an accomplished author such as Kenneth Chang can most definitely be questioned.
Anyway, this does not in any way mean that all of the information provided by the author is unreliable. In the article, Chang mentions that Terence Tao seemingly has not been affected by his success and financial reward for his efforts. When discussing Tao’s accomplishments stating “Not that any of that has noticeably affected him. His campus office is adorned with a poster of “Ranma ½,” a Japanese comic book. As he walks the halls of the math building, he might be wearing an Adidas sweatshirt, blue jeans and scruffy sneakers, looking much like one of his graduate students.”(102). Chang describes Tao’s appearance to back his point that the financial rewards have not visibly affected Tao.
Tao’s parents decided not to push Tao into chasing records as far as completing college at an extremely young age. According to Billy Tao, Terence’s father, “To get a degree at a young age, to be a record-breaker, means nothing,”(104). Chang provides us with an example of another child prodigy, Jay Luo, who graduated with a mathematics degree from Boise State University as a 12 year old but has not accomplished much afterwards. Apparently his parents’ view on raising a genius has translated over to Tao’s opinion. He responds to a question on his online Word press page regarding a 9-year old kid from Hong Kong who’s considered a genius saying “that going to university at such a young age purely for the chance to hold some sort of record is a very bad idea; these records ultimately don’t mean very much in the long run, and if the child is not ready it can actually be harmful to pursue these things.” Tao actually provides those who are interested in gifted education his view on the topic with an entire Word press section.
He is a firm believer that one needs to enjoy their work, which co-signs with his sayings in the article that he just wants to focus on mathematics instead of the limelight and financial benefits. Tao has a quotation by American author Bruce Barton posted on his “Advice on gifted education” section, quoting “If you can give your son or daughter only one gift, let it be enthusiasm.” This, of course, further shows that he just enjoys solving mathematical problems. All of Tao’s sayings online are comparable to the information presented in the article, backing the article’s credibility.
Chang has surprised me with his ability to make a scientific article interesting to me, even though I have not found scientific articles or mathematics appealing. He is certainly impressed by the genius that is Terence Tao, and has convinced me of the accomplishments of Tao even after doing research. I agree with the author’s view that Tao is an extremely intelligent individual and that he has accomplished some incredible problem solving in mathematics.
However, this article has also made me see that even though it is scientific and written by an accomplished author while published in a renowned media outlet, the information is not necessarily correct. As an important part of Tao’s accomplishments were actually incorrectly represented in the article.
Chang, Kenneth. “Scientist at Work-Terence Tao: Journeys to the Distant Fields of Prime.” The McGraw-Hill Guide: Writing for College, Writing for Life. 2nd Eds. Duane Roen, Gregory R. Glau, and Barry M. Maid. New York: McGraw Hill. 101-105. Print.
Chang, Kenneth. “Scientist at Work-Terence Tao: Journeys to the Distant Fields of Prime.” The New York Times. 13 March, 2007. Website.
Tao, Terrence. Personal informational about Dr. Tao for University of California-Los Angeles website.
Tao, Terrence. Personal biography, for University of California-Los Angeles website.
Tao, Terence. Word press website.
Tao, Terence. “Advice on gifted education.” Word press website.
Laden, Greg. “How Long is a Generation.” National Geographic website.