The Humble Field Metalist (2019 Book #4)

I finished reading this book in Korean, which translates to Joy of Learning. The book was originally in Japanese. It’s about mathematician Heisuke Hironaka who made a significant contributions in algebraic geometry. He received a Fields metal for his work.

This book was significantly difficult for me to read. First, I hard time with the language - my Korean vocabulary isn’t strong. I had to do a LOT of lookup: My pages looked like this:

Secondly, the book is a translation from Japanese to Korean so I think there’s still meaning lost in translation.

This is probably my favorite book that I’ve read this year. It was one of my dad’s favorite books too and I can see why. What made it so special was that it deeply thought about the meaning of life, and just the sense of warmth and wisdom you feel from Professor Hironaka makes you feel fuzzy.

During my time reading, I’ve reflected a lot about what my purpose in life.

I’ve also thought about death - perhaps I have only 60 years left in me at most under certain assumptions.

This is what I came up with while reading.

First, a big proportion of what makes up death that it is a state of no change. If we expand on this, then a life of routine, zero growth and learning - how is it any different from being dead?

It makes sense. Studies have proven that when you travel, or experience new things, your perception of time is a lot longer. So one can live a 1000 years but have marginal growth. His perception of time will be skewed to be very short compared to someone who lived 20 years and spent time, learning, experiencing life to the fullest.

If I have to summarize the book into one sentence, it’s this: Life is a quest to obtain wisdom and create things.

This book is a strong recommend from me. I hope that one day he can translate it into English. I wrote him an email that I’d do it from Korean to English. Haven’t heard from him yet. 0.0.

Notes and Commentary

  • Having a dream that makes your heart beat by just thinking about it.
  • In order to create you have to learn.
  • Life for deeper understanding of yourself and self-discovery.
  • Despite winning the field metal, this guy is really humble. Says that he’s seen people so smart that he’s question why God was so unfair. He said he had chills when he met geniuses so smart. I agree. I’ve met my fair share of smart people, and I’ve felt that way about some of them.
  • Benjamin Spock - Children need to have an advocate on their side.
  • If people cannot forget, then if some catastrophe falls on them, then they will be destroyed. That’s why forgetting is important. By forgetting, you can “reset” your brain.
  • It’s not that we forget because the content we’ve learned disappeared - we tend to maximize input absorption but brains are terribly bad at recalling anything. It’s interesting - many of our computers are like this. You shove all the data you can, and later on you retrieve. Google is also built on this philosophy as well - it’s not collecting that’s the problem. It’s retrieval.
  • Wisdom has depth, breath, and strength. The ability to think widely, think in one subject deeply, and the strength and conviction to make a wise decision. Learn to grow in wisdom.
  • Lev Pantryagin - Topological groups.
  • During his Ph.D days, he spent a lot of time with two other grad students. He said that when people ask him if he was jealous of their talents, he says that it’s not the case. Rather, he feels that he felt blessed to have learned beside them.
  • He spent two years on a problem until some youngster in Germany solved it before him. He was devastated, and he said he tunnel visioned on an approach due to a complement of his work at a conference. Looking back, he said that it’s wise to have a simple mind.
  • ***** Say a guy loves a girl ****. First, he hopes that the girl likes him back. Then, the hope turns into a delusion that the other girl might like him. Small delusions can turn into reality, and that’s a consequence of human tolerance/cultivation/imagination. In some sense, it’s ironic that the creativeness of the human mind is also its greatest weakness. It’s hard to accept the truth as what it is. And facts as simply what they are. The line between observation and speculation is very thin - and to know the difference accurately is super important.
  • There’s no need to compare yourself to others. You need to have your own, personal goal. I’ve struggled a lot with this personally, and as I’ve grown I usually don’t compare myself to others. They will never be me, and I will never be them. To each his own.
  • Difference between Japanese and American students.

    Prof: What are you researching?

    Japanese student: I’m researching algebraic topology.

    American student: I’m looking into X. My hypothesis is X.

    This requires courage. Be fearless and bold.

  • Component analysis - the reason why the West has been successful in technological innovation and scientific research is the rigorous breaking down of the problem into components, and examine them one by one in microscopic detail.
  • He gave a lecture, and a famous professor said that, “This is too abstract. You need to add conditions and solve a more defined problem.”

    He was dismayed because he thought the professor meant that the problem was too ambitious for him, and he needed to tone down the scale of the problem.

    The professor then said that, “Only when you put constraints, and iterate, you’ll come up the right approach to solve a more generalized version of the problem. The abstraction will come naturally.”

    ** So he went back to the States and worked on the problem. When he put constraints on it, the problem became more murky to understand and read. But when he removed the constraints, the essence of the problem became much more clearer to see. **

  • Thus, he says that to build something like a good company, you need to not optimize for local optimums, because it will hide you from focusing on the essence of the business.
  • This principle applies to so many areas that it requires deeper thought. For example, one of the ways Haruki Murakami’s writing is very different from other Japanese writers is that he drafts it in English and converts it to Japanese. This kind of constraint actually forces creativity.

    Or let’s say that you can only use 10 minutes to explain a hard concept in a video. You would cut and purify your reasoning to the essence. Usually shorter videos, shorter code, shorter things are more beautiful and crisp than longer things.

  • In research and in life, his attitude is:
    1. Take reality as it is.
    2. Develop a hypothesis
    3. Conduct component analysis on objects
    4. See the big picture when stuck
  • ** People always think from their point of view. If a mother says, “I’m saying this for your own good.” -> that’s actually not true - she’s probably thinking from her own point of view and her loss i.e. reputation.
  • Suppose you are solving a problem. He states that you need to flip it around and become the problem 0.0. He quotes a famous mathematician saying, “ Genius is something who can’t differentiate between himself and the problem.”
  • You have to be integrated with your goal and dream. If that doesn’t happen, then you can’t move forward.
  • “To live is to learn - there is joy in learning. Living is also creating something, and there is a certain joy that you can’t feel from learning when you are creating.”
  • Reading gives you the opportunity to think. Books are thinking devices.
  • Studying is not something that’s really difficult to do - anyone who loves to think can do it, and feel happiness from doing it.
  • Henri Poincare said something like, “Creating is like mushrooms.” First, you have to sow the roots - become grounded. But then need a catalyst/distractor, whether that be a change in weather or a foreign chemical to create spores.
  • Ninomiya kinjiro- to be looked up later.
  • To be an artist you have to be hungry. It’s the same for creators - they are always hungry.
  • Even if you think you’ve solved it, you have to check every minute detail.
  • Lessons of Creativity:
    • Flexible with solving problems.
    • The passion to create must come from within yourself. I feel that this is really hard to do. No one just randomly implants some passion on you. It has to come from within, but how does this process even happen??
    • Applications of what you create usually come after the creation.
  • Admits that he’s not a smart person, but a persistent person. That he will go to the ends of the earth to get something done.
  • Wait patiently, and when an opportunity comes grab it. Everything is persistence.
  • Life without challenges will not result in great amazement or happiness. Life is about self-discovery.
  • Recalls this one student of his at Columbia University that kept asking questions. He would call professors late into the night asking questions for an hour. He says that when this student was admitted, his skills were subpar. But after a year, he started asking really good questions, and by his fourth year in college he had an amazing thesis. Went onto become a professor at Stanford.
  • He mentions that what he liked about Americans is that they learn through asking questions, and don’t use questions as ego boosters. They also don’t differentiate between good and bad questions.This attitude of learning by asking all the questions you can possibly have.
  • What’s fascinating is that the American education optimizes for individuality and accelerating people who are ridiculously talented. I hear about how on average the American education lags behind, but this is a tradeoff. It is fascinating. I’m willing to bet that the average performance of all students in the U.S. is low, but the standard deviation between skills is so high we have a wider range of talents.As a consequence there are a lot more experts. It would be interesting to see some research on this.