One of the world’s top mathematicians is an idler, finds Tom Hodgkinson
Thanks to Idler reader Lakhraj Minhas for sharing a great story about 39-year-old Princeton maths genius June Huh. Professor Huh recently received the Fields Medal, which is the highest honour in mathematics. The secret of his success? He never works for more than three hours a day.
A profile of the mathematician in Quanta magazine says that Huh, a former poet, gets tired easily and works slowly.
“On any given day, Huh does about three hours of focused work. He might think about a math problem, or prepare to lecture a classroom of students, or schedule doctor’s appointments for his two sons. ‘Then I’m exhausted,’ he said. ‘Doing something that’s valuable, meaningful, creative’ — or a task that he doesn’t particularly want to do, like scheduling those appointments — ‘takes away a lot of your energy.’”
Quanta says that Huh lets his unconscious self do the work.
“Maybe last week, he didn’t understand something, but now, without any additional input, the pieces have clicked into place without his realising it. He likens it to the way your mind can surprise you and create unexpected connections when you’re dreaming. ‘It’s just amazing what human minds are capable of,’ he said. ‘And it’s nice to admit that we don’t know what’s going on.’”
As well as such Socratic reflections, Huh is given to Blakeian utterances such as, “what motivates us is the pursuit of beauty”. What a hero for idlers!
The worlds of art and science famously separated in the 20th century. You were either a poet or a scientist. Huh is both. He has, like Blake, made a connection with eternity’s sunrise.
Now if you’re a fan of William Blake and Mark Vernon, and of the Idler in general, then I would guess you will love our new Idler Academy course, William Blake in 42 Images: The Life and Lessons of an English Visionary.
In it, Vernon analyses Blake’s great paintings and engravings and gives us the pertinent biographical facts, but also reveals just how Blake can help us in our quest to live well.
Blake was a political animal in so much as he attacked the dehumanising effects of the Industrial Revolution. But, as Mark Vernon emphasises, the man who wrote “Jerusalem” was a deeply spiritual figure too. He felt that England had lost its way and become a slave to science, greed and materialism. It was essential, he felt, to reconnect with eternity, with Jerusalem, and to cast off the “mind forged manacles”.
Take a look at the trailer for the course here. The course is free to our Idler Academy members, who, I would remind you, also get free entry to our online “Drink with the Idler” events, as well as the magazine and Idler paywall access.
PS: This weekend we’re off to the Secret Garden Party festival near Huntingdon. If anyone is going, you can come and hear me talk about idling in the Bohemia area on Saturday afternoon. It was Freddie and Jim, founders of the Secret Garden Party, who got us into putting on areas at festivals in the first apace. They came to visit us in Devon many moons ago and invited us to arrange some talks on philosophy. So it happened that three years later we found ourselves building a medieval garden underneath a lime tree and curating a programme of talks in a yurt. Penny Rimbaud of Crass spoke, we held a seminar on Aldous Huxley and a debate on the evil (or not) of Tesco. Four nice young men took advantage of a gap in our schedule to get on our stage and sing some appealing folk songs to an audience of around 17 people. We later found out they were called Mumford and Sons.
Idler No85 – out now! Don’t forget, you can now buy the Idler in your local bookshop. We’re also available in larger branches of WHSmiths, Waitrose, Booths and Easons.
Subscribe to the Idler here and get 26% off the cover price plus a free copy of An Idler’s Manual.
Buy single issues here.