An Abel Prize winner intimidated by math research
BLOG: Heidelberg Laureate Forum
John Tate tells the following story of how he enjoyed math when he was young, but didn’t think he could ever do research in it. In 2010 he won the Abel Prize “for his vast and lasting impact on the theory of numbers.”
When I was in high school I read this book called Men of Mathematics by E. T. Bell. Each chapter is a bio of one of history’s greatest mathematicians. It starts with Archimedes, Newton, … I think the last one is Poincaré. Although I liked mathematics very much, I got the idea that there was no point in doing mathematical research if you weren’t like one of these guys, and I knew I wasn’t like Gauss.
But my father was an experimental physicist at the University of Minnesota. I figured any reasonably intelligent person who was interested could be a physicist, so I studied physics. People told me I thought more like a mathematician, and I knew I did, but I was just afraid. (My undergraduate degree was in math because this was during World War II and it was easier at the time for me to get a degree in math.)
I went to graduate school in physics, at Princeton. I had served in the Navy for three years, so I had the G. I. Bill of Rights. One of the things that gave me was that if I got a professor to sign off on it, I could get any book I wanted. After a term I realized I had about 20 math books and only one or two physics books. So I switched to mathematics. But I still didn’t expect that I would do much research.