Interview of Michael Atiyah (aged 86!)


Inspirational interview by Michael Atiyah, winner of both Fields Medal and Abel Prize, currently age 86!

Excerpt from the interview:

Is there one big question that has always guided you? 

I always want to try to understand why things work. I’m not interested in getting a formula without knowing what it means. I always try to dig behind the scenes, so if I have a formula, I understand why it’s there. And understanding is a very difficult notion.

People think mathematics begins when you write down a theorem followed by a proof. That’s not the beginning, that’s the end. For me the creative place in mathematics comes before you start to put things down on paper, before you try to write a formula. You picture various things, you turn them over in your mind. You’re trying to create, just as a musician is trying to create music, or a poet. There are no rules laid down. You have to do it your own way. But at the end, just as a composer has to put it down on paper, you have to write things down. But the most important stage is understanding. A proof by itself doesn’t give you understanding. You can have a long proof and no idea at the end of why it works. But to understand why it works, you have to have a kind of gut reaction to the thing. You’ve got to feel it.

Interesting comment that “A proof by itself doesn’t give you understanding. You can have a long proof and no idea at the end of why it works.”. Sometimes, intuitive understanding is needed, along with formal proof.

One example in high school mathematics is proving \displaystyle \sum_{i=1}^n i^2=\frac 16n(n+1)(2n+1). It is possible to prove it by induction without actually understanding how the formula comes about!

About mathtuition88
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2 Responses to Interview of Michael Atiyah (aged 86!)

  1. Reblogged this on mathematics matters… and commented:
    “…to understand why it works…you’ve got to feel it.”


  2. Pingback: RIP Sir Michael Atiyah | Singapore Maths Tuition

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