The Quantum Pontiff

Tiger Versus the Theoreticians

David Brooks, has an op-ed in the New York Times about Tiger Woods and his astonishing string of triumphs in the golfing world (including last weekends U.S. Open which I watched the end of on both Saturday and Sunday: my wife was right he did make that last put.) Brooks piece waxes on and on about the Tiger’s ability to concentrate

And for that, in this day and age, he stands out. As I’ve been trying to write this column, I’ve toggled over to check my e-mail a few times. I’ve looked out the window. I’ve jotted down random thoughts for the paragraphs ahead. But Woods seems able to mute the chatter that normal people have in their heads and build a tunnel of focused attention.

Now Tiger’s concentration level is definitely astounding (and his combination of hard work, athletic talent, and mental toughness is certainly unmatched in golf), but I wonder if David Brooks every seen a theoretician or mathematician working?

I mean I’m not sure about you, but the level of concentration it takes for me to read stuff like this is pretty damn high. I know, I know…I’m not the swiftest cookie in the cookie jar. But I’m betting the best and brightest in the world of theoretical science are actually distinguished by an amazing ability to focus and keep out the rest of the world. Personally this only happens for me once in a while: I’m not a walking zombie, you know. But when it does, I wonder if this is what “the Zone” of sports feels like. So while I certainly think of Tiger Woods as the greatest golfer the world has seen, I guess I’m a little jaded when it comes to thinking that his ability to concentrate so deeply somehow superhuman.

Which brings me to the bigger question: how are we going to arrange for a concentration competition between Tiger Woods and a group of Fields Medalists?

Comments

  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    June 18, 2008

    Well, I think a lot of the commentary about Woods went over the top some time ago.

    What I found particularly silly in the piece by Brooks was his opening paragraph contrasting Mediate’s approach with that of Woods, with the unspoken but clear implication that Mediate might have done better if he’d been able to concentrate as well as Woods.

    No question that some people are “mentally stronger” or have “superior concentration” compared to others, but to base your conclusion on observed behaviours which fit your notion of what “superior concentration” looks like from the outside is highly questionable. Different people have different approaches which work for them.

  2. #2 A
    June 18, 2008

    Reading David Brooks is normally a waste of time.
    (Google ‘David Brooks “New York Times Death Spiral Watch”‘). most recent:
    http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2008/06/new-york-times.html )
    “I’ve jotted down random thoughts for the paragraphs ahead. ” (his words, from above)seems to describe his writings best. If his column said something meaningful, it must be an accident (certainly not some pearl of wisdom acquired by any concentration or thought).

  3. #3 Matt Platte
    June 18, 2008

    David Brooks is experiencing that super-extended Wile E. Coyote moment when he’s just looked down…

  4. #4 Bilal
    June 18, 2008

    I watched the U.S. Open this year all the way to the sudden-death round and like you Dave I too was wondering about the mental toughness of mathematicians and theoretical physicists compared to Tiger’s. I am not sure how Brook’s can gauge Tiger’s level of concentration by just observing his steely gaze on television. Just because Mediate is by nature more affable and interacting with the crowd doesn’t mean that he wasn’t mentally equally tough or wasn’t concentrating hard enough. But while Mediate was playing his best ever, Tiger was playing a B average game, part of which was due to his knee injury.
    I once read that Abdus Salaam grew up in a house-hold with many brothers and sisters and they all played and studied in the same room. He had an amazing ability to completely shut the outside world to the point where all that he could hear was his internal voice.

  5. #5 Isabel Lugo
    June 18, 2008

    The difference is that Tiger does his concentration in public with lots of cameras watching, while mathematicians, theoretical physicists, etc. don’t.

  6. #6 justawriter
    June 18, 2008

    And what power of concentration is it that can be disturbed by a shutter click or a seagull’s shadow (both of which made Tiger step away from the ball this weekend)? Baseball players hit a ball going 90 mph in front of thousands of fans screaming their heads off. I think that’s a greater feat of concentration wacking a ball that isn’t even moving.

  7. #7 Dave Bacon
    June 18, 2008

    The difference is that Tiger does his concentration in public with lots of cameras watching, while mathematicians, theoretical physicists, etc. don’t.

    You obviously haven’t seen the Paparazzi who follow my every move while I work in a coffee shop :)

    http://www.theonion.com/content/node/28269

  8. #8 John Preskill
    June 18, 2008

    I saw that putt on Sunday, yet for some reason it didn’t occur to me to compare Tiger to a Fields medalist. What’s wrong with me? It was a nice putt, though.

    But wouldn’t it have been great if pandemonium had erupted just as Perelman typed the little box at the end of the proof of Lemma 1.2?

    As for David Brooks, in the grand scheme of things this was a relatively inoffensive column.

  9. #9 JohnQPublic
    June 18, 2008

    Dude, what theoretical scientists and mathematicians are able to comprehend is nothing short of astounding, in my opinion. It is one thing to have a strong attention span, but it is quite another to grasp such a complex myriad of abstract layers in that same moment. Maybe you don’t have a public watching over your shoulder, but your task at hand is far deeper and more profound.

  10. #10 The Ridger
    June 18, 2008

    @justawriter: I was going to say that same thing. Tiger’s phenomenal, no doubt, but I don’t think his powers of concentration are the reason why.

  11. #11 John Sidles
    June 18, 2008

    I know Ken Regan tracks tournament level chess, as do I. How about that Magnus Carlsen, eh?

    The sustained in-public levels of concentration that these grandmasters achieve is mighty impressive.

    My trauma surgeon colleagues (hand surgeons especially) are capable of similarly amazing feats of concentration.

  12. #12 Ian Durham
    June 19, 2008

    JohnQPublic,

    Yes, but it still would be cool to have a gallery cheering us on once in awhile, maybe asking for an autograph now and then. Oh, wait, the string theorists have that, don’t they? Maybe I should switch to string theory (and sell my soul to the devil)…

  13. #13 Jonathan Vos Post
    June 20, 2008

    As opposed to that episode of “Sliders” where academics
    were treated the way our world treats sports and film
    celebrities. “Oh, professor, would you autograph my
    textbook?”

    “Eggheads”, Episode Number: 7, Season Num: 1
    First Aired: Wednesday April 26, 1995

    The sliders arrive on a world where brains are admired over brawn, and Quinn and Arturo are treated as celebrities. Quinn discovers that his counterpart is a popular college athlete and must take part in a championship game, while Arturo’s counterpart is married to Arturo’s late wife. Arturo’s joy at learning this is marred when he discovers that his counterpart is about to undergo divorce proceedings.

    Writer: Scott Smith Miller, Jacob Epstein, Scott Smith Miller
    Director: Timothy Bond

    Rapper: (rapping) She checks us out from behind thick glasses. We walk right past and we wiggle our asses.

  14. #14 JohnQPublic
    June 20, 2008

    Isn’t part of the appeal of science the fact that you know what few others know? Put another way, if the majority of the population could just as easily digest higher math as you, would it be as much fun?

  15. #15 JohnQPublic
    June 20, 2008

    (continued from above post)
    People can appreciate Tiger Woods because anyone can “get” what he is doing. It is also not hard to understand why what he does is difficult. It’s intuitively obvious to the most casual observer.

    However, it is not nearly as easily to appreciate, say, abelian subgroups. For the public at large, which includes me when it comes to math, there’s not enough information to know if that is a hard or an easy thing that sounds hard. There’s no way to gauge it by everyday experience so it cannot really be appreciated.

    It is that lack of enough knowledge to appreciate what scientists do. But there are superstars. Einstein is probably more popular worldwide than Tiger Woods, certainly more recognized.

    A lot of what makes a public star is the combination of talent and personality. Talent is not enough. There are millions of highly talented individuals in all fields we’ll never hear of. If you want a public audience, you gotta be interesting–not just talented.

  16. #16 Jonathan Vos Post
    June 21, 2008

    The Myth of Multitasking, by Christine Rosen”

    “In one of the many letters he wrote to his son in the 1740s, Lord Chesterfield offered the following advice: ‘There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.’ To Chesterfield, singular focus was not merely a practical way to structure one’s time; it was a mark of intelligence. ‘This steady and undissipated attention to one object, is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation, are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.’”

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.