Cathy O'Neil on Slow-Cooked Math

Math is sometimes better when it is marinated and cooked slowly; timeless truths take time. Cathy O'Neil, who blogs as Mathbabe, makes that point in her Q&A post  “How do I know if I’m good enough to go into math?” She kindly gave me permission to reblog it here. I talk about my own experiences after the text of her post. 


Hi Cathy,

I met you this past summer, you may not remember me. I have a question.

I know a lot of people who know much more math than I do and who figure out solutions to problems more quickly than me. Whenever I come up with a solution to a problem that I’m really proud of and that I worked really hard on, they talk about how they’ve seen that problem before and all the stuff they know about it. How do I know if I’m good enough to go into math?

Thanks, High School Kid


Dear High School Kid,

Great question, and I’m glad I can answer it, because I had almost the same experience when I was in high school and I didn’t have anyone to ask. And if you don’t mind, I’m going to answer it to anyone who reads my blog, just in case there are other young people wondering this, and especially girls, but of course not only girls.

Here’s the thing. There’s always someone faster than you. And it feels bad, especially when you feel slow, and especially when that person cares about being fast, because all of a sudden, in your confusion about all sort of things, speed seems important. But it’s not a race. Mathematics is patient and doesn’t mind. Think of it, your slowness, or lack of quickness, as a style thing but not as a shortcoming.

Why style? Over the years I’ve found that slow mathematicians have a different thing to offer than fast mathematicians, although there are exceptions (Bjorn Poonen comes to mind, who is fast but thinks things through like a slow mathematician. Love that guy). I totally didn’t define this but I think it’s true, and other mathematicians, weigh in please.

One thing that’s incredibly annoying about this concept of “fastness” when it comes to solving math problems is that, as a high school kid, you’re surrounded by math competitions, which all kind of suck. They make it seem like, to be “good” at math, you have to be fast. That’s really just not true once you grow up and start doing grownup math.

In reality, mostly of being good at math is really about how much you want to spend your time doing math. And I guess it’s true that if you’re slower you have to want to spend more time doing math, but if you love doing math then that’s totally fine. Plus, thinking about things overnight always helps me. So sleeping about math counts as time spent doing math. 

[As an aside, I have figured things out so often in my sleep that it’s become my preferred way of working on problems. I often wonder if there’s a “math part” of my brain which I don’t have normal access to but which furiously works on questions during the night. That is, if I’ve spent the requisite time during the day trying to figure it out. In any case, when it works, I wake up the next morning just simply knowing the proof and it actually seems obvious. It’s just like magic.]

So here’s my advice to you, high school kid. Ignore your surroundings, ignore the math competitions, and especially ignore the annoying kids who care about doing fast math. They will slowly recede as you go to college and as high school algebra gives way to college algebra and then Galois Theory. As the math gets awesomer, the speed gets slower.

And in terms of your identity, let yourself fancy yourself a mathematician, or an astronaut, or an engineer, or whatever, because you don’t have to know exactly what it’ll be yet. But promise me you’ll take some math major courses, some real ones like Galois Theory (take Galois Theory!) and for goodness sakes don’t close off any options because of some false definition of “good at math” or because some dude (or possibly dudette) needs to care about knowing everything quickly. Believe me, as you know more you will realize more and more how little you know.

One last thing. Math is not a competitive sport. It’s one of the only existing truly crowd-sourced projects of society, and that makes it highly collaborative and community-oriented, even if the awards and prizes and media narratives  about “precocious geniuses” would have you believing the opposite. And once again, it’s been around a long time and is patient to be added to by you when you have the love and time and will to do so.

Love,  Cathy

I especially like what Cathy says about fast and slow. I think of myself as a slow mathematician. It often takes me half an hour to wrap my head around a math problem or much more if it is a big one. I have gotten used to the confusion I regularly experience for that first chunk of time. If I keep wrestling with the problem, and come at it from different angles, usually the mental fog eventually clears.