Thursday, May 15, 2014

If I wrote that yesterday was an interesting day with the Grand Finalists at the Intel Science Fair, it would be an understatement.

A veritable collection of near geniuses in their mid-to-late teens.

I also got to test a little question that has been bothering me for a while...the impact of society on science.

Here's how I tested it. I took the division of mathematics as the subject population because mathematicians on average reach their heights starting around 21 or 22 years, and these kids are within five or six years of reaching this age. So they are a good choice for assessing their future potentials. I classified some 64 Grand Finalists in mathematics into two groups: Pure Math and Applied Math.

In no other discipline the difference between pure and applied is as clear-cut. A pure math is nearly always recognizable from applied math as a different beast from a mile away--a distinction not usually possible in any other discipline of science.

There were 30 pure math, 29 applied math and 5 that I couldn't classify unambiguously, so I had to eliminate these 5.

Among the 30 pure math kids, 20 were from foreign countries (Russia, Bulgaria, Iraq, India, China, Sweden, Germany etc) and 10 from the USA.

Among the 29 applied math kids, only six were from foreign countries and the rest 23 all from the USA.

By Fisher's two-tailed exact test, the difference in the distribution between the two groups (Foreigners over-represented among Pure Math and USA being over-represented among Applied Math) is statistically highly significant (P =  0.0006).

So we in the US influence genius kids to become applied mathematicians and elsewhere they are influenced to become pure mathematicians.

I am not making any value judgement here, but the effect might be lamentable in some respects: at this rate US might run out of novel directions in mathematics for application to practice were it to be that the rest of the nations conspire to secretly hide the output of their pure mathematicians! In this connection, it is worth reading a brilliant editorial by Uncle Syd written 16 years ago: