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Root of Maths Genius Sought 251

ananyo writes "He founded two genetic-sequencing companies and sold them for hundreds of millions of dollars. He helped to sequence the genomes of a Neanderthal man and James Watson, who co-discovered DNA's double helix. Now, entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg has set his sights on another milestone: finding the genes that underlie mathematical genius. Rothberg and physicist Max Tegmark, who is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, have enrolled about 400 mathematicians and theoretical physicists from top-ranked US universities in a study dubbed 'Project Einstein'. They plan to sequence the participants' genomes using the Ion Torrent machine that Rothberg developed. Critics say that the sizes of these studies are too small to yield meaningful results for such complex traits. But Rothberg is pushing ahead. 'I'm not at all concerned about the critics,' he says, adding that he does not think such rare genetic traits could be useful in selecting for smarter babies. Some mathematicians, however, argue that maths aptitude is not born so much as made. 'I feel that the notion of "talent" may be overrated,' says Michael Hutchings, a mathematician also at Berkeley."
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Root of Maths Genius Sought

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  • by Mr D from 63 ( 3395377 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2013 @10:54AM (#45280317)
    Second step, treat them differently.
  • "I feel?" (Score:5, Insightful)

    by c0d3g33k ( 102699 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2013 @11:08AM (#45280507)

    Some mathematicians, however, argue that maths aptitude is not born so much as made. 'I feel that the notion of "talent" may be overrated,' says Michael Hutchings, a mathematician also at Berkeley."

    Data trumps 'feelings' and 'opinion' every time. Inconclusive data is better than no data. More data can always be gathered if the results look promising. The mere act of looking might serendipitously turn up something else of interest. Let them conduct their study if they want to and then argue about the results if that's your thing.

  • by Garridan ( 597129 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2013 @11:11AM (#45280531)
    Disclaimer: I'm a mathematician. Great! Let's take a class of people that predominantly arise in highly privileged segments of society, and study their genetics! And only study them, instead doing a broad survey and looking for outliers in the data. Great fucking science, folks.
  • by disposable60 ( 735022 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2013 @11:12AM (#45280551) Journal

    As long as you keep watching the less-developed minds for signs of the lights coming on later than average. Not all people develop according to schedule, and some late bloomers come on strong.

    I know somone's going to say something about so few people accomplishing anything monumental after age 25 that you don't need to bother, but one should notice how few people accomplish anything at all BEFORE they turn 25.

  • Re:Wondering... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Sockatume ( 732728 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2013 @11:13AM (#45280569)

    Language is like DNA: sometimes it mutates by accident, and sometimes the mutation sticks because there's no selective disadvantage.

  • by tchuladdiass ( 174342 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2013 @11:15AM (#45280609) Homepage

    I believe that for the most part, people don't have a "natural" talent for what they are good at -- instead, they have a strong desire for it, which makes the many hours of work they put in seem more like fun than work. In order to be good, you have to put in many hours (4 hours a day, for 10 years) of progressive practice -- constantly working at the edge of your current skill, and pushing that edge slowly forward. It is that way with programming, math, music, art, etc. But to dedicate 10,000 hours, you have to be able to somewhat enjoy what you are doing, or you will give up.

  • by Thanshin ( 1188877 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2013 @11:17AM (#45280637)

    1 - Define "smarter".
    2 - ID the smarter people.
    3 - Treat them differently.

    I think currently the main point of failure is at the first step.

    For some reason, most people are afraid of any definition of "smarter" that also defines lots of children as "less smart". As long as we're not honest with ourselves, we'll never reach the second step properly.

    I think they actually used "Math genius" to avoid the useless debate of "My kid isn't less smart. He's a different kind of smart".

  • by LordNacho ( 1909280 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2013 @11:24AM (#45280747)

    A chimp may not have the hardware to do higher math, but who's to say that most humans don't? Why is that fine genetic line somewhere amongst humans, rather than between us and the chimps?

    You may not be able to rival Usain Bolt, but you'd certainly benefit from training. It seems clear to me most people are not at the limit of their math ability. In fact, we have a society where being innumerate is perfectly acceptable. I think the easiest gains are to be had in training people more (if math is what we want) rather than to try and move the limits.

    The example of Bolt is also interesting. He's of a type that is not normally pushed to do sprints (too tall), yet there he is, the fastest man ever. It will be interesting to see what they conclude about genetic influences on math skill.

  • by Virtucon ( 127420 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2013 @11:36AM (#45280935)

    Yeah, smart people looking for traits in people to better mankind. It's called Eugenics, and It's been done before in the United States. [wikipedia.org] We need to foster creativity and allow each person to develop towards interests that they feel most comfortable with not create programs to identify what genetic traits lead to people being great at any particular thing because that's a slippery slope.

  • by alexander_686 ( 957440 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2013 @11:52AM (#45281155)

    First I find this kind of ironic that they are calling this “Project Einstein”. Einstein was not considered that smart when he was young.

    Second, I am little skeptical of the project. I fear the results with be over simplified and applied wrongly. I think there are different types of intelligence. Language, mathematical, etc. I think intelligence comes from a subtle interplay between genetics and environment. I think character (drive, deferred gratification, etc.) is just as important.

    But somebody is going to find a gene that explains 5% of intelligence (or lack of) and society will start focusing on that factor. Toddlers we be routed to different schools based on this thin evidence, prejudices will be formed, etc.

    I think the research should be done but I do fear a dark period.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 30, 2013 @11:59AM (#45281227)

    Great fucking science, folks.

    Isn't that what genetics is all about? Mating?

  • by Joining Yet Again ( 2992179 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2013 @12:06PM (#45281333)

    most of the problem (weakness in general population) derives directly from the myth that innate/genetic "math ability" exists at all.

    Bingo. We're crap at teaching it, so if someone doesn't accidentally "get it" at a young age, we assume they're idiots and throw them on the scrap heap of society.

    Aptitudes don't test potential - they merely confirm what variety of shit education a person has been exposed to up to now. Coincidentally, most "brilliant minds" tend to be ones which have had good upbringings and gone to good schools.

  • by Xaedalus ( 1192463 ) <Xaedalys&yahoo,com> on Wednesday October 30, 2013 @12:07PM (#45281343)
    And it will be done again. There are people out there, whose notions of happiness are conjoined with the reliable structure of a caste-based society will drive them straight to this. Their happiness and contentment relies in part upon being superior to some defined "other" and they will not stop until they can perfect a reliable means of ensuring that distinction.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 30, 2013 @12:29PM (#45281649)

    No, Eugenics is about forcing people with desirable traits to breed, and preventing people with undesirable traits from reproducing. It has nothing to do with the development of people already born, other than picking through them to find the best breeding stock.

    not create programs to identify what genetic traits lead to people being great at any particular thing because that's a slippery slope.

    No, it's not. Your argument amounts to "someone might do something dastardly with the data, so we should remain ignorant". It's not any different than research into what makes someone physically stronger or more resilient to disease. Since you want to rely on ultimate worst-case scenarios without any possibility of a middle ground (aka the slippery slope fallacy) then using your logic we should immediately halt all biological research.

An egghead is one who stands firmly on both feet, in mid-air, on both sides of an issue. -- Homer Ferguson