Grad School, Research

A ‘quirk’ that Dedekind, Mendeleev and Hilbert had in common :)

I always get an extra boost of creativity, motivation and productivity in my graduate research after periods of teaching.  I’ve been working at different math summer camps for the last few weeks, and the experience was tiring and challenging at times.  However, after the camps were finished I noticed that some ideas related to my research have just ‘appeared’ in my head – sounds great, right? …Except that when I share this experience with some of my friends in academia, they usually exclaim: “But teaching is a ‘distraction’ from your ‘real’ work, isn’t it!”

So I convinced myself that I’m just an ‘odd apple’ in academia with this strange quirk of not hating the process of teaching… Then I found out that I’m not the only one.  Apparently many works of Mendeleev, Dedekind and Hilbert were inspired, and driven by their teaching experiences, or dissatisfaction with existing teaching methods.

For instance, Dmitri Mendeleev’s table of elements was first published in [drum roll] a TEXTBOOK!  At the start of his career Mendeleev was one of the many professors with a high teaching load and not-so-high salary.  His famous table was a result of frustration with his students and the teaching materials that he was provided with.  Contrary to a relatively common belief, Mendeleev was NOT the first scientist to attempt organizing and classifying the elements.  Other classification systems were widely published in textbooks but Mendeleev’s class was unable to make sense out of those classification systems. Hence, Mendeleev set off to create his own way of organizing the elements and presenting them to his students.  Soon the famous periodic table appeared in an ordinary textbook for university level chemistry class.

Richard Dedekind was absolutely appalled by methods of teaching calculus at university level.  He was unhappy with all the gaps in students’ knowledge of math in general as well as in subject-specific areas.  This frustration with poor pedagogy of calculus has inspired his works on integers.  In fact, it inspired him to push the ‘boundaries’ of algebra so far that some mathematicians were doubting that his works should even be considered a part of the realm of algebra (for those who are specializing in history of sciences, I’m just trying to say that he has altered the ‘image’ of algebra).

David Hilbert always surrounded himself with as many talented students as he could, especially during the mature stages of his career.  He claimed that tuning into their ideas and bouncing his own ideas against them motivates him to expand his academic views and provides him with inspiration to keep learning.

There are countless examples of other scientists and mathematicians who were motivated by teaching such as Kolmogorov, Alexandrov, etc. (each of them deserves a BOOK  – not a paragraph).

Of course, there are equally as many successful and famous scientists who were sure that teaching is not their thing, which is fine, and deserves a discussion as well – but maybe in a different post 🙂

P.S.: mini-bibliography/inspiration sources:

A Well Ordered Thing: In the Shadow of the Periodic Table by Michael Gordin

History of Modern Algebra  by Leo Cory

Hilbert by Constance Reid


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