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Statistically improbable humanbeings December 16, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in people.
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Esquire’s annual article on the “Best and the Brightest of 2007” :

On Franziska Michor, Austrian prodigy and genius at baking cakes, driving 18-wheelers and math. Among other things :

a) twenty-five years old;

b) a slip of a thing, about a hundred pounds;

c) employed by the department of computational biology at Sloan-Kettering, the cancer hospital and research center in New York;

d) equipped with a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from Harvard, which she earned at twenty-two;

e) determined to change the way modern medicine deals with cancer, so that it may truly be called modern;

Her area of work – bringing (more) math into biology, in particular into cancer fighting efforts. And why ?

And she thinks medicine is — though she would never use this word — dumb. Not doctors, not scientists, and certainly not the people she’s gotten to know at Princeton, where she was a theoretical biologist at the Institute for Advanced Study when she was nineteen, or at Harvard, or at Sloan. No, medicine — at least in comparison with cancer, at least in comparison with the blind god of evolution. And what she wants to do is make it smarter. What she wants to do is teach it math.

Read the whole article ; the article itself is well-written. You do get the impression that the Esquire journalist must have been totally floored by someone of this caliber. Look at this extract :

So yeah, Franziska Michor is pretty smart, but that’s not really the point, even though a certain amount of smarts helps, given what she’s setting out to do. She’s also pretty determined and pretty dedicated and pretty damn dauntless, but that’s not the point, either, any more than are her talents at cake baking or ballroom dancing or the fact that she speaks six languages. No, the point is this: Franziska is, in the statistical sense of the word, improbable. She’s to the general run of human capability what she is to truck driving in Austria. Her position on the bell curve of what people can and can’t do is so far-flung as to seem exotic, even impossible.

Genius is fascinating, scarce, inspiring and a real turn on – at the level of personality sure, even by its very nature. We are only beginning to understand the brain, and someday we will better understand genius, and many varieties of these.

I somehow think that one must engage in pursuit of excellence in a way to be really good at one kind of science, one kind of art and some sport. How do we define great ? Maybe say 99.5, 95 and 93 percentile in these 3 domains ? Of course, by definition (of percentile) we cannot all be in these percentile brackets, but wonder where the pursuit itself will take us.

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