There’s a legend about the first day of school of Carl Friedrich Gauss, that shows how it should be done. The kids are aged seven or eight, and are supposed to have already learned at dame school to read, write and do simple addition. The teacher checks this – they all say, yes Sir, we can add up. So he tells them to add the numbers from 1 to 100. (So far this is terrible teaching, designed to put the poor kids in their place and establish his authority as alpha male). They take their slates and settle to it, squeak squeak. After ten minutes or so young Gauss lays down his slate, and folds his arms. The teacher warns him not to fool around. No Sir, I have worked it out, Sir, really. At the end of the hour the teacher collects the slates. All but one are of course wrong. Gauss has got it right : the method is to fold the series in two, 1 to 50, 51 to 100, and match them up: 1 +100, 2+99 etc. He has even written out the general formula. At this point the bad teacher becomes a good one. He recognizes that he has been gifted not a bright child, but a one-in-ten-million great talent, takes him aside for spacial coaching, and hands him on quite soon when he has taught all he knows.

It’s a legend, that is improved history. It’s not likely that it all happened in one day, but it is certain that the genius of the son of a village carpenter was recognized and nurtured. It could so easily have gone the other way, and it is to be feared that it very often does. For every Gauss, Picasso and Avery, there are several equal talents smothered by jealousy and ignorance.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Base Community]

Michael O'Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.