Math can be hard even for very smart people

50 McCosh Hall an autumn evening in 1956. The place was packed. Chen Ning Yang was speaking about parity violation. Most of the people there had little idea (including me) of what he did, but wanted to be eyewitnesses to history.. But we knew that what he did was important and likely to win him the Nobel (which happened the following year).

That’s not why Yang is remembered today (even though he’s apparently still alive at 98). Before that he and Robert Mills were trying to generalize Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism so they would work in quantum mechanics and particle physics. Eventually this led Yang and Mills to develop the theory of nonAbelian gauge fields which pervade physics today.

Yang and James Simons (later the founder of Renaissance technologies and already a world class mathematician — Chern Simons theory) later wound up at Stony Brook. Simons, told him that gauge theory must be related to connections on fiber bundles and pointed him to Steenrod’s The Topology of Fibre Bundles. So he tried to read it and “learned nothing. The language of modern mathematics is too cold and abstract for a physicist.”

Another Yang quote “There are only two kinds of math books: Those you cannot read beyond the first sentence, and those you cannot read beyond the first page.”

So here we have a brilliant man who invented significant mathematics (gauge theory) along with Mills, unable to understand a math book written about the exact same subject (connections on fiber bundles).

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