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Does anyone have any story of mathematicians who overcame "academic failure" or setbacks to achieve success later as a result of their perseverance? This is a soft question, that hopefully can inspire aspiring students.

New edit: I am especially interested in academic failure (e.g. failure of exams, failure in proof/ wrong proof, failure in getting academic jobs). This is to narrow down the question so it is not too broad. There is another related question on blind/disabled mathematicians which is very good: Who are some blind or otherwise disabled mathematicians who have made important contributions to mathematics?

My ideal accepted answer is a relatively less well known answer (so that we all learn something new), supported by factual evidence (e.g. a hyperlink to a page or a quote).

Some that I can list are:

1) Zhang Yitang, who worked in Subway (arguably a sort of a setback) but later proved a result related to the Twin Prime Conjecture.

2) Robion Kirby, who failed his oral Ph.D. qualifying examination (http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/history/Biographies/Kirby.html) but later proved the "torus trick".

Thanks! (Hope this question is on topic for Math Stackexchange..)

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Qiaochu Yuan, user149792, user642796 Nov 25 '15 at 9:07

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this question, and find it interesting - However, do you think you can accept after only an hour of posting? (Though I do like the answer) $\endgroup$ – Chinny84 Nov 24 '15 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ A good question. Perhaps one would need to define failure to be able to give a good answer. $\endgroup$ – mathreadler Nov 24 '15 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ Euler did most of his work while being blind in one eye. In other fields, Beethoven wrote all his symphonies being deaf. $\endgroup$ – Lucian Nov 24 '15 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Chinny84 My decision (accepted answer) is not final, it can change if I see a better answer. Do keep the answers coming! $\endgroup$ – yoyostein Nov 25 '15 at 0:02
  • $\begingroup$ I've sometimes found I can think more clearly if I plug my ears (or have headphones with music) and close my eyes. But you can't really do that in a working kind of environment? It would look too silly, wouldn't it? $\endgroup$ – mathreadler Nov 29 '15 at 13:09
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The analytic number theorist Hua Loo-Keng overcame abject poverty, handicappedness, political persecution; for more information refer to one of his faithful biography.

Charles Hermite overcame much too, but in different aspects; he failed nearly every math exam that he was to take.

To supplement, the analytic number theorist Chen Jing-Run, the man closest to Goldbach conjecture (who proved "1 + 2") and a student of Hua Loo-Keng, overcame unemployment, poverty, and political persecution; the serial political persecution done unto him was even more violent. But he survived anyway.

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting! I learnt something new from your answer. +1 $\endgroup$ – yoyostein Nov 25 '15 at 0:09
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    $\begingroup$ Where is the "academic failure" that the OP asks about in both your Chinese examples? $\endgroup$ – Alex M. Jun 22 '18 at 12:19
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Srinivasa Ramanujan was such a mathematician. He failed to got admitted to college but he became one of the best mathematician of $20$th century.

Evariste Galois failed to enter to Ecole Polytechnique twice.

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    $\begingroup$ Galois didn't really overcame his failure. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Nov 24 '15 at 15:20
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    $\begingroup$ He didn't live long enough, but he did some of the brilliant works in mathematics, that's a huge success. $\endgroup$ – Kushal Bhuyan Nov 24 '15 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ But it wasn't him who overcame the failure. It's his work. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Nov 24 '15 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ I'd like to add that Galois got his famous work rejected three times by the Académie des Sciences comprising Cauchy, Fourier, Poisson. $\endgroup$ – GDumphart Nov 24 '15 at 16:08
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, particularly Cauchy's behavior was unusual in both the case of Abel and Galois. $\endgroup$ – Kushal Bhuyan Nov 24 '15 at 16:11
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Andrew Wiles with his Fermat proof is an example of massive struggle. He worked on the topic for 9 years and got demolished when presenting an erroneous proof after 7 years. There were several additional problems, but I forgot the details. You can read about it on Wiki and in much detail in the very accessible "Fermat's Last Theorem" by Simon Singh.

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    $\begingroup$ It seems a bit strange to regard "Taking a long time and two chances to solve a more than 300 year old problem" as an instance of "academic failure". $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Nov 29 '15 at 8:31
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    $\begingroup$ @GDumphart: Where is the "academic failure" that the OP asks about in your answer? $\endgroup$ – Alex M. Jun 22 '18 at 12:17
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John Nash struggled with significant mental health issues when he should have been in the twilight of his mathematical journey. He and his wife spent many difficult years battling with this illness. Slowly, Nash started to get back in touch with the mathematical community in Princeton; engaging with the students, his passion for mathematics never died. It was in his latter years that he was awarded the nobel prize in economics for his contribution to game theory.

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    $\begingroup$ Where is the "academic failure" that the OP asks about in your answer? $\endgroup$ – Alex M. Jun 22 '18 at 12:17
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Grigori Perelman who possibly proved a generalization of the Poincare Conjecture - the Thurston Geometrization Conjecture ( has anyone claimed to show any flaw in the proof yet? ).

That being said, it seems that it's not very uncommon with odd behaviour amongst great mathematicians. They have a huge uphill struggle. Anything they discover could overshine or put others' work in the shadows with all the nasty responsive behaviours which that could provoke in any community. Especially if they are also a political nuisance (like Galois was).

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    $\begingroup$ Why do you think Grigori Perelman failed (overcame failure) ? From what I know about him, he lives a life that he wants. $\endgroup$ – DP_ Nov 24 '15 at 16:52
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with you. I don't think he failed. When I read the news it seemed to me that there was some struggle within the mathematical community as he refused to receive prize money but it was some years ago so maybe I don't remember correctly. $\endgroup$ – mathreadler Nov 24 '15 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ He refused on principle as far as I know from the media (if you trust the media that is) $\endgroup$ – Chinny84 Nov 24 '15 at 17:27

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