OK, this one will prove that I am the geek girl: Count Down: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World's Toughest Math Competition by Steve Olson.
The book is framed by a story about the 6 American high school students who took place in the international Mathematical Olympiad. It is an interesting look at those kids, but it is more than that--there are side riffs on questions of "inborn ability vs. work", the predominance of males in math competitions and the reasons for that, the role of creativity in problem solving, and more.
And, of course, there are the 6 problems that must be solved during the competition. But the actual mathematics is kept to a minimum--with the answers mostly kept in the appendix, so that you can skim over them if you want.
The book looks at each of the six competitors in conjunction with a trait: Insight, Competitiveness, Talent, Creativity, Breadth, and a Sense of Wonder. The author has associated one of those traits with each competitor and uses him (they were all boys) as an example of that trait.
The most interesting one to me was the chapter on talent: Were these kids "born that way", with the ability (honed by practice) to do what they do? Or could anyone do it, given the hours of practice? I had always thought that it was pretty clear that there was some level of inborn talent, probably a good amount. I was surprised to read the skeptics of that "inborn talent" view. Michael Howe, who was a professor of psychology at the University of Exeter in England until his death a few months after the 42nd Math Olympiad wrote a long series of articles of articles and books "arguing vigorously against what he called the "talent account": the idea that just a few people are born with a special mental capacity that enables them to achieve high levels of performance in a particular field."
"Studies of other fields have produced similar results. It takes about ten years of dedicated practice to become a high-level chess player, ballerina, physicist, or mathematician; even the youngest member of the U.S. Olympiad team, Tiankai Liu, had been thinking deeply about mathematics for more than ten years. In a study of seventy-six major composers, all but three had spent at least ten years composing before they began to produce major works, and the three exceptions (Dimitri Shostakovich, Miccolo Paganini, and Erik Satie) took nine years. 'Although it is widely believed that certain gifted individuals can excel without doing the lengthy practice that ordinary people have to engage in, the evidence contradicts that view,' Howe concluded."
I'm not convinced by their arguments, but it was interesting to me to run into a view that I had NEVER considered. And I think Howe was right to focus on the immense amount of work that went into making these "prodigies" the successes they were. Most of the prodigy examples used were so immersed in their field of interest that it is not surprising they look so advanced to the "average" person. If all of us spent hours every day involved in some field (whatever field) for years on end, we would look like geniuses as well.
It seems to me the missing component might be 2 things: The discipline to focus on one field for a huge amount of time, and the ability to put other things aside to do that. Not many of us have the discipline to focus that intently. And certainly most of us making our way in the world do not have the ability to put on hold the rest of our lives to focus on an interest. Even if I wanted to, I no longer have the time to "think deeply" (as the author of the book keeps saying) about issues for hours at a time.....
Anyway, if you're a geek like me, it's an interesting book. I'm glad I read it.