Monday, May 16, 2011

Math as a vocation

A Business Week piece (“This Tech Bubble Is Different”) contains what must be the most depressing quote of the decade – short of references to mass murder or devastating natural disasters. It comes from the mouth of Jeff Hammerbacher, a math prodigy whom Mark Zuckerberg had appointed Facebook’s nimber-cruncher-in-chief. Just 23 at the time, Hammerbacher had assembled a crack team of other brilliant mathematicians and led them on a quest to uncover major trends in the way users were using Facebook’s multiplying features. He was remarkably successful until, at some point, gnawing self-doubt set in. Hammerbacher looked around Silicon Valley at the wiz kids toiling for booming internet companies, and what did he see? “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” Contemplating the apparent smallness of this endeavor, Hammerbacher decided it that kind of job “sucked.” He left Facebook to launch a start-up with a more inspiring business plan. The new company was to develop mathematical tools that could help different businesses analyze the mountains of data they were collecting. The efficient processing of all those terrabites of data could, say, help a company develop a new cancer drug; or direct drivers along less congested routes. Of course, these tools could potentially be used to – you guessed it – target ads more efficiently. Such questionable utilization, however, would not be on Hammerbacher’s plate. What is the likelihood of Zuckerberg himself succumbing to similar doubts? On the basis of my imprecise impressions from YouTube, I would say – zip. Unless he suffers a left-hemisphere hemorrhage similar to neuroscientist Jill Bolte’s famous “stroke of insight.” Which, by the way, she seems to have monetized quite nicely – judging by My Stroke of Insight, Inc.’ web site.