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It is well-known that many great mathematicians were prodigies.

Were there any great mathematicians who started off later in life?

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Am I the only one bothered by "well-known" and "great"? Unqualified by context, these are unreliable terms at best. –  Yemon Choi Oct 31 '09 at 21:09
So is "prodigy." But I think the intent of the question is clear. –  Qiaochu Yuan Oct 31 '09 at 21:12
My only response is a strong desire to go in and add <sup>[citation needed]</sup> to the first sentence. –  Theo Johnson-Freyd Apr 25 '10 at 2:23
Is it time for this one to die? I am not sure it would survive if it was started today. –  Steven Gubkin Nov 23 '10 at 14:29

33 Answers 33

In the early 90's, I had a colleague who had been a professional tennis player before going back to a PhD thesis in mathematics. I'll hide his name since he is now in the middle of his career.

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Dennis Sullivan who won the 2010 Wolf Prize comments on this in his own words in the magazine published by the New York Academy of Sciences:

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WTF are you talking about,Joseph-Dr.Sullivan was 23 YEARS OLD when he began serious mathematical work! I have many friends who are students of Dr.Sullivan and I plan to study with him next semester.He's certainly one of the greats,but HARDLY call him a late bloomer.If he's a late bloomer in his mind,I'm sure it's because he studied at Princeton with teenagers publishing in major journals before they were old enough to drive.Hardly a common perspective. –  The Mathemagician Apr 29 '10 at 20:26
Here is what Dennis said: "I was a late bloomer academically in the sense that I didn't have any pressure to study when I was growing up. In college I got back into academics again and made a fresh start. I was able to attend Rice University in Houston, which at the time was like a scaled-down Caltech. I rediscovered my academic self there after being a quasi juvenile delinquent, running around working on hotrods!" He has some additional remarks not pasted in here. –  Joseph Malkevitch Apr 29 '10 at 23:38
I read his words and I've heard him say them in person,Joseph.He was 23 years old at the time. I don't understand how that makes him a late bloomer.And I'll ask him that when I see him. –  The Mathemagician Apr 30 '10 at 4:26

I don't know if Jean van Heijenoort counts as great, but his life story is amazing.

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