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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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    $\begingroup$ Am I the only one bothered by "well-known" and "great"? Unqualified by context, these are unreliable terms at best. $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Oct 31 '09 at 21:09
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    $\begingroup$ So is "prodigy." But I think the intent of the question is clear. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Oct 31 '09 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ My only response is a strong desire to go in and add <sup>[citation needed]</sup> to the first sentence. $\endgroup$ – Theo Johnson-Freyd Apr 25 '10 at 2:23
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    $\begingroup$ I'm 26, currently in my last semester undergrad. studying Physics and Mathematics. You have no idea how encouraging this thread is. $\endgroup$ – AmagicalFishy Feb 26 '15 at 20:46
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    $\begingroup$ This question helped me despite having been deemed "unlikely to help any future visitors." $\endgroup$ – j0equ1nn Oct 23 '15 at 3:51

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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:

http://www.nyas.org/Publications/Detail.aspx?cid=14047af0-9f26-481c-9b50-9434130c89db

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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ – The Mathemagician Apr 29 '10 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ – Joseph Malkevitch Apr 29 '10 at 23:38
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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ – The Mathemagician Apr 30 '10 at 4:26
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Unfortunately, all these exceptions appear to be reaches, thus proving the rule.

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    $\begingroup$ Uh,Wierstrauss was 42 when he got his doctorate in an age when people barely made it to 65-how is that a reach? Old people aren't supposed to succeed,that's what it boils down to.It's a real tragic prejudice. $\endgroup$ – The Mathemagician Apr 24 '10 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ There were so many answers given here, and so many mathematicians out there, that one 42-year-old does not really refute the conclusion. (But thanks, I did glance at the Weierstrauss link without finding that age.) Amassing a pile of evidence saying that nearly all great mathematicians did not do their great work late in life is not the same as advancing a premise that says mathematicians shouldn't do great things late in life. p.s. I am in my 40's and not very concerned about my age in relation to math (or other things). Oh, and I believe my best work is yet to come! $\endgroup$ – Eric Zaslow Apr 26 '10 at 22:55
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    $\begingroup$ Eric,I think there's more then a dozen good examples here at this post alone other then Weirstrauss so far.I'm over 35 and spent my adult life caring for dying loved ones before becoming ill myself.I'm a master's degree student struggling with my health and still working for a PHD. Life isn't a straight line and the profession seems mired in Hardy Preconception-my point is there are PLENTY of counterexamples and as lifespans continue to increase,I think such cases will proliferate and become more common. $\endgroup$ – The Mathemagician Apr 29 '10 at 20:22
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I don't know if Jean van Heijenoort counts as great, but his life story is amazing.

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