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December 16. 2013 7:22PM

Freedom & discovery: A mathematician gets noticed

That America is "a nation of immigrants" has become so cliche that most Americans probably do not pause to wonder why this cliche remains true. The story of UNH lecturer Yitang "Tom" Zhang provides some insight worth considering.

Zhang is a mathematics lecturer, which means that he is not a tenure-track professor. He is expected to teach, not research. But six months ago he became an international star when he released the results of his personal research into a theoretical question that the most brilliant mathematicians have pondered for millennia. On his own, he made an important breakthrough regarding the frequency with which prime numbers appear.

This would be like a little-known English lecturer writing a literary masterpiece. Suddenly Zhang is giving speeches at Harvard and traveling the world to discuss his discovery. Most readers, though, would be more interested in discovering Zhang, who does not like to talk about his personal history.

That history involves his family being persecuted during China's Cultural Revolution and exiled to the countryside, where he could not attend school. And suddenly we have a glimpse at the answer to the question: Why does America remain a nation of immigrants?

One of Thomas Jefferson's great insights was that America would become a meritocracy: a nation in which merit, not rank, political connections, social status, wealth or religious affiliation — would determine a person's fate. This Jeffersonian vision is why the United States is home to 347 Nobel laureates, and China is not.

The West in general has produced 83 percent of all Nobel laureates, a Washington Post review found this past fall. People free to pursue their own happiness achieve great things. When the state directs people's energies according to the whims of the rules, vast troves of human capital are wasted. We would be wise never to forget this.


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