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How to Turn 5 Seconds a Year into Unlimited Source of Motivation: An interview with Professor Emeritus Olli Martio

Olli Martio and Vadim Kulikov

Olli Martio (right), me (left).

For no less than 25 years out of his career, Olli Martio (born 1941) was a chair of one of the mathematics departments in Finland: at the universities of Jyväskylä and Helsinki. He retired seven years ago, but he hasn’t stopped working nor making ground breaking progress in mathematics. For the last six years he was employed by the Academy of Finland. In 1964, when he was still a graduate student, he had a side job programming one of the first IBM computers in Europe. I was rather surprised to hear what was the main purpose of these machines at the time: printing lots of data on paper. Well, at the time paper was the main medium for data storage after all.

For me the main take-aways of this interview include:

  • The most important thing in being a mathematician is creativity. (Olli also reveals what was his alternative career plan — more on the side of traditional creativity.)
  • The main motivator and the source of passion in mathematics is the initial idea. In a moment of true creativity you get a sudden realisation that something might just work and this realisation motivates you to work through the details, search for alternatives in case of getting stuck, finding proofs for Lemmata (“helping theorems”) and creating new definitions and mathematical concepts.
  • Five seconds a year (yes, 5 sec), according to Olli’s estimate, is the amount of time you have for creative thinking and truly invent something new. The rest is discussions, travelling to conferences, writing down, proof reading, working out the details and on and on…. most of which is often also fun!
  • Olli doesn’t really need breaks or days off from his work, but, as many others, he said that when you get stuck, thinking about something else, or directing your attention to another idea may be a good strategy to get around the wall you were hitting your head against.
  • Mathematical ideas flourish in collaboration. The idea that mathematics is necessarily lonely is a myth of which Olli is a good example.

Stream it from here: 

View on YouTube

Download mp3 from here.

Line-up (add 7 min (=length of intro) to each time):

00:00 About yourself and your work?
3:30 Other career plans?
4:30 What is the most important thing in mathematics? (creativity)
6:00 Concentration? Motiation comes from an initial idea.
7:00 Writing a book in an airplane
8:30 How do you organize your day?…
9:30 Do you prefer working with other people or alone? Is math a lonely subject?
11:30 Counter balancing? Days off? (no, except when hitting a wall)
13:00 Do you ever isolate yourself?
13:30 What is the greatest work-related moment of your life?
14:30 Do you take notes when listening to seminars?
15:00 How has working changed in the last decades?
17:00 programming the first computers in Finland and what were they used for.
21:00 How do you choose mathematical questions?
25:00 Comparison principle
26:00 How much do you know about your work before you start writing?
27:00 What if your idea is already published, or what if you didn’t publish it and someone else did?
30:00 What is most important: motivation, discipline or passion?
33:00 The five creative seconds a year.
34:30 Who did you learn working habits from?
36:30 On beauty in mathematics. Unlike in art, It is not enough to enjoy the building, you need to understand how it was built.
39:00 Advice for 20 and 30 year old students and researchers?
41:00 More on creativity in mathematics.


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