Update: I was ignorant when I first wrote this — I couldn’t even name a handful of mathematical insights derived this century (but there are plenty). I should’ve instead explored why ancient mathematicians appeared smarter. I think this appearance is mainly due to the fact that they picked up low-hanging and foundational fruits. These attributes, in conjunction with time, made more modern people aware of their work, thus contributing to the illusory truth effect.
Below lies the original blog: *** Opinion: Ancient mathematicians are smarter.
But, the Mesopotamians, or ancient Greeks, or Renaissance-undergoing Prussians weren’t just genetically smart: What’re some fundamental principles that fostered such an intellectual environment?
- Totally Diminishing Marginal Utility
Marginal utility, an Econ jargon, is the satisfaction derived from consuming a product. Diminishing marginal utility observes marginal utilities over all products consumed, and rules that
Consuming the (N+1)th item derives less pleasure than consuming the Nth.
But, I’m afraid, due to the abundance of information, ALL marginal utilities on academic materials have decreased:
Consuming Euler's Elements of Algebra in the 2000s derives less pleasure than consuming it in the 1600s.
The consequence of abundance is the lost of scarcity, the lost of the human nature to care for vulnerable, precious things.
- Diminishing Focus
Neil Postman wrote that whole
Amusing Ourselves to Death book that I remember reading in high school for actually, self-help purposes. However, what he observed in 1985 about the dangers of TV and media must’ve tripled by today. His main theory was that television reduces important things to mere entertainment, therefore diluting focus and purpose.
- Less Purpose
On the note of less purpose: Mathematicians were really smart during war times. Alan Turing and his colleagues recruited through crossword puzzle contests cracked the enigma, and the whole space race thing was another level of spectacle (Oh gosh, spectacle, did I just reduce the space race to mere entertainment?).
Although us contemporary folks can still find purpose without war and religion, those purposes were embedded in our systems and simple to follow. Today, we are out of luck, our lives are comparably easier, which ironically makes living a purposeful life harder.