National Leadership: Globalisation and the Collatz Conjecture

Talk going late into the evening among certain students at universities throughout my undergraduate and PhD studies often left us little time to do schoolwork. The debate would invariably turn to who was smartest among the people we knew. This wasn’t just about being clever — all of us were at least that, with the capacity to produce witty turns of phrase; the ability to memorise prodigious amounts of Latin and Greek history and French literature; and the intellectual horsepower to solve intricate equations. No, the talk would be about those who were “Marvel Comic Superhero” smart, who asked deep questions about human understanding.

We couldn’t even envy those people because they were basically a different species of humanity altogether.

If you were a student in the UK or were a mathematics student anywhere in the world, you generally agreed that the very smartest, the better than top 1%, was whoever was named Senior Wrangler, the top mathematics undergraduate at Cambridge University. The examination to achieve that, going back to the mid-18th century, was accorded the deepest admiration across all the British Empire. Folk wisdom in British life, not least among its academics, was that everyone who graduated from Cambridge University remembers the name of the Senior Wrangler their graduation year, but not the name of the UK then-Prime Minister.

Among those who tried to become Senior Wrangler, and didn’t win but only placed, are household names like GH Hardy, John Maynard Keynes, Alfred Marshall, Thomas Malthus, James Maxwell, Bertrand Russel, and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin).

Frank Ramsey, the mathematical economist, was Senior Wrangler in 1923; Jacob (“Ascent of Man”) Bronowski, 1930; and John Littlewood, 1905. Books are written about Senior Wranglers; places and food are named after them; they appear in literature and films. Many of the top mathematics professors across the world are drawn from those who had been Senior Wranglers. These are individuals who don’t just use mathematics; they produce it.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was Senior Wrangler in 1973. When he speaks about either academic research or public policy-making, those who think seriously about the issues stop and listen.

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