Five percent

Several years ago I was on the phone with a program officer at the National Science Foundation, and I was describing a possible approach to a topic I’ve discussed here before — “universal programming literacy” — the possibility of everyone learning how to program a computer.

Her response was interesting. She referred to the “five percent who are the math kids”. Basically, she argued, about five percent of the population is interested in how things work, in a way that makes those individuals disposed to become mathematicians or scientists. The other ninety five are just not highly drawn to that way of thinking.

I suppose this idea is analogous to similar ideas about other fields. For example, most of us are exposed to some form of classes about music or art when we are kids. Yet only a small percentage love creating music or art, to the extent that they grow up holding a guitar or a paint brush in their hands, and thereby find their life passion and vocation.

Just in the last day I heard somebody else repeat the phrase “the five percent” in exactly this context, and now I wonder whether it is a given that this is the way things work — that some small percentage of the population are predisposed to becoming scientists, another small percentage are predisposed to becoming musicians, etc. (even in that scenario of course, there will be cross-overs, such as Brian May, who is both lead guitarist for the rock group Queen and an astrophysicist).

We all know examples of siblings who were raised in the same household by the same parents, with essentially the same cultural influences, yet one sibling falls in love with science and the other with, say, literature. This tends to support the “five percent” theory, does it not?

Leave a Reply