Heidelberg Laureate Forum: Young researchers’ paths to mathematics (and more)
How did people get here? In the sense of: How did the young researchers (and others) attending the Heidelberg Laureate Forum become interested in mathematics (and computer science)? That will be one of my guiding questions for the next week: Young researchers’ paths to the HLF (and possibly older researchers’ paths, as well.) The first pre-opening conversations on Sunday afternoon were quite promising already.
Mathematicians are more self-sufficient than other scientists. Much of mathematics takes no more than a brain, and the odd inspirational book, but not, for example, a well-equipped laboratory. A statement by Luciana Basualdo Bonatto from Brazil on her own start in mathematics drives this point home: “I was curious, and mathematics is such a good place to be curious!” She, in turn, was frequently encouraged by her teachers, including one particular role model: her grandma, a maths teacher; an established mathematical presence in Luciana’s home. But it’s obvious that Luciana also brought a tenacity of her own into the game: She recounts one problem that took her 3 months to solve, encouraged and guided by her teachers, when she was 13 years old.
Luciana has been teaching herself, since she was about 10 years old, teaching mathematics to her friends. She might go back to teach professionally, one day, but before this, she wants to give pure research a shot.
Good teachers, as one would expect, can make a tremendous difference. As in the case of Ujwal Gadiraju from India, who studies crowdsourcing mechanisms at the University of Hannover in Germany, and credits his maths teacher, Mrs. Isnia at the Meridian school in Hyderabad, for getting him into maths, going as far as to say, “if [she had been a] history [teacher,] I would have loved history just as much.”
What makes a great teacher? An answer by Mark Bugden from Australia is short and to the point: he describes his physics and math teacher as “unashamedly enthusiastic.”
Books and more
Mark brings up another recurring theme: inspiration in the form of books. Like many young children, he was fascinated by dinosaurs at an early age, and began reading about them, moving on to more general works (he mentions encyclopedia-like works).
Books certainly made a difference for Vardan Oganesyan from Russia, whom books, in particularly on the history of mathematics, got started on the path to his present work on differential equations at Moscow State University. (His maths teacher in high school, on the other hand, he describes as “the worst in the world”.)
Vardan also reminds me that an introduction to the fascination of mathematics is only the first step. To get hooked, you need to connect with the science itself. For him, the most fascinating part of mathematics is the power of abstraction: There are objects in other worlds, “worlds that you cannot touch and cannot see, but using math, you can say everything about them there is to say.”
Books and inspiring teachers also brought Lashi Bandara from Australia into the mathematical fold – and, via numerous intermediate stations, to the University of Gothenburg, where he works on connections between geometry and analysis. Not teachers from high school, mind you – Lashi hated mathematics in school, with its mindnumbing, mechanical calculations. Asking a question about the why of a certain theorem, he was brusquely told to shut up: “It’s not on the exam!”
At university, studying both performing arts and computer science, it was a particular lecture by Maria Athanassenas at Monash University that did the most to change his unfavorable impression of mathematics. Listening to Athanassenas lecturing on geometry, he realized: “Wow, this stuff is cool!” A later impulse was one specific book, Topology by James Munkres (he adds, and others at the table immediately agree, that I should add, crucially, that he is referring to the 2nd edition), read on and off while working part time as a shoe cleaner. Asking Athanassenas for an honours project set Lashi on his ongoing mathematical trajectory. High school, he says, didn’t help.
Lashi isn’t the only one who had their trajectory changed by really good lectures. Germany’s Felix Lenders started out as a physics student – in high school, he says, he had found physics somehow more substantial, more “meaty” than mathematics. When Felix began his studies, physics students were expected to attend the same introductory mathematics lectures as students of mathematics. These introductory lectures changed Felix’ outlook, and he found the systematic and clearly structured way the lecturers, Winfried Kohnen and Otmar Venjakob, presented the subject, irresistible. Felix completed his degree both in physics and in mathematics and is now a PhD student in scientific computing, developing mathematical methods for optimizing controls, and applying the results to systems such as heat pump for future electric vehicles.
Where Luciana’s grandmother provided some mathematical presence at home, the upbringing of Serbian mathematician Ana Djurdjevac takes this to extremes. Raised in a family of mathematicians, with ample mathematician friends, Ana cannot remember when she first came into contact with the subject – it was always there, she says, since the beginning. And she loved stories not just about mathematics, but about mathematicians. Special problems to solve and mathematical competitions began in elementary school, and Ana went on to attend a specialized high school for the mathematical sciences. When she moved to Berlin for her PhD, Ana’s main motivation was to see how people do mathematics in other places.
All in all, there is variety, but there are also trends. Teachers, books – will it be websites or YouTube videos once the digital natives are old enough? – all have the power to inspire. Reading about mathematicians and the history of mathematics came up twice in my small, unsystematic sample. Clearly, character and personality play a role as well, but that is harder to tease from the conversations. In the end, all these paths led to Heidelberg Laureate Forum. In any case, my curiosity is piqued, and I will continue to collect conversations over the next few days.