Ambassadors Tao_T-004

Published on June 25th, 2013 | by Simi

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Prof. Terence Tao, Fields Medalist

We are pleased to announce Terrance Tao as an Australian Ambassador for Mathematics of Planet Earth.

“I am still shocked.  It hasn’t sunk in yet.” Was Terry Tao’s response at a press conference after he was awarded the 2006 Fields medal for mathematics.  Tao is the youngest ever, and the very first Australian to recipient of  the prestigious award.

“Today Tao is known as one of the most powerful mathematical minds on the planet with major proofs under his belt in areas as diverse as number theory and the mathematics behind relativity and quantum mechanics,” wrote New Scientist of Tao’s ability.

Below are the answers Terry gave us about why he is passionate to team up with AMSI, to bring the beauty and applicability of the mathematical sciences to all.

1. What is your name and what do you do?
Terence Tao; I’m a mathematician working at the University of California, Los Angeles.

2. Why are you an ambassador for Maths of Planet Earth? 
I feel that mathematics is becoming increasingly important in the modern world, but at the same time many people either are not aware of the role it plays (and will play) in their lives, or else feel that it is too mysterious and scary of a subject to even think about. This lack of mathematical awareness can have real consequences. For instance, in the United States where I am currently living, many of the political pundits covering the recent presidential election were dismissive of the polling analysis in the runup to the election, not understanding the mathematics that underlies the accuracy of such polls (particularly if the methodology behind the polls is sound, and if multiple polls are averaged together properly). This led to some incredibly inaccurate predictions by some of these pundits, and possibly also to some strategic errors in the campaign itself. And it’s not just politics; some basic mathematical thinking is also needed to understand developments in economics, technology, medicine, climate, and so forth. So I think it is important to promote mathematical literacy amongst the public, so that they are better informed about the world they live in.

3. Why did you choose the mathematical sciences?
I’ve always been fascinated by numbers and mathematical symbols for as long as I can remember. As a child, I think I liked the crisp, black-and-white nature of it all; a mathematical statement such as 2+2=4 or 2+2=5 was either true or false, with no room for interpretation, and the rules for manipulating mathematical symbols were always guaranteed to lead to a correct conclusion (provided you applied them properly, of course). In high school, I also it very satisfying when I figured out exactly why some mathematical statement or rule worked the way it did, a bit like the mental “click” one gets when one finally “gets” a tricky crossword clue. Finally, when I became a uni student, I started seeing how mathematics wasn’t just a game of pushing symbols around, but was actually used to model and predict real life phenomena and to help design all sorts of modern technology. By that point, I really couldn’t see myself wanting to be anything other than a mathematician.

4. Was there a ‘maths defining’ moment in your life. A key time or event that changed you and projected you into the mathematical sciences?
For me, that would be the qualifying exams when I was a postgraduate student at Princeton University, back in 1994 or so. These were a three hour oral exam in which three of the faculty would grill you on a wide variety of maths topics It had a reputation among the students as an extremely tough experience, but I came into it overconfident and underprepared, because as an undergraduate at Flinders, I had become accustomed to coasting through maths courses, only beginning to cram for an exam when it was less than a week away. I tried the same thing for the qualifying exams, and it was really embarrassing – it didn’t take the examiners long to find many core topics for which I only had a very superficial understanding. My advisor told me afterwards that he was very disappointed in me. It taught me that to really understand my field, I couldn’t just rely on “winging it” and last-minute study; I really had to work hard and thoroughly test my knowledge. In retrospect, nearly failing my quals was probably the best thing that ever happened for my career.

5. Tell us a bit about your research
I work in many different areas of mathematics – every few years I end up following up on some unexpected connections in my research to another subfield of maths. One of the things I’m currently working to understand is the mathematical foundations of a phenomenon called “universality”. Universality refers to the fact that many different physical systems end up being governed by the same universal mathematical law, even if these systems have nothing to do with each other. A familiar example is something called the “gaussian distribution” or “normal distribution”: if one plots, say, all the heights of adult Australian males, or the number of car crashes from month to month, or the daily movement of a stock index, the deviations from the mean are often distributed according to the same mathematical shape, popularly known as the “bell curve” for its shape. For this particular law, we have a good mathematical explanation of why it arises, known as the “central limit theorem”. But there are other laws which have been observed to be universal in the physical world, but for which we only have an incomplete mathematical understanding. I’m interested in one of these laws (known as GUE statistics), which seems to govern everything from neutron scattering to patterns in the prime numbers to spacings between bus arrival times at a bus stop. We don’t yet understand why these statistics come up in these real-world situations, but I and many other mathematicians have made progress recently understanding how they arise from simpler “toy models” which are not as realistic as these other examples, but are easier to work with mathematically.

6. Is it important for all Australians to be mathematically literate?
I think mathematical literacy is as important as other fundamental aspects of education, such as written literacy, civics, or basic science;it empowers people to make well-informed choices. A lot of important cost-benefit analyses – for instance, in figuring out whether one should take on a lot of debt in order to buy a new home or car – rely on being able to work with numbers in some reasonably accurate fashion. The inability to think quantitatively can lead to poor decision-making, and also feed into a sense that the modern world is just too complex to be comprehensible.
7. How can we inspire more people to take up careers in mathematics?
That’s a complicated issue, unfortunately. Having inspiring teachers makes a big difference – my high school physics teacher was brilliant and funny, and definitely inspired me to go into maths and science. Having more prominent examples of people using math skills in their daily work would also help. When I was growing up, I liked maths, but I only had the vaguest idea how it would be used – as a child I remember thinking that I might want to become a shopkeeper, because at least there I could see how to make use of the maths that I knew.

8. Do you think that mathematicians deserve the “geek” tag?
Well, that’s certainly the stereotype, but mathematicians are a diverse lot, and they’re not so different from everyone else outside of their work; they have families, watch movies, care about politics, and so forth. And sometimes they are quite different from the stereotype. My office mate in postgraduate school was a former Olympic swimmer; one of the best maths undergraduates I ever taught was a well known television actress. I think that mathematical ability is actually innate to almost everyone, and one doesn’t need to have any particularly unusual personality trait in order to start developing that ability.

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