[Viewpoint] Study mathematics and get rich

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[Viewpoint] Study mathematics and get rich

I recently heard some interesting news from an IBM Korea executive. The company hired last year more than 100 mathematicians with PhDs or postdoctoral degrees. “IBM Research is now turning into a gigantic group of mathematicians,” he said.

Yang Hyun-mi, KT’s chief strategy officer, shares a similar story. A doctor of applied mathematics, she once worked at the U.S. headquarters of American Express.

“At the time, more than 200 workers there had doctorates in mathematics. The flood of data the supercomputers needed in order to digest the information at the speed of light was the reason behind the recruitment of the mathematicians.

Modern people are already “walking numbers.” Whenever one uses a mobile phone, the Internet or a credit card, it contributes to the flood of data.

By analyzing the information, companies are able to carry out tailored marketing activities while a government will be able to improve tax collection.

Processing the data also could catch a terrorist or cut the death rate from heart attacks. The problem, however, is that the world is flooded with data “garbage.”

If a person can select valuable information, establish a pattern and present a solution that will predict the future, he or she would be on the fast track to success.

Jim Simons, the 74-year-old chief executive of Renaissance Technologies, is the best example of this.

At the age of 41, Simons, who was a math professor at Harvard University, entered the hedge fund industry. He created the Medallion Fund in 1989 with a group of other mathematicians and the firm reported annual average profit increases of more than 30 percent until 2007. Even when the global financial crisis began, he was earning annual salary of $2.8 billion.

Simons had become the creator of a quant fund, which is a firm that makes investment decisions based on quantitative analysis.

On Wall Street, his company was known as “the Campus” for hiring a large number of mathematicians, physicists and astrophysicists instead of management specialists. That may be why the Financial Times once called him a billion-dollar researcher.

Come to think of it, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were all math students.

The winds of change are blowing in Korea, too. More and more companies are looking for mathematicians. “Unless the student has really bad grades, they’ll have no difficulty finding a job,” said Shin Chang-eon, a math professor at Sogang University. When the math student has a double major in economics, he or she can usually pick the company they want to join.

While math students often find jobs in the financial and insurance sectors, some enter the marketing, bioengineering and mechanical engineering fields. Therefore, the number of freshmen deciding to major in mathematics over scientific subjects has increased from 60 percent to 90 percent in recent years.

“A mathematician is someone who finds the core of a problem and solves it. This ability is necessary in every field,” said Kim Jeong-han, president of the National Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

Yang argues that mathematics is the most prominent field of the 21st century. In a lecture to math students at Seoul National University, her alma mater, Yang said, “a mathematician with another professional specialty, whether it is literature or computer engineering, will be invincible.”

That is the reason why Korean parents should emphasize the importance of studying math.

*The writer is a deputy business editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Na-ree
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