Mathematicians in Wonderland

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Mathematicians in Wonderland

Park Jeong-ho
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

For a chick to hatch, it must peck from inside the egg, and its mother must help from the outside. June Huh — the first South Korean to win the Fields Medal, dubbed the Noble Prize of Mathematics — had such a hatching moment. At Seoul National University, where he studied physics without much interest, he enrolled in a class taught by famed Japanese mathematician Heisuke Hironaka, a guest lecturer. From the 1970 winner of the Fields Medal, Huh discovered the charm of math.

Huh responded to the global spotlight with stoical modesty. He talked as if he transcended worldly affairs, including his own sudden fame. The 39-year-old scholar spoke like any ordinary middle-aged man who discovered new things from his acquaintances, friends and teachers, and spent the day cleaning the house, eating when hungry and napping when sleepy.

Huh took his equanimity from his mother hen, Hironaka. The Japanese mathematician also received the Fields Medal at 39. (The prize is awarded to mathematicians under 40.) To Hironaka, a mathematician must have a blank mind, free of bias or prejudice, to understand the other. He argued that if one becomes one with the other, he can discover the cause of a problem that could not be solved alone. Math was no different. A problem can be solved when one becomes entirely one with the problem, according to his book “Joy of Learning.”

To most people, math is distant from the real world. Many regret having spent so much time wracking their brain over math problems during schooldays. Hironaka can wittingly correct such a thought. “A human brain remembers just a small part of the past learning. So, why go through the trouble to learn? It is to earn wisdom. One who is ready to learn is better than someone who refuses to learn. Learning is not a waste. Learn heartily and forget heartily. We can start learning again,” he said.

Huh mimics the sage words of his teacher. “I learned more from obscure people” or “A person who is near you can be your teacher” or “Life is not a straight line; it is a repeat of winding and troubled roads.” Both scholars have fallen in love with math while on different paths — Huh hoping to become a poet and Hironaka a pianist.

In his book “Joy of Learning,” Hironaka briefly mentions politics. He contrasts math — a study of fact and logic — with politics feeding on speculation and presumption. He cited the Watergate scandal. President Richard Nixon wept upon announcing his resignation. If he disclosed what had happened and taken responsibility, he could have avoided the disgrace. Wishful thinking had made him hide and distort the facts.

Korean politics are a never-ending series of excuses. Even after a governing power has changed, the landscape remains the same. It regresses. Rival parties forever blame one another. They appear to be confined to the prisoner’s dilemma.

“In Our Prime,” a film on a mathematician’s world, was released in Korea in the spring. The film, called “The Mathematician in Wonderland” here, was about a special class of outcasts and a genius math teacher. The movie seems to be modeled after Huh. A mathematician is someone who aims at a problem with no answer and tries to prove if his method is correct. Math too one day can be loved after suffering, the teacher in the movie said.

Can we dream of seeing politicians in wonderland? Politicians are lucky since they have a chance to grow if they set their minds to learning about the people they claim to represent. Instead of whining and complaining under the pretext of caring for the people, they must study and empathize with the people to truly learn about them and life.
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