Later On

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A Path Less Taken to the Peak of the Math World

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Kevin Hartnett writes in Quanta:

On a warm morning in early spring, June Huh walked across the campus of Princeton University. His destination was McDonnell Hall, where he was scheduled to teach, and he wasn’t quite sure how to get there. Huh is a member of the rarefied Institute for Advanced Study, which lies adjacent to Princeton’s campus. As a member of IAS, Huh has no obligation to teach, but he’d volunteered to give an advanced undergraduate math course on a topic called commutative algebra. When I asked him why, he replied, “When you teach, you do something useful. When you do research, most days you don’t.”

We arrived at Huh’s classroom a few minutes before class was scheduled to begin. Inside, nine students sat in loose rows. One slept with his head down on the table. Huh took a position in a front corner of the room and removed several pages of crumpled notes from his backpack. Then, with no fanfare, he picked up where he’d left off the previous week. Over the next 80 minutes he walked students through a proof of a theorem by the German mathematician David Hilbert that stands as one of the most important breakthroughs in 20th-century mathematics.

Commutative algebra is taught at the undergraduate level at only a few universities, but it is offered routinely at Princeton, which each year enrolls a handful of the most promising young math minds in the world. Even by that standard, Huh says the students in his class that morning were unusually talented. One of them, sitting that morning in the front row, is the only person ever to have won five consecutive gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad.

Huh’s math career began with much less acclaim. A bad score on an elementary school test convinced him that he was not very good at math. As a teenager he dreamed of becoming a poet. He didn’t major in math, and when he finally applied to graduate school, he was rejected by every university save one.

Nine years later, at the age of 34, Huh is at the pinnacle of the math world. He is best known for his proof, with the mathematicians Eric Katz and Karim Adiprasito, of a long-standing problem called the Rota conjecture.

Even more remarkable than the proof itself is the manner in which Huh and his collaborators achieved it — by finding a way to reinterpret ideas from one area of mathematics in another where they didn’t seem to belong. This past spring IAS offered Huh a long-term fellowship, a position that has been extended to only three young mathematicians before. Two of them (Vladimir Voevodsky and Ngô Bảo Châu) went on to win the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics.

That Huh would achieve this status after starting mathematics so late is almost as improbable as if he had picked up a tennis racket at 18 and won Wimbledon at 20. It’s the kind of out-of-nowhere journey that simply doesn’t happen in mathematics today, where it usually takes years of specialized training even to be in a position to make new discoveries. Yet it would be a mistake to see Huh’s breakthroughs as having come in spite of his unorthodox beginning. In many ways they’re a product of his unique history — a direct result of his chance encounter, in his last year of college, with a legendary mathematician who somehow recognized a gift in Huh that Huh had never perceived himself.

The Accidental Apprentice

Huh was born in 1983 in California, where his parents were attending graduate school. They moved back to Seoul, South Korea, when he was two. There, his father taught statistics and his mother became one of the first professors of Russian literature in South Korea since the onset of the Cold War.

After that bad math test in elementary school, Huh says he adopted a defensive attitude toward the subject . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 June 2017 at 1:54 pm

Posted in Education, Math

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