Thursday, January 08, 2009

Way of the Tao

Professor Terry Tao (born 1975) is an Australian mathematician now working in the US. Tao was a child prodigy who taught himself arithmetic at age 2. He received his PhD at age 20, was appointed a full professor at UCLA at age 24 and won the Field’s Medal in mathematics at age 31. This award is something analogous to a Nobel Prize in maths. (There is no Nobel Prize in mathematics though this is not because Nobel’s wife ran off with a mathematician).

Gregory Mankiw (and Joshua Gans) recently discussed a delightful version of the ‘airport problem’ a problem Tao conceived while manoeuvring around a long airport terminal. The apparently self-evident answer to the first part of this easy-to-state problem* is wrong but thinking clearly about the issue clearly resolves things quickly**.

Anyway I happened to see some classes given by Tao that have been recorded on YouTube. He is not only an obviously brilliant mathematician but an extremely able teacher. This introductory class on the prime numbers is beautifully presented.  Poetic, insightful, simple.

It is a pity – from Australia’s perspective if not his own - that he is not working in Australia building up a great mathematics department and attracting scholars of renown here. I’d make the same observation about notable scholars in my own field of economics. That’s definitely not a criticism of any individual – purely an observation that academe here would be better-off with their presence.

By the way Terry Tao is also a blogger – I added his site to my list of blogs a few weeks ago.

*You wish to get from one end of a long airport terminal to the other in minimum time by walking and taking motorised walkways where you can also walk. But you need to stop to tie your shoelaces. Should you stop on or off the walkway?

** Consider two people taking the walking journey. They leave at the same time and one stops to tie his shoelace just before he gets on the walkway while the other takes one more step and gets on the walkway where he then ties his shoelace. It is easy to see who gets to the other end first!


conrad said...

He'd be wasted in Australia -- mathematics is in dire shape and the maths people I know seem to end up teaching introductory X, Y, and Z to other faculties, like business or social science (a few lucky ones work in Engineering), do constant non-research consulting work, and help other people out on research which isn't their own.

The other problem he would have is that I imagine it's hard to think of things to spend large amounts of money on in theoretical mathematics (or theoretical anything), so it would be difficult for him to get large amounts of money from the ARC (and you can only apply for 50% teaching relief -- which even if you get it, which is unlikely as this is apparently the hardest funding to get, isn't a whole lot in any case -- evidentally people want you to basically be an adminstrator of a big lab, versus do your own stuff). This means he'd never get promoted because he wouldn't generate enough money unless he spent eons of his time on bureaucracy. In addition, since mathematics is in such poor shape in Australia, it would be hard for him to get good people in his big lab.

I guess it can best be summarized by that why Einstein wouldn't get tenure email that gets sent around sporadically, except the bias against theoretical work versus stuff that generates money is even worse in Australia than the US where I imagine that email originates from.

jc said...

Good call Harry. if we find Labor is complicit in this act of stupidity they deserve to lose every seat in the house and then some.

I really can't believe how economically illiterate burrows actually is. Surely she herself doesn't believe that crap. I hope.