Emphasizing the importance of math
Having established an international reputation in the field of mathematics, US citizen Shing-Tung Yau is now hoping other young Chinese will follow in his footsteps.
“I sincerely hope that, one day, China’s achievements in mathematics can be compared to those of the United States and European countries,” said Yau, who is a professor atHarvard University.
Born in Shantou, Guangdong province, in 1949, Yau was raised inHongKong after his family moved there when he was an infant. He studied mathematics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong from 1966 to 1969 and has been teaching at universities in the US since obtaining a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in 1971.
In 1982, Yau was awarded the Fields Medal, which has been described as the Nobel Prize of mathematics.
Yau has a strong willingness to raise awareness among Chinese of the importance of mathematics and nurturing talent to improve the country’s mathematical research.
To do that, he established amath center at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, organized college student math contests and offered those who excelled in the contests opportunities to study at prestigious universities.
He also launched the International Congress of Chinese Mathematicians, a triennial gathering for Chinesemathprodigies, in 1998. During the congress, the MorningsideMedal ofMathematics, which has been dubbed the “Chinese Fields Medal”, is issued to those aged under 45 who have excelled in related research. The seventh congress was held in Beijing in early August.
“China’s research in mathematics has progressed rapidly, but it is still lagging behind that of Europe and the US,” Yau said during the congress.
“China only has about a dozen excellent mathematicians, a tiny figure compared to its population, while the number in the US is in the hundreds.”
The problem lies in the whole system of nurturing talent, Yau said. In his eyes, the teaching of math in China is test oriented, not interest oriented.
Many Chinese parents push their children to study math just for the sake of gaokao, or China’s national college entrance exams. They don’t actually realize its significance, or the diverse applications of this discipline in different walks of life, Yau said.
“Those saying ‘ mathematics is useless’ know nothing about the subject,” he said, listing a series of areas where it plays a key role: big data, secrecy systems and image processing, for example.
He also suggested that the Chinese government invest more in mathematics research.
“After all, you cannot expect someone to generate the greatest output if he is still struggling to make a living,” he said.
Yau is happy that his efforts during the past few decades are paying off. The Chinese government is realizing the significance of the subject, with Premier LiKeqiang stressing the importance of basic math research during his visit to Peking University in April.