‘Mathematicians must be storytellers’

2013-08-28 20:27

Hwang Jun-muk is not your typical mathematician. He reasons the most abstract complexities but tries his best to communicate them in fun and exciting ways.

The ability to tell stories is needed among mathematicians in Korea where the subject is still deemed boring and learned by rote, said the nation’s top academic in the field.

Korean students are among the top performers in international mathematics contests, but they lag far behind in terms of interest and passion, which may account for the relatively modest performances by professional Korean researchers in the world.

The trend bodes ill for the nation’s future as mathematics is key to creative thinking and increasingly important as the fundamental base for diverse disciplines including science, engineering, finance, design and even philosophy. 
Hwang Jun-muk, professor of mathematics at Korea Institute for Advanced Study (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

Hwang, 50, calls for a drastic change in the way mathematics is presented to the general public, taught in school and researched in academia.

“When I prepare for a presentation, I think hard to put my ideas into a good, interesting story. If you put all mathematical proofs just in order and present it to your audience, it will be extremely boring,” he said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

“Korean mathematicians have good techniques and knowledge and made progress in research, but they are still not good at making a story (in comparison to Western powerhouses for advanced mathematics).”

Hwang began his career at the University of Notre Dame in U.S., and taught at Seoul National University before coming to the Korea Institute for Advanced Study.

In 2006, Hwang became the first Korean invited to speak at the prestigious International Congress of Mathematicians, the world’s biggest gathering of mathematicians.

Seoul will hold the event dubbed the Olympic Games of mathematics in August 2014 as the fourth Asian host after Japan, China and India.

Hwang said it attests to Korea’s progress in the field despite its short history in modern academic research.

Korea was ranked 11th in the world in terms of SCIE publications in mathematics in 2008, more than doubling its publications in less than 10 years.

Hwang pins high hopes on the event for developing mathematics and making it engaging and popular in the country.

“Next year, we’ll have six Korean invited speakers at the congress. It’s already something. And I believe this event will be a stepping stone to move on to the world’s top level,” he said.

But the nation still has a long way to go to join the world’s top countries in the discipline.

“In order to make to the top level, the country needs to develop not only quantitatively, but qualitatively as well,” he said.

A key stumbling block is the current educational curriculum, which has traditionally emphasized only problem-solving techniques. Also, many Korean mathematicians do not learn how to present their ideas.

Universities’ assessment of professors and researchers also needs changing.

“Most colleges and universities here only see how many papers professors have published in journals, not the quality of his or her research.”

He pointed out that the evaluation system based on quantity rather than quality has adverse effects on Korean academia.

“Researchers write papers not because they have found something to write, but because they have to write something to keep their positions. And doctorate students tend to choose a relatively easy subject in order to obtain a doctorate by publishing a paper in a journal,” he said.

In 2006, Hwang received the Korean Award for Supreme Scientist by solving complex rigidity problems in complex geometry.

To speak simply, it is for finding proofs of nonexistence, he said. “You can say my research is useless, because I prove something that is not real. But by proving such nonexistence, it can help reduce risks of others going the wrong way,” he explained.

A good mathematician requires not only techniques but also creativity.

He perhaps inherited his creative side from his parents. His father is traditional Korean music composer and “gayageum” master Hwang Byung-ki and his mother is one of the country’s leading authors, Han Mal-sook.

“Thanks to my parents, I read a lot of books at home in my childhood. That may help me now when I present my ideas to others.”

“I had a chance to talk to high school students, and I told them read novels as well as watch movies a lot to practice and improve their skills to present their ideas well in a simple and interesting way. It’s important to be a good mathematician,” he added.

The most difficult thing about a mathematician, he said, is that it can be months or years before one finds an idea to solve questions.

Good ideas usually come up while strolling or taking a trip and he tries to meet as many people as possible to hear their ideas.

“I always think not one, but many questions and think several things at the same time. It helps me keep working.” 


Hwang Jun-muk

Hwang is professor of that school of mathematics at the Korea Institute for Advanced Study in Seoul. He previously served as assistant professor at Seoul National University from 1996-1999.

Hwang works on algebraic geometry and complex geometry. He received a Korean award for supreme scientist in 2006.

He graduated from Seoul National University with a bachelor’s degree in physics, and earned his doctorate degree in mathematics at Harvard University.

By Oh Kyu-wook (596story@heraldcorp.com)