Thursday, November 3, 2016

The White House celebrates math and mentorship

By Carol Clark

“It’s not every day that the White House invites you to a reception in honor of what you do for a living,” said Emory mathematician Ken Ono.

He was a featured speaker at “Math and the Movies,” recently hosted by the White House Office of Science, Technology and Policy (OTSP) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The evening included a screening of the film “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” the true story of how the genius of an obscure Indian clerk, named Srinivasa Ramanujan, was discovered and nurtured by G. H. Hardy, a leading mathematician at Cambridge University. Their unusual collaboration changed the field of math and science forever.

Ono served as an associate producer and math advisor for the film, and afterwards helped found “The Spirit of Ramanujan Math Talent Initiative,” which aims to find exceptional mathematicians around the world and match them with advancement opportunities in the field.

France Cordova, director of the NSF, was among the speakers during the evening at the White House, which was focused on the importance of inspiring and mentoring students of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Ken Ono (center), accompanied by U.S. chief Data Scientist D. J. Patil (left) and actor Jeremy Irons, presents a math problem to the nation while at the White House: What is the smallest number that is the sum of two cubes in two different ways? Click here for the answer.

“Tonight’s event addresses issues that we at NSF believe are critical for the nation,” Cordova said. “There is widespread recognition of the need to open up STEM opportunities for everyone. We’re looking for ways to broaden opportunities and include those who are underrepresented. That includes working with partners in museums, in social media and the entertainment industry to do a better job of telling the diverse stories of science and scientists.”

Hannah Larsen, a senior majoring in math at Harvard University, thanked the NSF for funding the Research Experience for Undergraduates program at Emory, where she spent three summers doing number theory research with Ono. The steadfast support of Ono and other mentors “deepened my love of mathematics,” Larson said, and was key to her decision to apply to graduate school and pursue a career in math research. Larsen recently won the Alice T. Schaefer Prize, given annually to the top undergraduate woman in math in the United States.

Following are highlights of remarks by other speakers.

Ken Ono: “Every few months you’ll hear about breakthroughs in black hole physics. Or solutions to ancient mathematical mysteries. Or even applications that help drive the Internet. I can tell you that the work of Ramanujan plays a role in all of those. If you want a role model for young students, if you want to help create world-class scientists, I think we should all do our part to make Ramanujan a household name.”

Andrea Hariston, applied research mathematician at the National Security Agency (NSA): “Exposure is a big, big deal for students who may not know what their options are. I had a mathematical curiosity growing up but I saw it as a hobby – solving puzzles – not as a career. A fellowship obligated me to do an internship at the NSA. That’s when I got mentors who opened up mathematics for me. They showed me you can do really interesting things with mathematics, really important things for the nation, using mathematics.”

D.J. Patil, chief data scientist for the OTSP: “People don’t always appreciate how much president Obama has done to return science to its rightful place, at the forefront of the nation, in leading and driving innovation. … What gets a kid excited about math? There are lots of different paths, but one of them is inspiration. I had really excellent coaches, people who were there to inspire, shape and mold me.”

Actor Jeremy Irons, who plays Hardy in the film: “Pure mathematics is rather similar to poetry and art. It’s something about which you can become passionate. It’s something that requires a mind that is really open and free to allow whatever to come to you. I thought, I know about that because that’s the state I try to get into when I’m acting.”

The beauty of math and Pi: Ken Ono chats with Neil deGrasse Tyson
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