We met with Dr. Ken Ono to discuss Indiana Jones, Olympic swim teams, unsolvable math problems, and much more. Enjoy!
Dr. Ken Ono discusses what he does in a day as a mathematician. From poring over books of former mathematicians à la Indiana Jones, chipping away at unsolvable math problems, and working with the U.S. Olympic swim team, Dr. Ono shows how diverse the job of a mathematician can be. Follow along as Thomas Jefferson Professor of Mathematics at the University of Virginia, Dr. Ken Ono, talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
And I actually work partially with the US Olympic Swim Team and, well, hopefully you'll discover in 2021 in Tokyo some of the benefit of combining mathematical modeling with actual athletics.” – Dr. Ken Ono
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(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Jed Macosko: Hi. I’m Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and Academic Influence, and today we have coming to us, Ken Ono, a famous professor of mathematics. So Professor Ono, I just am so glad to get to talk to you. And as somebody who’s not in mathematics, I’m always wondering…
…what is it like to be a mathematician on a day-to-day basis? What kind of projects are you working on right now with your graduate students, with your colleagues, and what do you think has been your most important contribution that has made you rise up in the influence of other mathematicians?
Ken Ono: Wow, what a question. What do I do on a daily basis? Well, I have to say I, like everyone else, I have a normal life. So earlier this morning, I walked my puppy, I took him out for a walk. But turning to your question, I’m so glad that you asked that question, because being a mathematician is often completely misunderstood. I think there might be the stereotype that pure mathematicians in the spectrum of science are way out there, and that’s certainly not true. What do I do on a daily, weekly basis in terms of work? Well, I like to describe it as follows. Here at the University of Virginia, I wear many hats, and I’ll begin with the hats that might surprise you. The first hat that I wear is the Indiana Jones hat. If you remember the film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indiana Jones partners with his father played by Sean Connery in pursuit of the Holy Grail. They’re following this old manuscript that the father had, this diary that the father had assembled full of clues. And I’ll tell you as a mathematician, there are lots of ancient documents where ancient could be 100 years old.
And so, I spend a lot of my time literally pouring through notebooks of old famous mathematicians. And from time to time, I have discovered that there are glimpses of theory that could be developed today that are more relevant today than when these original people wrote down their formulas.
Sometimes I wear a hat of part engineer, part applied scientist. So some of my work has involved collaboration with chemists and physicists, where we might be talking about how molecules could aggregate and form compounds at very low temperatures, which can be modeled as a number theory problem. In the more esoteric side of things, as a mathematical physicist, although that’s not my training, over the last couple of years, I’ve worked with string theorists at Stanford and the University of Chicago, where we’re addressing properties of black holes. We’re in pursuit of the theory of quantum gravity, which addresses the very nature of the world in which we live.
Another hat I wear, which is probably the one that you would expect of me, is that as a pure mathematician, I have a host of problems that I like to study, just because they are interesting to me, and I hope one day that these problems will be solvable. There are lots of problems that have withstood the test of time. I’d like to crack some of them. From time-to-time, I’ve been able to chip away adding to the literature. And who knows, maybe in the 22nd century, some of those solutions will find their way to a real-world application, if not earlier. One of these problems is called the Riemann hypothesis, it’s very well known, it’s one of these million-dollar challenge problems. It’s very difficult to describe, but when the problem was originally formulated in the 19th century, nobody would have ever guessed that here in the 21st century, people that are interested in Internet security and cryptography and the like, would be absolutely interested in the solution to this problem. So anyway, I wear many hats.
Jed: Those three hats really are different. And do you think that all mathematicians wear all three hats, or are you a bit unusual?
Ken: Okay. Well, maybe I’m unusual in that I wear these hats, but I’m a social being. So when I meet people, I like to engage with them in terms of their interests, and that’s one of the wonderful things about being at a university campus. We’re surrounded by people who are world experts in their own individual fields, and you can approach your work at a university as a professor in one of two ways.
You could either view your work as being restricted to certain disciplines. You could be the expert of your silo. Or you could be maybe a little bit more like my approach, really just genuinely interested in what people do. And if you work as a mathematician, you’re in a very lucky situation that most of the world doesn’t like math, most of the world actually says they’re not any good at math. And so, if you embrace this idea, the opportunities can come to you.
Let me offer you two recent examples. A few years ago, I was invited to a conference in Norway where a major prize was given out to a colleague and the King of Norway. King Harald hosted this beautiful reception, and I met a scientist just... In the reception who happened to work with the Norwegian Ski Team, and after they had swept the cross-country ski medals. And it was a fascinating conversation.
Well, fast-forward a couple of years. One of the hats I wear here at the University of Virginia, is that I work with our coach Todd DeSorbo, and I actually work partially with the US Olympic Swim Team. And well, hopefully you’ll discover in 2021 in Tokyo some of the benefit of combining mathematical modeling with actual athletics. So that’s one of the fun hats I wear.
Jed: You are doing so many things. You’re a real renaissance person. It is truly amazing. [chuckle]
Instead of saying, "Go swim like Michael Phelps and you'll be fast, no, let's figure out how you can personally be the fastest,"…” – …
Ken: No. I’m a child, I’m a child. If I could have gone to the Olympics, I would. But as a fan of sports, I like the idea. And this is not unique. If you were to follow a professional bike race, the amount of technology, the kind of engineering that goes into running a top-flight professional cycling team, it’s amazing. And in the case of swimming, we’re doing a little bit of that, except it’s not about the technology. Of course, people can talk about the technology of the suits, and that has been done for quite some time.
I’m literally interested in studying each individual swimmer, not as an aggregate, each individual swimmer. And I study their individual events as a highly specialized optimization problem. Instead of saying, "Go swim like Michael Phelps and you’ll be fast, no, let’s figure out how you can personally be the fastest," which sometimes means sacrificing a particular part of a stroke because, well, benefits can be made up elsewhere in an event. And I think today we have one of our sophomore swimmers, her name is Kate Douglass , I think she is one of the first women ever to be the number one seed in four different individual events at the NCAA Division 1 level. And obviously, almost all of the work is hers. So it’s been fun to help out, but she’s a great student, and I think the math has helped a little bit.
Jed: That’s amazing.
Ken: If I may go on.
Jed: Go ahead.
Ken: University Virginia is... I’m new to University of Virginia, this is my second year. And another unexpected hat that I wear is in the history of architecture. The University of Virginia, if you’ve never been here before, I should tell you this is the university that Thomas Jefferson founded on some very carefully laid out plans. He had a vision of what an academic village should look like, where faculty and students engage and live in close quarters and so on and so forth. It’s not your image of a giant public state school and anything like that. This is stuff that goes back centuries.
And one of our historians here has shared with me Jefferson’s original plans. And there’s a lot of mathematics, and it’s quite fascinating really. And so, who knows? Maybe in a couple of years, we’ll have a little book out talking about the mathematical rendering of the University of Virginia campus, because Jefferson was really quite an amazing guy.
Jed: That’s a great, really great idea, and I hope that that book comes out. As we close out our interview, I do want to compare and contrast you and your brother, who we’ve interviewed on this show, and also your dad. It sounds like you and your brother have moved around a lot in your academic career. He chose administrative path, and you didn’t. Your dad seems to have stayed at Johns Hopkins for a long time.
So can you tell us about the different characters in each of these three people that led you to these kinds of different lifestyles?
Ken: Oh, well, we’re three very different people. First of all, I have to say that my parents grew up in post-World War II Japan. So that would have been a youth, I think that none of us in this interview could understand. And so I spent a lot of time thinking about this issue and their history a few years ago, and it became clear to me that my father’s talent for mathematics was large... Well, it opened up opportunities for them, that’s why all of us ended up in the United States, and my father ended up as a professor at Johns Hopkins. And so from his perspective, everything that would be really good and worth pursuing revolved around academics, proving the best theorems, writing them, writing the best papers.
Certainly that, that idea has sunk in. Santa and I we’re both scientists, and we want our work to be meaningful, and that’s certainly a lesson we learned from our parents. But on the other hand, we grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. Santa was born in Canada, in Vancouver, where my father had a position before he moved to Hopkins.
And to compare and contrast, certainly the two of us from my father, the simplest explanation is that on the inside, we grew up and emulated the passion that my father had for science. On the outside, it was the all-American way, where you learned the benefits of collaboration, networking and so on and so forth.” – Dr. Ken Ono
And because we were born in America, try to imagine, we were born and raised in between two cultures. On the inside in our home, we were raised in Japan, and on the outside, when we went to high school, we grew up in America. Little League Baseball, Baltimore Orioles games. And to compare and contrast, certainly the two of us from my father, the simplest explanation is that on the inside, we grew up and emulated the passion that my father had for science. On the outside, it was the all-American way, where you learned the benefits of collaboration, networking and so on and so forth. And I think that shows.
Jed: It’s tempting to say, because Santa is your older brother, right?
Jed: It’s tempting to say that, well, he’s got the type A personality, he’s gonna be the administrator while you are more the little kid that has this playful attitude about, "Hey, let’s work on making swimmers faster and let’s look at old papers from 100 years ago, and let’s just find the mathematics of the University of Virginia’s campus layout."
So is that too big of a simplification of how you guys went your different ways.
Ken: Well, my brother is very enthusiastic as well. So I wouldn’t wanna say that he doesn’t have these qualities, because he definitely has them in spades. My brother is much more of a people person. He’s a very good listener. He has outstanding judgment. I am probably more of the childish one, I think. So maybe there is something to that simplification, sure. I could accept that.
Jed: It was fascinating talking to him, fascinating talking to you. And really, I hope your dad gets to watch both interviews, and can be really proud of how you guys have really risen to the top and are featured on our website. So we really appreciate you taking the time. Thank you for this wonderful interview.