What would you say to a room of 500 teenagers? Here’s what I said
I suppose I should start with who I am and what I do, and perhaps why I am here in front of you. But I’m not going to do that, at least not yet. I don’t want to stand here and list all my accomplishments so that you may be impressed, and that would convince you to listen to me. No. I don’t want to do that because I know it wouldn’t work. I know that because it wouldn’t have worked on me when I was in your place, and someone else was up here.
Now, of course, you can tell by my accent that I wasn’t literally down there. I was in Canada. And I sure as hell wasn’t wearing a tie. But I imagine our priorities were fairly similar: friends, getting away parents, maybe sports (in my case hockey of course and yours maybe footy), but most importantly… mathematics! No. Video games.
I don’t think there is such a thing as being innately gifted in anything. Though, I am pretty good at video games. People become very good at things they practice. A little practice leads to a small advantage, leading to better practice opportunities, and things snowball. The snowball effect. Is that a term you guys use in Australia? I mean, it seems like an obvious analogy for a Canadian. It’s how you make a snowman, after all. You start with a small handful of snow, and you start to roll it on the ground. The snow on the ground sticks to the ball, and it gets bigger and bigger until you have a ball as tall as you!
Practice leads to a snowball effect. After a while, it looks like you are gifted at the thing you practiced, but it was really just the practice. Success then follows from an added sprinkling of luck and determination. That’s what I want to talk to you about today: practice.
I don’t want to use determination in the sense that I was stubbornly defiant in the face of adversity. Though, from the outside, it might look that way. You can either be determined to avoid failure or determined to achieve some objective. Being determined to win is different from being determined not to lose.
There is something psychologically different between winning and not losing. You see, losing implies a winner, which is not you. But winning does not require a loser because you can play against yourself. This was the beauty of disconnected video games of the ’80s and ’90s. You played against yourself, or maybe “the computer.” That doesn’t mean it was easy. I’ll give anyone here my Nintendo if they can beat Super Mario Bros. in one go. (I’m not joking. I gave my children the same offer, and they barely made it past the first level). It was hard and frustrating, but no one was calling you a loser on the other end. And when you finally beat the game, you could be proud. Proud of yourself and for yourself. Not for the fake internet points you get on social media, but for you.
I actually really did want to talk to you today about mathematics. I want to tell you that I treated mathematics like a video game when I was your age. I wanted to win. I wanted to prove to myself that I could solve every problem. Some nights I stayed up all night trying to solve a single problem. Do you know how they say you can’t have success without failure? This is a perfect example. The more you fail at trying to solve a maths problem, the more you understand when you finally do solve it. And what came along with failing and eventually succeeding in all those maths problems? Practice.
Well, I don’t know much about the Australian education system and culture. But I’m guessing from Hollywood you know a bit about high school in North America. I’m sure you know about prom, and of course about Prom King and Prom Queen. What you may not know is that the King and Queen’s court always has a jester. That is, along with King and Queen, each year has a Class Clown — the joker, the funny guy. I wasn’t the prom king or queen. But I did win the honor of class clown.
When I finished high school, I was really good at three things: video games, making people laugh, and mathematics. I promise you; there is no better combination. If there were a nutrition guide for the mind, it would contain these three things. Indeed, now more than ever before, you need to be three types of smart. First, you need to be quick, reactive, and adaptive — the skills needed to beat a hard video game. Second, you need emotional intelligence, and you need to know what others are thinking and feeling — how to make them laugh. And finally, you need to be able to solve problems, and all real problems require maths to solve them.
There are people in the world, lots of people — billions, perhaps — who look in awe at the ever-increasing complexity of systems business, government, schools, and technology, including video games. They look, and they feel lost. Perhaps you know someone that can’t stand new technology or change in general. Perhaps they don’t even use a piece of technology because they believe they will never understand how to use it.
You all are young. But you know about driving, voting, and paying taxes, for example. Perhaps it looks complicated, but at least you believe that you can and will be able to do it when the time comes. Imagine feeling that such things were just impossible. That would be a weird feeling. Your brain can’t handle such dissonance. So you would need to rationalize it in one way or another. Finally, you’d say it’s just not necessary, or worse, it’s something some “other” people do. At that point, for your brain to maintain a consistent story, it will start to reject new information and facts that aren’t consistent with your new story.
This is all sounds far-fetched, but I guarantee you know many people with such attitudes. To make them sound less harmful, they call them “traditional.” How do otherwise “normal” people come to hold these views? It’s actually quite simple: they fear, not what they don’t understand, but what they have convinced themselves is unnecessarily complicated. So I implore you, start today, start right now. Study maths. It is the only way to intellectually survive in a constantly changing world.
Phew, that was a bit depressing. Let me give you a fun and trivial example. Just this weekend, I flew from Sydney to Bendigo. The flight was scheduled to be exactly 2 hours. I was listening to an audiobook, and I wondered if I would finish it during the flight. Seems obvious, right? If there were less than 2 hours left in the audiobook, then I would finish. If not, then I would not finish. But here’s the thing, audiobooks are read soooo slow. So, I listen to them at 1.25x speed. There were 3 hours left in my audiobook. Did I finish the book?
Before I tell you, let me remind you that not many people would ask themselves this question. I couldn’t say exactly why, but in some cases, it’s because the person has implicitly convinced themselves that such a question is just impossible to answer. It’s too complicated. So their brain shuts that part of inquiry off. Never ask complicated questions, it says. Then this happens: an entire world — no most of the entire universe — is closed off. Don’t close yourself off from the universe. Study maths.
By the way, the answer. It’s not the exact answer, but here was my quick logic based on the calculation I could do in my head. If I had been listening at 1.5x speed, then every hour of flight time would get through 1.5 hours of audiobook. That’s 1 hour 30 minutes. So two hours of flight time would double that, 3 hours of audiobook. Great. Except I wasn’t listening at 1.5x speed. I was listening at a slower speed, and so I would definitely get through less than 3 hours. The answer was no.
In fact, by knowing what to multiply or divide by what, I could know that I would have exactly 36 minutes left of the audiobook. Luckily or unluckily, the flight was delayed, and I finished the book anyway. Was thinking about maths pointless all along? Maybe. But since mathematical algorithms schedule flights, maths saved the day in the end. Maths always wins.
How about another. Who has seen a rainbow? I feel like that should be a trick question just to see who is paying attention. But, of course, you have all seen a rainbow. As you are trying to think about the last time you saw a rainbow, you might also be thinking that they are rare — maybe even completely random things. But now you probably see the punchline — maths can tell you exactly where to find a rainbow.
Here is how a rainbow is formed. Notice that number there. That angle never changes. So you can use this geometric diagram to always find the rainbow. The most obvious aspect is that the rainbow exits the same general direction that the sunlight entered the raindrop. So to see a rainbow, the sun has to be behind you.
And there’s more. If the sun is low in the sky, the rainbow will be high in the sky. And if the sun is high, you might not be able to see a rainbow at all. But if you take out the garden hose to find it, make sure you are looking down. Let me tell you my favorite rainbow story. I was driving the family to Canberra. We were driving into the sunset at some point when I drove through a brief sun shower. Since the sun was shining and it was raining, one of my children said, “Maybe we’ll see a rainbow!”
Maybe. Ha. A mathematician knows no maybes. As they looked out their windows, I knew — yes — we would see a rainbow. I said, after passing through the shower, “Everyone looks out the back window and looks up.” Because the sun was so low, it was apparently the most wonderful rainbow ever seen. I say apparently because I couldn’t see it, on account of me driving. But no matter. I was content in knowing I could conjure such beauty with the power of mathematics.
I could have ended there since I’m sure you are all highly convinced to catch up on all your maths lessons and homework. However, since I have time, I will tell you a little bit about what maths has enabled me to get paid to do—namely, quantum physics and computation. Maybe you’ve heard about quantum physics? Maybe you’ve heard about uncertainty (the world is chaotic and random), or superposition (things can be in two places at once and cats can be dead and alive at the same time), or entanglement (what Einstein called spooky action at a distance).
But I couldn’t tell you more about quantum physics than that without maths. This is not meant to make it sound difficult. On the contrary, it should make it sound beautiful. This is quantum physics. It’s called the Schrodinger Equation. That’s about all there is to it. All that stuff about uncertainty, superposition, entanglement, multiple universes, and so on—it’s all contained in this equation. Without maths, we would not have quantum physics. And without quantum physics, we would not have GPS, lasers, MRI, or computers — no computers to play video games and no computers to look at Instagram. Thank a quantum physicist for these things.
Quantum physics also helps us understand the entire cosmos. From the first instant of the Big Bang born out of a quantum fluctuation to the fusing of hydrogen into helium inside stars giving us all the energy and life on Earth to the most exotic things in our universe: black holes. These all cannot be understood without quantum physics. And that can’t be understood without mathematics.
And now, I use the maths of quantum physics to help create new computing devices that may allow us to create new materials and drugs. This quantum computer has nothing mysterious or special about it. It obeys an equation just as the computers you carry around in your pockets do. But the equations are different and different maths leads to different capabilities.
I don’t want to put up those equations because if I showed them to even my 25-year-old self, I would run away screaming. But then again, I didn’t know then what I know now and what I’m telling you today. Anyone can do this. It just takes time. Every mathematician has put in the time. There is no secret recipe beyond this. Start now.