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Symphony of Numbers for ‘Mozart of Math’

Times Staff Writer

It’s been quite a month for UCLA mathematics professor Terence Tao. First, in late August, he traveled to Spain to receive a Fields Medal, considered to be the Nobel Prize in math, and its accompanying $13,400. Then this week, he won a MacArthur Foundation grant worth $500,000.

Australian born and raised, the son of a pediatrician and a former math teacher, Tao was a child prodigy. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the age of 16, finished his doctorate at Princeton University at 21 and quickly joined UCLA’s faculty.

Dubbed the “Mozart of math” by colleagues, he is an expert in such diverse and deep thinking as number theory and harmonic analysis, an advanced form of calculus.

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Now 31, married and the father of a 3-year-old son, Tao could pass for a slim sophomore. He wore sandals, jeans and a short-sleeve sport shirt during an interview this week at his modest UCLA office. He seemed genuinely unimpressed by his new fame and said he wanted to return his concentration to his work and his family. Here are the highlights of that discussion:

Question: Do you remember as a child what first drew you to math?

Answer: My parents told me that when I was 2, I had learned to count and add and do the alphabet from “Sesame Street” and was trying to teach other kids.... When I went to high school, I took these math competitions and I viewed math as this game or sport. It was only when I went to college that I realized it’s actually useful and it’s also something fundamental. You’re learning something about how the world works.

Q: Were there subjects that you were not that good in?

A: I was not very good in English. Anything involving essay writing, that was always my weakness. I also took some Latin, which was kind of fun mostly because I liked the structure of Latin. I could never really get the hang of translating Latin.

Q: Do you have any regrets about going to high school and college at such a young age?

A: I didn’t have the usual high school social life because I was five years younger than everybody else. I got all that a little bit later. When I went to graduate school, I actually found a lot of people around my age who were undergraduates and had a lot of fun with them.

Q: Do you think overall American society is math phobic?

A: Certainly it’s true if it comes up in a casual conversation that I’m a mathematician, then the conversation turns to: “Oh, I was always bad in math.” Generally, then nothing much interesting happens to the conversation. But at least there is a respect for mathematics. They realize that math underlies so many of the technologies that make a lot of prosperity of this country now, from the banking system to the Internet....

But I think most people are happy to let experts deal with those things. Actually that’s a pity. For example, probably the most valuable application of mathematics is how to finance your mortgage. You could probably save tens of thousands of dollars if you use some basic algebra. Math, like any other skill, is empowering.

Q: Can you describe what attracts you to a math problem?

A: It has to be connected to something I’m already good at. Because if you have no background in the area, it doesn’t matter how good you are, you are not going to crack it.... But if there are problems which look like they should be within my capability and if I can’t do them, it really annoys me. And that’s the kind of thing that will keep me working on it.

A lot of mathematicians liken what they do to rock climbing. You want to get to the top of the cliff. But that’s not what you focus on immediately. You focus on the next ledge just beyond your reach, because you need to do one clever thing to get up there. And then once you get there, you do it again. A lot of this is rather boring and not very glamorous. But you can’t jump cliffs in a single bound.

Q: Do you usually work on one thing at a time or several?

A: One thing actively. But I keep a lot of things in my mind. It’s sort of like fishing. You have your rods, hoping for a twitch somewhere. But I’m only reeling one thing in at a time.

Q: What’s the ideal environment for you to work in?

A: I just need some quiet and my laptop. Just peace and quiet. It’s so hard to get these days. I get it when I can.

Q: What do you do to put your mind at rest, to relax?

A: Spend time with my family. Surf the Internet. I don’t have time for much of anything else these days.

Q: Other schools must be calling you now. Any thoughts about leaving UCLA?

A: I went through that three or four years ago. I had a lot of offers.... But in the end I decided I like it here. It’s very comfortable, and this is a good place. And my wife has family here. I couldn’t see a massive improvement in our life by moving.

Q: The MacArthur is a great reward, but don’t some scientists or engineers get a lot more from patents and inventions?

A: People don’t go into math for the money. You get other satisfactions.... First of all, it’s ethical. You are not doing anything bad to animals or the environment. You can do your work with a clear conscience. And when you solve a problem, it’s a really satisfying feeling.

Q: Is math a field in which you peak at age 17 or at 70? Is your brain slowing down?

A: You do mathematics differently when you are older and in many ways, it is better. When you are young, you rely primarily on energy, and when you are older you rely primarily on experience. So in many ways, you can be sharper, just knowing what to focus on and what not to.

Q: Can you give a layman’s explanation of the prime numbers work you did with Ben Green (of the University of Bristol in Britain) even if we can’t understand it?

A: The very first result Ben and I proved was the statement that within the prime numbers, one can find an arithmetic progression -- a sequence of numbers that are equally spaced from each other -- of any specified finite length.

We don’t actually go look for them directly, but rather count how many progressions there are by more indirect methods -- a little bit analogous to how one can count, at least approximately, the number of grains of sand in a box by weighing the box and dividing by the average weight of a single grain.

Q: And what is harmonic analysis?

A: Harmonic analysis is the study of waves. How a function or signal can be broken up into different frequencies. The Dolby sound system, for example, takes frequencies from voice and music, keeps them and takes away all the frequencies that come from hiss and static.... It has a lot of applications to physics.

Q: Will all this celebrity interfere with your life?

A: I still have my work to do. All the problems I am working on haven’t miraculously gone away. I still have my students. Also I still have to pick up my son from preschool every day. I guess it keeps me rooted in reality.... The thing about L.A. is that there is no shortage of actor celebrities in this town. So you can be safe.

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larry.gordon@latimes.com


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