Jun Huo was not an outstanding student. He was already attracted to poetry, but in turn he became a mathematician – and now has the highest distinction in his field.
Jun Huh pulled from ear to ear as he received the Fields Medal at a ceremony in Helsinki. The medal is the highest scientific honor for mathematicians and is often referred to as the “Nobel Prize in Mathematics” – except that Nobel Prizes are awarded annually, but the Fields Medal only every four years. For a long time, the 39-year-old probably didn’t expect to receive such an honour.
Huo’s path to the top of his domain took many turns. For a long time it had nothing to do with mathematics. Even when he got the medal, he still wasn’t sure why it was awarded: “Honestly, I don’t know,” Huo said. “But I have doubts.” The Princeton University professor mainly deals with complex problems in the field of combinatorics in algebraic geometry.
Fields Medal: Jun Huo really wanted to be a poet
Huo was born in California, then his parents immigrated to Seoul. His father was studying statistics there, but his passion for numbers did not initially spread to his son. When his father asked him math problems, Huh always found ways to get the answers. His school results were only mediocre. “I knew I was smart, but I couldn’t prove it with my school grades,” he told Quanta Magazine in 2017.
In general, he felt a greater affinity for language. At the age of 16, Huo dropped out of school to write poetry. But that didn’t satisfy him either: the writing process was difficult for the young poet, and he often found it frustrating to manage his inner being, he told Quanta: “I wanted to be someone who writes great poems . But I didn’t want to write great poems.
He only entered mathematics at the age of 23
He quickly dismissed the idea of being a great career poet. Instead, he considered becoming a science journalist and took courses in astronomy and physics at university. But there too, he lacked hindsight: “I was generally lost, not knowing what to do or what I was good at.
As a student, he came to mathematics by accident: he was inspired by a lecture given by mathematics professor Hisuki Hironaka. Hironaka didn’t provide ready-made answers in his lectures, but instead let students share his thoughts: “He basically just talked about what he was thinking yesterday.” Many were overwhelmed, out of the 200 participants, only five remained at the end – one of them was Jun Huo. At the age of 23, he dealt with complex mathematical problems for the first time, and after 16 years he received the highest honor in his field.
Looking back, Huh’s delving into poetry comes as no surprise: “They both feel like you’re ingesting something that’s already there, not like something you’re doing from your mind.” A mathematician only works three hours a day and usually cannot concentrate any longer, whether on mathematical problems or organizational tasks. “So I’m exhausted,” he said. “Doing something valuable, useful and creative takes a lot of energy.”
Sources: Quanta Review / “The New York Times”