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Professor Francis Edward Su is the Benediktsson-Karwa Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, and past president of the Mathematical Association of America. He received the 2001 Hasse Prize for expository writing, and the 2004 Alder Award and the 2013 Haimo Award for distinguished teaching.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
I was maybe 4 years old, when one of my parents’ friends, in hearing that I liked arithmetic, asked me if I knew how to add up all the numbers from 1 to 100 quickly. Of course, I had no idea, but then he told me Gauss’ trick— pair up numbers at each end that sum to 101, then see that there are 50 pairs, so the total is 5050. I remember being really fascinated by numbers after that! It was perhaps my first glimpse of the idea that math is more about understanding than just computation.
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
Technology is continually changing the way I teach mathematics. For instance, I now teach with an iPad instead of a blackboard. Visualization has rapidly evolved; students no longer need to learn a fancy language like Maple to plot sophisticated mathematical objects. Technology is also changing the way students learn, but I fear that one downside of having tools so readily available is that students are not learning how to persevere through struggle, to sit with a problem for a while before trying to look the answer up online.
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
Hmm… interesting question. By ‘flabbergast’, do you mean ‘astonished’ in a positive way? If so, it reminds me of a problem I had thought about off and on for several years, and had made no progress. But one day, after my friend made an insightful comment, it opened up a whole new line of thinking for me and I saw how to answer the question right away (though it would take further effort to write it out carefully). It was astonishing that the solution would so suddenly come, and I felt amazed I hadn’t seen this connection before!
4. Do you practice mathematics differently in company?
I think it depends on the company. I love doing math research with people for whom I feel no shame in broaching ideas that may be half-baked; it’s part of what makes our collaboration fun. On the other hand, I don’t have a high tolerance for people who like to show off the math they know, and I tend to withdraw from discussing math with people like that.
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
Perhaps some people have a knack for knowing how to explain things well, or perhaps they were nurtured in an environment where they picked up those skills. Whatever the case, I believe that EVERY person can improve how they teach mathematics.
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
The most fun a mathematician can have is to discover for herself some deep mathematical truth. When that happens to me, I feel an indescribable joy, like some deep mystery of the universe has just been revealed.
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
The best math joke I heard came from one my students in a topology course. I had just announced the exam was going to be a closed book exam. A student asked, wryly, “Will it also be an open book exam?”