Education is not the means to an end

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Fields Medal winner says the Vietnamese youth has to change its attitude towards education and develop a thirst for knowledge


Professor Ngo Bao Chau (R) receives the Fields Medal from India President Pratibha Patil at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Hyderabad on August 19

Mathematician Ngo Bao Chau has captured the imagination of a nation by winning the Fields Medal, considered the Nobel Prize of mathematics.

But prizes, which he has been winning at an international level since a teen, never distracted him from his real goal of doing research.

In his blog, Chau says everyone's life consists of similar topological spaces but has its own dimensions and intersections depending on how a person arranges them together.

"Each person's life consists of an arrangement of manifolds. [And mine] consists of one at Hang Bai Street [in Hanoi], another at New Jersey, one in Paris... They overlap each other. And the difference is how you attach them together."

The 38-year-old Hanoi native's arrangement of his own "manifolds" led him to the Fields Medal at the International Mathematical Congress in India on August 19.

But he would likely look on the highest math honor as incidental to his scientific pursuits which, at this moment, is taking him to the University of Chicago.

"I think an actual scientist should focus on how to conduct good scientific research rather than choosing a place to work," he said.

Chau's focus has reflected throughout his education in Vietnam and higher education in France.

"He always asked me to buy mathematical books for him whenever I got any money," Chau's mother, Associate Professor Tran Luu Van Hien, said about her only son. Hien works as a pharmacologist at the National Hospital of Traditional Medicine.

She said she has never reminded him to do his homework, only encouraged him to sleep early and take care of his health.

Professor Le Tuan Hoa, chairman of Vietnam Mathematical Society, said Chau was lucky to have ideal parents, as his father Professor Ngo Huy Can with the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology knew how to help his son nurture dreams and turn them into reality.

"Can has always created motivations for Chau to reach new targets but without any pressure" Hoa said.

Not interested in perks

"I will spend much of my time in Chicago because it offers the most suitable conditions for my doing math," he told Thanh Nien via email.

"I think there has been some misunderstanding among the youth. A scientist would be disappointed twice once he targets wealth and reputation. The first disappointment is the possible failure to reach the target, and the second is recognizing that's not what you actually aimed at once you attained them."

Professor Peter Constantin, chair of the Mathematics Department at the University of Chicago, is in sync with Chau's approach. He said that Chau would be free to pursue the direction of research that best suits his interests.

"In the Department of Mathematics at the University of Chicago, we believe that our professors are creative intellectuals at the highest level; it is against our principles to give specific research tasks for them," he said. "He certainly is most welcome to continue his research on the Langlands program."

Commenting on a recent invitation by the Vietnamese government for Chau to work in Vietnam, Constantin said that there is great potential for expanding scientific cooperation between the US and Vietnam.

"I personally would be very supportive. But I would like to let Professor Ngo choose the level of his involvement in this endeavor. I believe that the most important contribution he can bring is through his unfettered creativity in mathematics," he said.

Wrong target

Chau has pledged to grant his Fields reward of about US$15,000 to help poor and diligent Vietnamese students.

Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan has instructed that a scholarship fund named after Chau be set up to help local talents.

But scholarships are not the only way Chau wants to help local education. He encourages improving the Vietnamese education system, primarily through a change in students' attitude.

"Vietnamese people have a tradition of diligence in studying, but in many cases, for becoming government officials rather than satisfying their desire for knowledge," he said.

Chau said many Vietnamese students have won medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad but failed to become famous scientists. He suggested a review of the educational system to remove obstructions.

"Actually, our [Vietnamese] society is yet to recognize the necessity of a fully academic environment that prioritizes studying. Actual scientific research cannot sprout outside this environment," he said.

Chau and professors at the Vietnam Mathematical Society and Hanoi University of Education are organizing a post-graduation math course in Hanoi but he said it would be very difficult to implement it.

"Each step was obstructed by [problems in the educational] system and we have to circumvent to continue. This is a common but very regretful issue in our society. You have enthusiasm but you have limited time, you would want to use that time meaningfully rather than face unreasonable mechanisms," he said.

RÉSUMÉ HIGHLIGHTS

"¢ Born November 15, 1972 in Hanoi

"¢ Wins gold medal at International Mathematical Olympiad in Canberra in 1988 and in Brunswick in 1989

"¢ 1992: Enrolls at Université de Paris VI

"¢ 1997: Enrolls at Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris

"¢ 1998-2004: Works at Université de Paris XIII's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

"¢ 2003: Defends his Habilitation à Diriger des Recherches at Université de Paris XIII

"¢ 2004: Wins Clay Research Award

"¢ 2005: Becomes the youngest ever Vietnamese academic to become a professor. Receives appointment at the Paris-Sud 11 University

"¢ 2007: Wins the Oberwolfach Prize and the Prix Sophie Germain de l'Académie des Sciences de Paris

"¢ 2009: TIME magazine names his work as one of the top 10 scientific discoveries of the year

"¢ 2010: Wins the Fields Medal

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