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Saturday, April 27, 2019

A mathematician traces his journey from poverty to prominence | Numbers - Science News

In ‘The Shape of a Life,’ Shing-Tung Yau expresses his lifelong love of geometry, writes Diana Steele, Science News.

TAKE SHAPE  Calabi-Yau manifolds are multidimensional shapes that are important in string theory for describing the shape of hidden dimensions of the universe.
Photo: Lunch/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)

One of the first remarkable things that mathematician Shing-Tung Yau reveals in his memoir, The Shape of a Life, is that his name was not originally Yau. His family fled China to British-ruled Hong Kong in 1949 when he was an infant, and the name Yau came from a mistranslation on a registration form when he entered elementary school. No one in the family spoke English, so to fill out paperwork, they relied on an English-speaking teacher, who incorrectly translated his family name of “Chiu” to Yau.

At the time, neither Shing-Tung nor anyone in his family thought it mattered. Little did they know that the name Yau would become immortalized in physics and mathematics as half of the Calabi-Yau manifolds, which are geometric shapes that provide mathematical insight into string theory. Yau jokes that these names have become so inextricably linked that he almost believes his first name is Calabi.

The Shape of a Life, written with science writer Steve Nadis, traces the remarkable arc of Yau’s life, from poverty and exile in Hong Kong to international renown as a Chinese-American mathematician and the first Chinese winner of the Fields Medal, often described as the Nobel Prize of mathematics. Along the way, Yau encountered many tipping points that changed the trajectory of his life.

His book is filled with reminiscences of childhood in Hong Kong — both tragic and happy — including a charming anecdote of pondering geometric proofs when he was introduced to geometry in middle school. “I was amazed to see how far one could go, and how many theorems one could prove, starting from five simple axioms,” he writes. “For some reason, which I couldn’t quite put into words at the time, that idea made me happy.”...

Yau’s contributions to mathematics, and especially to the redevelopment of an academic culture of mathematics in China, are themselves manifold. He founded three mathematical institutes in China and has been outspoken about the need to develop a more innovative research culture there.
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Source: Science News