Many readers here will have enjoyed various videos done by Stanford mathematician Tadashi Tokieda for the Numberphile site or elsewhere, but probably, like me, didn’t know much about his background. Erica Klarreich has now given us a wonderful profile of the man behind the mellifluous voice and sparkling “toy” videos (and his "unusual path into mathematics"). I encourage everyone to read one of the most fascinating brief portraits I’ve ever encountered:
Here’s a summary of some of the high points, but do read the entire interview to fill in all the details:
1) He doesn’t find puzzles, games, and the like particularly interesting, because they are man-made with artificial man-made rules and set-ups. The “toys” he finds intriguing are simply a part of nature or life that become interesting when closely examined.
2) When young he thought he would become a painter/artist — something he was very good at. And even now acknowledges that “In some sense, drawing and pictures are still what I care about most.”
3) Later, living in Japan, he had “a real epiphany” about language, eventually leading to a decision to learn various languages and become a philologist.
4) By chance, needing something to read on a train trip, he picked up a biography of Russian physicist Lev Landau. It opened his eyes to science, math, and specifically calculus, which he then decided he must learn.
5) Landau suggested learning math, not with classes or lectures, but by finding “a book with the largest number of solved exercises and go through them all.” The book Tokieda found was in Russian which he didn’t know, but as a philologist was willing to learn.
6) Eventually (within months actually) he says he found he “was fairly good at this kind of silly manipulative exercise,” and then proceeded to enroll at Oxford in a two-year undergraduate program in mathematics. He didn’t know English, by the way, but what the heck, just another language to quickly learn!
7) Soon he realized mathematics was what he wanted to do for a living, and was off to Princeton for a Ph.D. program.
…And, as they say, the rest is history. ;)
(He's currently a professor of mathematics at Stanford.)
I’ll stop here, but the last several paragraphs of the Quanta piece are also great reading (Tokieda’s take on math and his own videos... including making children happy), so be sure to read the whole piece.
…If I had read of Tokieda’s life, as Klarreich reports it here, in a novel, I would’ve thought, ‘what a pile of non-believable fiction this is… there could never be such a character in real life.’ …And yet apparently there is!
One last note: Quanta is recently out with two compendiums of their many superb articles on math, and on the sciences, particularly physics... this Klarreich profile is one more of many they've now done on individual scientists/mathematicians. I suspect that somewhere in the future there may be a collection of these profiles available as well.[Addendum: I've now noticed that several of these profiles are already included in the math volume, The Prime Number Conspiracy.]