Where am I?
Los Angeles, California, US
What’s my thing?
Smashing mathematics records and advancing MRI scanning and cryptography, seeing students’ minds click
In Year 12 maths Terence Tao had to have a chair cushion so he could reach the desk. He was only 10 years old.
But the young prodigy was used to being different. Starting secondary school in Adelaide aged eight, he was soon being ferried between university and school by his parents the way others are driven around to sports fields.
While he loved playing computer games and running around with his two brothers, it was only when he went to Princeton University in the US as a 16-year-old postgraduate student that he got to study – and make friends – with people his own age.
It was also where he got “a big wake-up call”. Accustomed to cramming the week before to pass tests, he almost failed an important exam by relying on his talent alone. “They very quickly poked holes in my knowledge and I was really quite shocked,” he recalls.
For Terence, maths had been a game, solving bigger and more complex problems quicker and faster than before. It was what he loved about numbers and what helped him, at age 12, to become the youngest gold medallist in International Mathematical Olympiad history.
But at Princeton it was no longer a game; it was about hard thinking: “In my job [today] it’s not about how quick or how smart you are, but more about patience,” the internationally renowned pure mathematician says. “Lots of problems take months or years to solve.”
Now 38, he is living his dream in Los Angeles with his young family, working at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he was made a professor at age 24. He is laying the mathematical foundations for future use in fields as diverse as biomedical engineering and cryptography – essentially setting up the answers to questions that have not yet been conceived.
One of Terence’s special fields of interest is patterns in prime numbers, and while for many years “playing with them” was a theoretical curiosity, he has found they form the basis of modern cryptography, securing everything from state secrets to online credit card transactions.
In one of his most satisfying professional achievements, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology has significantly improved thanks to his work almost a decade ago into compressed sensing. His algorithm allows equations to be solved with very limited data and this has been critical in improving the speed and accuracy of diagnosing tumours and spinal injuries. “I was really happy to have a little role in that,” says the 2006 Fields Medallist. “That was really cool.”
The use of his work by others gives Terence a huge buzz, almost as much as the feeling of solving a mathematical problem or seeing his students understand a mathematical puzzle. “When you see it and everything clicks and makes perfect sense, that’s a really nice feeling.”
From Australia’s Future published by the Office of the Chief Scientist
Australia’s future is published by the Office of the Chief Scientist with support from the Australian Science Teachers Association (ASTA), Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT), Australian Mathematics Trust (AMT), Australian Science Innovations (ASI), Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), National Mathematics Summer School (NMSS) and National Youth Science Forum (NYSF).
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