WU Wen-tsun: “‘Follow the leader’ isn’t a game for academia”



WU Wen-tsun, commenting on the secret to preserving one’s academic longevity, said with a smile: “I can’t say what it is exactly; it just kind of hit me. ‘Follow the leader’ isn’t a game for academia; we need to come up with breakthroughs of our own.”


Still clothed in a shirt with no shortage of pockets, he stood sockless in a pair of leather shoes with a breen-colored knapsack slung across his shoulders. Standing there – his countenance flashing from time to time with his signature smile – it was clear: the ninety-three year-old master mathematician Wu Wen-tsun hadn’t lost one ounce of his charm.  


Wu Wen-tsun, who has lived a secluded life over the past few years, made a recent appearance at the founding ceremony of the Center for Applied Mathematics at Tianjin University, also serving as a joint commemoration of the induction of its honorary and executive directors, and a signing ceremony marking the establishment of the “Joint Laboratory of Applied Mathematics” with Tianjin University and Opzoon Technology Co., LTD. After knocking on quite a few doors, I finally got the change to interview the recipient of the most prestigious National science and technology award, and present-day math giant himself.


During the interview, which lasted over forty minutes, Mr. Wu sat tirelessly upright, only leaning against the backrest of his sofa (very briefly) two or three times. It seems that age, to this happy-spirited mathematician at least, is nothing more than a mere number. 


Applied mathematics: “Field of endless opportunities”


“I heartily endorse this method of integrating industry and research. Naturally, business has an appreciably facilitating effect. Much of the time development can’t survive without economic power. The demand of production is the greatest impetus for learning. The same is true in the West,” Wu Wen-tsun said.


The main stipulations of the agreement signed by Tianjin University and Opzoon Technology are as follows: Opzoon Technology shall contribute no less than two million RMB yearly – totaling no less than ten million RMB every five years – in research grants to the Joint Laboratory of Applied Mathematics; the advanced technologies of both parties shall be explored in order to identify scientific findings that accord with the developmental goals of both parties; and such payoffs shall then be made available for collective use and transfer in an effort to bring about the conversion of social productivity.


Wu Wen-tsun places high hopes in the Liu Hui Center for Applied Mathematics, believing that it “has a bright future as it looks to facilitate advancement in the field of applied mathematics.” The center was founded by the late mathematician Shiing-shen CHERN. It was named to commemorate LIU Hui, the great mathematician of the Wei and Jin Dynasties. This name was given by none other than Shiing-shen CHERN’s pupil, Wu Wen-tsun.


Math education: “It ought to aid in the resolution of real-life problems”


Many professors of Tianjin University can still recall that, at the founding of the Liu Hui Center for Applied Mathematics, Wu Wen-tsun had explained the idea behind its name. WU Wen-tsun is responsible for having once offered a “public bounty” to anyone who could lay hands on concrete evidence that Arabic Mathematics was originally exported from China through the Silk Road. The cash reward: 500,000 RMB. Eleven years have since passed.


WU Wen-tsun has invested an immense amount of effort in the field of Ancient Chinese Mathematics, a commitment perhaps borne out of his personal philosophy that math ought to focus primarily on the resolution of real-life problems. Interestingly, such focus is part and parcel of Ancient Chinese Mathematics.


“Mathematics ought to aid in the resolution of real-life problems – in fact, this ought to be one of its main goals. Math isn’t about abstract theory.” WU Wen-tsun believes that mathematics in China is distilled of practical experience: “The foreign mathematical theories of Euclid are full of philosophical jargon.” In the course of our professional studies, “We cannot afford to follow in this direction.”


He is not, however, opposed to including Euclidean geometry when designing curricula for basic middle school education. WU Wen-tsun, himself had found it beneficial, saying that “It is valuable to learn methods of problem-solving by mathematical intuition.”


On the topic of curriculum, Wu Wen-tsun was cautious: “This is a complex issue. Education is of paramount importance. Taking it lightly in any way is a recipe for disaster and affects generations to come. Ample discussion is necessary; we can’t afford to rely on one person’s subjective wishes when drawing conclusions.”


In contrast, Wu Wen-tsun’s attitude shifted from one of caution to unswerving conviction when asked to comment on a present phenomenon of primary education known as the International Mathematical Olympiads: “It’s harmful! It does mathematics no good. It’s toxic to math and students alike. We need nothing of the sort.” While speaking he vigorously, and repeatedly, waved his left hand as if there before him stood “Mathematical Olympiad” incarnate. 


“We need nothing of the sort. Since when is there an Olympiad for math? There’s no such thing!” Wu Wen-tsun underscored his point with unwavering certainty.


Math research: “Don’t play ‘follow the leader’”


Wu Wen-tsun explained: “Maturity peaks at the age of 60. How can a person decide then to throw in the towel and slip offstage? That’s when a person ought to be at his or her best! 60 ought to be the time when a person really starts to work. That’s when there’s experience under the belt and knowledge in the mind – this is when one’s prospects ought to shine bright.” 


Wu Wen-tsun made a name for himself at a young age through world-class academic achievements during his studies broad. His accomplishments have been concentrated primarily in the areas of topology and mathematics mechanization. He didn’t set foot in the latter – which became an entirely new field of research of its own – until the ripe age of 57. 


Wu Wen-tsun, commenting on the secret to preserving one’s academic longevity, said with a smile: “I can’t say what it is exactly; it just kind of hit me. ‘Follow the leader’ isn’t a game for academia; we need to come up with breakthroughs of our own.”


He looks upon China’s younger generation of budding mathematicians with confidence: “I suppose I don’t really need to say anything about hope. They’re going to come up with views of their own and use them to propel China’s economic development. There’s no use in me worrying. They’re going to go in this direction as a matter of course.”


As for his own research, WU said: “Our country already had its hand in differential calculus as early as the time of the Three Kingdoms. It’s pretty incredible. I hope that, in my remaining years, my research in this area will bear fruit.”  



Source: Science and Technology Daily      Author: HU Weiyuan

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