Maths whiz SEYOON RAGAVAN brought home a gold medal from the International Mathematical Olympiad competition this month. The sixteen-year-old Year 11 student at Sydney’s Knox Grammar School tells MANAN LUTHRA why he loves numbers
Why does maths appeal to you?
At the Olympiad level, maths could be described as anything but routine. Quite often there is a lot of creativity, ingenuity and stabbing around in the dark towards finding a solution to a problem. When hours of work at one problem culminates in that singular moment of clarity when everything falls into place, it can be very satisfying. Another great thing about maths is that the further you explore it, the further you find the deeper underlying connections between seemingly unrelated strands of mathematics.
What interested you about maths, as a young child starting school?
To be completely honest, at that time the primary driving factor was simply that I happened to be reasonably good at it! It took until maybe I was 10 or 11 when I started delving into the more creative end of maths, and slowly I developed an appreciation of the beauty and creativity that went into such a rich field.
Which mathematicians have influenced you?
I wouldn’t say I’ve done enough in mathematics yet to name mathematicians who have necessarily influenced my work. That said, there are definitely some mathematicians who I admire, for example Euclid, Leonhard Euler, Carl Friedrich Gauss, Paul Erdos, and of course our very own Terry Tao.
Are you going to go on to become a famous mathematician like Terry Tao, the other student from Australia who won the Maths International Olympiad? Where do you see yourself at thirty?
I’m not too sure where I want to go in terms of a career, but I’d definitely like to continue with something mathematical. Terry Tao is the perfect example of the fact that research mathematicians can in fact be well-rounded individuals, so I do enjoy bringing him up as an example when discussing my career options with others!
What would you say to a student like me who thinks maths is a chore?
Maths is always going to be a chore if you simply do the tasks you’re given, though this is sufficient to get through the HSC. But if you want to see the elegance that maths really has about it, you need to dive in, look for patterns and pursue mathematical truth yourself. At the end of the day, mathematics at the research level is an endless pursuit of absolute truth.
Why are so many kids scared of maths?
I think this goes back to maths being seen as a largely routine thing – people see it as ‘you just drill the techniques in, and then it’s just ploughing through task after task with the same drill every single time.’ Sometimes this “endless ploughing” can seem daunting, and perhaps this is one of the reasons that some students tend to be scared off by maths. Unfortunately, there is also a moderately prevalent perception of maths as an amalgamation of ugly equations, whereas the reality is that maths is ultimately about elegant ideas, principles and arguments that have shaped our knowledge of the field.
I have to say in my personal experience I haven’t seen an awful lot of difference between how boys and girls handle maths. However, there is the issue of lower proportions of girls performing in maths at the highest level. While I can’t say I’m qualified enough to account for this, I definitely think this is an issue that is being improved on, and it would be really good if we could see an evening out between the boys and girls populating these Olympiads within the next ten to fifteen years.
WHY do we need maths, Seyoon???
As I see it, there are three main reasons:
1. Practical sciences such as physics and chemistry, that directly influence the everyday workings of the world, from metal extraction processes to space exploration to global communication, are entirely contingent on mathematical foundations laid down by mathematicians over centuries.
2. Pure mathematics also has direct applications in the real world. Two of my favourite examples are the use of parabolic dishes in radio telescopes, owing to the reflection properties underlying the geometry of the parabola, and also the role of prime numbers in cryptography and security. Prime numbers are still an area of heavy research in the mathematical world, and if it weren’t for them, your bank accounts would all be bust thanks to hackers!
3. As a discipline, mathematics develops the foundations of critical thinking skills involved in systematically breaking down complex situations that are key in several other subjects and disciplines, including the humanities, where quantities of work often culminate in carefully constructing an argument in essay form.
Asians and maths. Is the stereotype true?
Once again, I don’t think I’m exactly qualified to pass educated comment on this.
Fancy yourself as a maths whiz? Try out the problems Seyoon faced HERE
You probably do maths for fun. Tell us a fun maths activity that you have enjoyed?
I absolutely love doing maths for the pure fun of it! One example of a fun activity I’ve enjoyed is our training camps in December and April. Each night the students would have an evening problem session with our lecturers where we’d just discuss random problems. One of them would pose a problem to us, and we’d spend time talking with each other and discussing the problem. Often the problems were very unusual in flavour, and so the camaraderie in discussing these problems with each other and slowly working our way towards an informed solution is truly fun and enjoyable.
Know a good maths joke?
Five out of every four people do not understand fractions.
Would it be true to say that you know maths better than some of the teachers at school?
?The teachers at school and I specialise in different areas of maths. Teachers would be by all means more well-versed in fields typically covered in undergraduate mathematics, for example those pertaining to linear algebra and calculus, whereas my expertise lies more with discrete fields of mathematics, such as combinatorics and number theory. I should note that quite a few of the teachers would also be experienced in one or more of these areas as well, especially if they continued maths beyond the undergraduate level. Nevertheless, these teachers are all of course far more experienced than I am, so I definitely have a lot to learn from them!
If you had to impress a girl with your maths skills, what would you say to her?
I would give her a standard 52-card deck to shuffle and place on a table, and then I would write the name of a card on a piece of paper and place it face down. I would ask her to deal twelve cards to the table, face down, asking her to select any four. The touched cards would be turned face up, and the remaining cards gathered and returned to the bottom of the pack.
For example’s sake, I’ll assume that the four face-up cards are a four, seven, ten, and king. I would then deal cards on top of each of the four, dealing enough cards to bring the total of each pile up to ten. For example, I would deal six cards on the four, counting, “5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.” Three cards are dealt on the seven. No cards are dealt on the ten. Each royal card counts as ten, so no cards are placed on the king.
The values of the four cards are now added: 4, 7, 10, and 10 equals 31. I’d hand her the pack and ask her to count to the 31st card, and turn it over. Funnily enough, it happens to be the same as the card whose name I’d written down at the beginning! I’ll leave you to decide why.
Seyoon, you’re the coolest nerd I know. #Respect!