In what is definitely a first for Bates College, and a rare occurrence for Liberal Arts schools in general, this year’s commencement speaker was a mathematician. We were incredibly lucky to have Manjul Bhargava, Fields Medalist and Princeton professor (and hopefully new friend), deliver this year’s address. Our math majors, a particularly strong and happy group, were really excited to have him, but I was really happy to see that the reception from the Bates graduating class and their families was really positive too.
In his address, for which you can find a video and complete transcript here, Manjul shared how he got interested in mathematics, and the surprising connections between different fields. I loved how he connected this to each of the other honorands (Joan Benoit Samuelson, Thomas Moser, and Mark Abelson) and their own successes in terms of the many things each one of them does. But in particular, as someone who cares a lot about the public perception of mathematics, I think Manjul was the best “goodwill ambassador” one could hope for. He is charming, unassuming, incredibly successful yet approachable, eloquent, and knowledgeable about so much more than mathematics. He gave us a tour of connections between mathematics and music, mathematics and poetry, astrophysics and MRIs, and so much more. He also gave a moving tribute to the late John Nash, which was particularly appropriate in this context: here is someone whose mathematical breakthroughs led to breakthroughs in economics and biology, for example. I got to meet some of my students’ parents afterwards, and it was really great to see how excited and inspired everyone was by this speech. I am definitely going to make this video mandatory watching for math majors in the future.
Another rare treat we had was actually the day before commencement. Our chair was able to arrange a lunch for the math majors, their parents, and the math faculty, where we could meet and chat with Manjul. We had a great turnout, and a really fun Q&A. Many of the themes from the commencement address came up in the Q&A, but we got to hear a lot about other things. For example, I was really excited to hear him describe what he thinks is the “ideal way” to learn and teach mathematics, and how similar it is to the Inquiry-Based type classes that I like to teach. I mean, talk about validation of your methods! It was also particularly great because many of the students in the room had taken IBL Real Analysis from me, and many of them gave me knowing looks while Manjul was explaining this. One of the parents asked if there was an application to Manjul’s research in Number Theory, and his answer was great: “I hear there is, but I don’t really know about it.” His longer answer was that if one only works thinking about the direct application, creativity is restricted. If you open your mind and think about bigger problems, it is sometimes easier to think of the applications, or for other people to take your work an apply it. The example of how trying to think about better ways of photographing space led to the creation of the MRI machine was particularly enlightening.
Bates also holds a dinner with the honorands the evening before commencement, which some faculty and staff are invited to (this year the whole math department was invited). I didn’t get to sit on the same table with Manjul, but I got to chat with him after dinner. The thing that still strikes me the most is that such a brilliant person can be so humble and approachable. I have met other famous mathematicians, and it is rare that they are so easy to talk to (but it does happen). It was very cool to hear how he has been traveling around the US, Canada and India, doing a lot of outreach and in particular talking about mathematics to young children. Like I said, if there is anyone who should be the public face of mathematics, it should probably be Manjul.
Of course, commencement weekend goes by in a flash, and I always feel like I didn’t get to spend much time with my students, fellow faculty, and this year I also felt like I would have liked to spend more time chatting with Manjul. But that is the way it goes, and it is also not the end (as implied by the word “commencement”). I will probably get to see my students again, I will definitely see my fellow faculty again, and I will hopefully get to chat some more with Manjul about math, teaching, and the suprising unity of all fields of human endeavor.