In Honor of Pi Day: Stories about math

This week, in honor of Pi Day on March 14, we're presenting two stories from mathematicians.

Part 1: After a reluctant start, mathematician Ken Ono makes an unexpected discovery.

Ken Ono is the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Mathematics at Emory University. He is the Vice President of the American Mathematical Society, and he considered to be an expert in the theory of integer partitions and modular forms. His contributions include several monographs and over 160 research and popular articles in number theory, combinatorics and algebra. He received his Ph.D. from UCLA and has received many awards for his research in number theory, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Packard Fellowship and a Sloan Fellowship. He was awarded a Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering (PECASE) by Bill Clinton in 2000 and he was named the National Science Foundation’s Distinguished Teaching Scholar in 2005. He serves as Editor-in-Chief for two Springer-Nature journals and is an editor of Springer's The Ramanujan Journal. He was also an Associate Producer of the Hollywood film The Man Who Knew Infinity which starred Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel.

Part 2: Mathematician Piper Harron deals with harassment after standing up for diversity in math.

Piper Harron received her PhD in mathematics from Princeton University in January 2016. More interestingly, she started in 2003, left in 2009, lectured at Northeastern for three semesters, then stopped working and had two children born in 2011 and 2014. Her PhD thesis received recognition for its humorous style and blunt social commentary (Spoiler: math culture is oppressive), and she has traveled to many institutions around the country and in Canada to talk about her experiences trying to survive other people's good intentions. She is currently a postdoc in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Ken Ono

I’m up here by accident.  My father, some of you may know, was a mathematician.  He, for many years, was a professor at Johns Hopkins.  I don't know about many of you but when I was a teenager the last thing I wanted to do was be anything like my dad.  Definitely, the last thing I wanted to do was anything that my parents told me that I should do. 

I’m not trying to be funny and I love my parents, but when you're sixteen that’s not unusual.  So in 1984, that’s when I was sixteen, so you'll know I’m about to turn fifty.  Hawaii five-0, right?  When I was sixteen in 1984, a letter came to the house addressed to my dad written by a widow, a widow of an Indian mathematician by the name of Ramanujan.  We made a film about him. 

It was the most extraordinary letter.  I'd never heard of Ramanujan before and his letter to my dad thanked him for being one of eighty mathematicians that helped give Ramanujan’s widow a bust.  You see, Ramanujan turned out, as I learned, was a major mathematical figure.  When he died in 1920 as a hero in India the government had promised to erect a statue in his honor.  But by the 1980s, well over sixty years later, the government had not come through with it, and the mathematicians of the world gave Mrs. Ramanujan the statue. 

I thought that was a lovely story but, I have to admit, when I was sixteen, what I heard was there was a two-time college dropout who ended up inspiring the mathematicians of the world.  And when you're sixteen and your parents are like super Asian, telling you to get 800 on the SAT math test or getting straight A’s, the only thing you hear is, “they look up to a two-time college dropout,” and I thought that was so awesome. 

I know that sounds funny, but it was really important for me because, and certainly for all of you who are professors, you see the kids in class that are mindlessly pursuing good grades, forgetting that they're in college, forgetting about the content part.  And for whatever reason, there have been a lot of accidents in my life, and I've ended up following Ramanujan first as a source of inspiration but certainly for the last twenty or so years a source of mathematics. 

He's actually really crazy.  He was kind of like an incomplete prophet.  He left behind three notebooks.  I don't know why you all don’t read these notebooks because I can’t tell you how many papers I've written because I've gone through these notebooks and found really deep suggestions. 

But that’s not my story.  My story is actually very difficult to tell because I was a terrible student.  I was a dick.  I was one of those kids in college that didn’t want to go to class.  I was one of those students that, rather perversely, got a lot of pleasure out of getting by in math class by not going to class.  And I’m not proud of that. 

I have to say that I had great mentors along the way.  You know the names.  Paul Sally and my advisor Basil Gordon and others, later Andrew Granville who rescued me at times when I almost quit.  Jeff Lagarius, who is here, will remember me as a PhD student about to quit.  I can’t believe that twenty years ago I was about to take a job at a bank.  If you work for a bank that’s… I mean, my point is that there are a lot of accidents, there are a lot of mentors along the way and there can be a lot of luck in one’s career. 

So my story is about how I accidentally ended up having a career in mathematics that somehow ends up with me standing, bumbling in front of all of you about whatever it is I’m going to say.  The story I want to tell you about is my big breakthrough, how is it that I became discovered and ended up having a good career.  And it’s totally by accident. 

So it was 1997, about twenty years ago.  I got an email from Bruce Berndt.  Many of you probably know Bruce.  He's a professor at the University of Illinois.  He's devoted his career to studying Ramanujan and I’m so grateful that he said that he had an unpublished manuscript that Ramanujan had left behind and he wanted some help editing this manuscript.  I thought that actually sucked.  What experience do I have at editing a manuscript?  But it was like the most incredible experience. 

So in 1997 I was beginning tenure track assistant professor at Penn State.  This is Happy Valley.  I was so grateful to get that job.  Quite frankly, I didn’t believe I deserved the job.  I was certainly an impostor, a fraud. 

Let me just tell you a little bit about my circumstances.  I had an office on the fourth floor.  The building is called McAllister Building.  It was built in 1904.  It was originally intended to be the women’s dormitory but by 1997 it was in decrepit state, but somehow it was good enough to be the Math Department. 

How awful was it?  It was this awful.  The internet went out probably every month, and I can exactly tell you why.  Because the cables, which were in the attic, the squirrels -- we had squirrels living in the attic, so certainly the squirrels enjoyed the taste of internet cables, or at least the mouth-feel of them and so the internet went out all the time. 

My office was in the corner.  The ceiling was so low that there are places where, well, for half of the office you really couldn’t even stand up, and I’m not that tall. 

I had an air conditioner.  It didn’t work.  And my window, it had a lock.  That’s not right.  It once had a lock, presumably broken off decades ago, but it didn’t even really matter because this building was in such decrepit state that there must have been like five or six layers of paint that made it impossible to open the window. 

Anyway, getting back to this manuscript that Bruce Berndt asked me to help him out with, it was a chore.  So we started going through the notebooks and there were some things in the notes that were just wrong.  But it turned out that they weren’t wrong.  It was that I wasn’t smart enough to figure out how right they were.  You see, Ramanujan in his notebooks sometimes used the equal sign in a way that’s so different from what we would agree as.  If A equals B, that’s supposed to mean A and B are the same thing.  But to Ramanujan, it didn’t mean anything like that. 

Ken Ono shares his story at The Tipsy Crow in San Diego. Photo by Ernesto Ortiz

Ken Ono shares his story at The Tipsy Crow in San Diego. Photo by Ernesto Ortiz

So over the course of several months, we went through the notes.  I had this freakish yellow couch in my office.  When you're a poor graduate beginning tenure track assistant professor, you can’t actually furnish your office.  So I was so excited that when I went to Penn State Salvage I bought this stained orange couch for twenty bucks and it was like my most prized possession.  By the way, if you need like adding machines from the 1960s, go to Penn State Salvage.  You can buy it for five dollars. 

So anyway, it was on this couch that I did most of my work.  And in the course of going through Ramanujan’s notes, I finally began to figure out one of these formulas.  It was so wrong that, just like Hardy said, it had to be somehow right.  It had to be borne out of genius.  I can’t explain this but it was one of those flashes of insight where I finally saw what Ramanujan had meant in this formula.  It turned out it was related to an 80-year-old problem. 

I went to the computer and I started computing, and term by term it actually worked out in spite of the fact that it had no right to work out.  So I went back to the orange couch and I tried to build a theory out of it.  And then it was another thing.  I finally figured out it was related to things I had actually been thinking about.  I hate it when someone tells you when they're dead after sixty years that you don’t understand your own subject. 

It was an epiphany.  I never had another epiphany like that.  I sprang up from my yellow couch, I banged my head on the gabled roof of this ceiling of this building.  I still have a notch here.  It’s more than a scar.  My skull is indented here.  And I couldn’t believe the gift that I was given by going through these notes. 

I ran out into the hall.  I went to the bathroom.  I washed my face with cold water.  I was shaking, kind of like I’m shaking now because I’m petrified.  And I got water all over.  It was awful. 

Then in walked my colleague Dale Brownawell, he's like, “What the hell happened to you?  You're all wet.  You're bleeding from your head.”  And I couldn’t admit to him that the most amazing thing in my career had happened to me so I lied.  Something like, “I hit my head on the coat hook in the bathroom stall.” 

But any event, what I wanted to say about this story is that I have no right to be here.  I’m not really smart.  I’m really lucky and it’s one of those things when you're young, when you don’t know where your career is going to go that there are those miracles if you kind of believe in yourself. 

So any event, to make a long story short I wrote a paper.  It was solicited for publication in the Annals of Mathematics.  I ended up winning a prize from the President of the United States for this theorem.  I gave a speech about this theorem in the Indian Treaty Room at the White House and, at the end of the day, what’s going on at the back of my mind is not even my theorem. 

I got a gift from God.  Ramanujan was someone whose ideas came as visions from a goddess.  Who am I to argue with that?  I was a 2.7 GPA student at the University of Chicago and somehow that was what was going on in my mind.  What am I doing at the White House? 

Any event, if that inspires you, I hope it does because I've been following this genius and I can’t explain, I cannot begin to explain how amazing that’s been.  Thank you.


Part 2: Piper Harron

I smile a lot.  I was invited to do this radio show once -- it never aired.  I'd been invited because they had heard about me, about my thesis.  At one point, one of the hosts expressed surprise at my voice.  He thought I'd be angrier.  Well, my cisgender, heterosexual darling, this is what angry sounds like. 

I smile a lot because navigating social expectations and other people’s perceptions is second nature to me.  The analysis, the accommodation happens automatically without my consent.  It’s not a quality I recommend in general, but it is a necessary survival skill for many of us. 

All of my invitations are because of my thesis, the first time I stopped accommodating expectations. 

So my PhD thesis was weird.  It’s pure math, but I included introductions for non-mathematicians and even the mathy parts were far less formal than you might expect.  I filled it with humor and complaints.  My prologue talked about sexism inherent in math culture and throughout I was honest about my understanding, my confusion, and my frustration. 

I wrote my thesis for me, and research math is basically never for me. 

After it was accepted, I put it online on a website I called The Liberated Mathematician and the next day a friend told me I broke math Twitter.  So it was kind of a big-ish deal at the time and I get invited to things.  I even have this talk I wrote in which I describe my journey, my journey from someone who smiles and accommodates to someone who does what she wants -- and still smiles. 

And I thought I would tell that story here.  It fits, but I can’t.  Sorry. 

The thing is, my talk is not about my turning point.  It’s about the underlying pain that accompanies oppression.  And my story is only meant to empower those who, like me, have struggled to understand how do we survive?  How do we thrive?  I have no intention of presenting racist violence as a catalyst for a moment of self-realization where I become the hero who did the thing and we all feel good about ourselves.  No.  That is not my story.  That did not happen and I won’t say that it did. 

I was invited to tell a story, but I am not a storyteller.  Stories are nice, engaging.  They bring you in.  They allow you to empathize with another life.  They can also be packaged and marketed.  They can be abused.  They allow you to distance yourself from the burdens of reality. 

Now, you're all invited to my real talk.  (I mean, you'd have to invite me to give it.)  And I would tell you some things, some funny, some not and you would get to know me better. 

There is no ten-minute version.  I need people of color, trans people, native people, disabled people, I need them to know that I hear them.  Our stories are endless.  Our struggles are ongoing.  Our pain is not for your consumption and spiritual growth.  When we overcome adversity, our oppressors are so moved that they do nothing to fix the adversity that we never should have faced in the first place.  I will not be knowingly complicit in an event that allows my oppressors to feign empathy while they keep their distance, while you continue to do nothing.  No.  You do not get my thesis story. 

What I will give you instead is the epilogue.  See, after decades of empathizing with and internally apologizing for all that totally-not-racist white people I was surrounded by, it finally hit me.  That this country would see me murdered, leave my body laying on the ground, blame me for my own death and charge my parents for the ambulance.  That was my turning point.  That’s how I was able to write my thesis as if nothing mattered. 

Are you feeling empowered and inspired yet?  Look them up and see how this country sees me: Natasha McKenna, Korryn Gaines, Brooklyn BreYanna Stevenson, Kisha Michael, Marquintan Sandlin, Tamir Rice, to name a few. 

With my thesis, I became The Liberated Mathematician and I gained an audience and I gained a platform and then, this summer, I told white men that they were in my way.  I said this on a math website which had, I presumed, a limited audience.  What I didn’t know was that the alt-right has people searching the internet for academics like me egregiously sticking up for the human rights of marginalized people, and they literally want me personally to not exist.  I know because they told me. 

They told me every day.  They told me every few hours.  People read the alt-right headlines and the context-free quotes and got their feelings hurt.  They got angry and they said this is not their America.  They wrote me emails and they sent me messages on Facebook. 

Piper Harron shares her story at The Tipsy Crow in San Diego. Photo by Ernesto Ortiz.

Piper Harron shares her story at The Tipsy Crow in San Diego. Photo by Ernesto Ortiz.

And these guardians of America called me racial slurs, sexist slurs, homophobic and transphobic slurs.  They called me ugly.  They said they hoped I got cancer and died.  They said I should be fired, I should lose my children.  They said I better hope I don’t run into them in real life.  These people were going to make America great again by sending me pictures of lynched black men hanging from trees.  I guess that was the last time America was great. 

Have you ever waited impatiently for something you're excited for?  Do you know how long that takes?  Have you ever waited for an end to something awful?  Do you know how long that takes? 

Have you ever waited for the pain to stop?  It seems silly to measure this in weeks.  What’s two or three weeks?  I want you to think of this in terms of hours.  It was over 300 hours that I endured this barrage of hate.  And it wasn’t even the hate that got to me so much as it was the uncertainty.  For over 300 hours, I felt unsafe.  Can you think of a time when you didn’t feel safe?  When you didn’t know what was going to happen to you?  Whether or how it was going to end?  Whether your life would be ruined forever or…? 

As soon as it started, a friend warned me that this was an attack.  They would threaten me, threaten my family, try to get me actually fired.  And, in fact, they emailed every single member of the math faculty, the Board of Regents, the Chair, and left threatening voicemails I have not listened to.  One student contacted every single journalist, editor and photographer in the state. 

By day three of this, my outlook was dark.  I received a lot of support from friends and strangers but it did not break the darkness.  The constant exposure to hate has an effect even if you don’t believe it, even if you don’t care, even if these people are truly nothing to you.  That’s something I never understood about bullying.  It has a power even if you understand it’s not real. 

Now, I was told this was my fault.  I’m not talking trolls anymore.  I’m talking about people in my world or in my periphery, people who claimed that they were trying to help.  I was told I should have expected this.  I was told my blog post was imperfect and that’s why the harassment was lasting so long.  I was told I shouldn’t even be writing these things on the internet if I haven't put in the time and the research, if I haven't been following the social justice issues coming out of other departments.  I was told I was responding wrong.  I was told I wasn’t listening. 

The trolls made me unsafe because they wanted me to shut up, to not exist.  They wanted me fired.  They actually tried to destroy me in as much as they could. 

The so-called allies made me unsafe because they told me that who I was was not enough.  That my story, my pain did not matter if I didn’t do things in the way they deemed fit.  They told me it was not okay to have an emotional reaction even as I’m scanning every damned email looking for physical threat against me and my children. 

The so-called allies scrutinized me.  They scrutinized my behavior, my emotions, my reactions.  They took the trolls for granted.  What did I expect?  The trolls and the false allies shared a common belief that I was some kind of soldier in a cause rather than a human being.  And this would be funny but it’s not because soldiers are human beings too.  Soldiers get stress and trauma disorders and so did I. 

Six weeks before school started, I had my first panic attack.  It had been about a month since the harassment had died down and I thought that my life and my sense of self were returning to normal and I finally made my first public post on Facebook.  The very next day, I get an email from an alt-right website saying they're running a story on my Facebook activity.  They have screenshots.  They have comments from my spouse and my friends. 

I walked away from the computer and the walls started closing in.  “I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t live like this.  I’m gonna have to give it all up.  I came this far and I’m gonna have to give it all up.” 

Being The Liberated Mathematician, talking about things I care about is important to me but I could not stand up to the fear of another psychological assault. 

For the next two-and-a-half months, I would have basically constant anxiety and one to two full panic attacks a week.  The constant anxiety was like dread took over my body, physical sensations in my stomach, up through my chest, my throat and in my mouth. 

I have anxiety still and anxiety makes everything harder.  Anxiety is your body treats everyday tasks like scary, scary monsters.  I look at my to-do list and I go, “No.  Absolutely not.  Everything is impossible.  I cannot.” 

Photo by Photo by Ernesto Ortiz.

Photo by Photo by Ernesto Ortiz.

It’s not like I've never not accomplished things before.  The difference with anxiety is the impact.  So previously, I might not have done everything as efficiently or as early as I wanted but things get more or less done.  With anxiety it’s like I’m about to lose several thousand dollars because I can't figure out how to do the reimbursements because it just takes too many steps. 

With anxiety it’s like I flew across an ocean and all the way across the country to go to a conference and I’m about to miss it because I can't figure out what time it starts, where it is or how to get there. 

With anxiety, it’s like I’m not going to eat because there are too many decisions, not enough space and it’s safer in bed anyway. 

This is not the story you wanted to hear.  I did not tell you about my approach to research.  I went over time.  But this is life.  This is what we’re up against. 

I appreciate the smiles, the thank yous, the opportunities, the free flights.  I really do.  But what I need is for you to work harder to make the world safe so that my friends of color, my trans friends, my disabled friends, so that we can focus on our work instead of fighting to exist. 

And if this seemed like a bad story, good.  Do something.