The hidden mystery of curves

Norman Do – Mathematician

As a pure mathematician, Norman Do likes to wander around with a pad and pen. He doesn’t need much else. He explores, indulging his sense of curiosity, finding shapes and patterns.

Pineapples and pine cones are pretty exciting for their surface patterns – always formed in a predictable way and known famously as conforming to Leonardo Fibonacci’s sequence of numbers, described in a book published in 1202.

“If you keep your eyes open, you see patterns everywhere,” Norman says. “Once you start playing with mathematical patterns, you suddenly need to work out the formulas behind them.

“I love problems. Some people see problems in life as a bad thing. Mathematicians love them. And if I can’t solve a problem I take it to a conference, share it with my colleagues and watch them suffer as they try to work it out,” he laughs.

Norman can’t quite believe he has landed a job as a lecturer in mathematical sciences at Monash. As a relatively new member of the team, he says he’s paid to think in a dynamic and youthful environment. His ideas often intersect with physics so he is rapt that he’s surrounded by physicists who want to collaborate. “Physicists think they know the way the world works but sometimes they need a bit of help. That’s where we come in – we work together to come up with the mathematical formulas behind what might appear to be random. I am deeply inspired by what the physicists at Monash are doing and they then trigger problems for me to solve.”

Monash is in the process of employing 10 mathematicians. Norman is one of nine recruits and has been on campus for 18 months. “I am very free to do what I want and to develop my career, along with my new colleagues. We’ve found a very special home at Monash. It’s creative and vibrant; I can really sense the energy. In many scientific careers, you might be locked away in an office but here we all interact with other disciplines and I’ve been doing lots of media to keep communicating with the world.”

While Norman is really into curves – their geometry and algebraic equations – he is stumped by one of the most common curves around: a rainbow. “I admit I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t remember the theory behind it. I’m just like a kid and need to ask….I never remember.”

He rejects the notion that a pure mathematician is a bit like a philosopher, citing a joke that claims both professions need just a pen and paper to solve problems – but only mathematicians need a waste paper bin. While philosophers may not concede a concept is wrong, mathematicians must chuck away certain ideas. “You can’t come-up with wrong mathematics.”

Norman can’t wait to see the future unfold. “I want to gather a team of colleagues, international collaborators and students and over the years, share our ideas.”

And the Holy Grail?

“Every pure mathematician dreams of solving one of the ‘seven big problems’. They’re known as the Clay Mathematics Millennium Prizes and each one has a $1 million reward. One of them has already been solved.

“To solve one would be a career maker, guaranteed fame and fortune…at least in my world!”

If you keep your eyes open, you see patterns everywhere. Once you start playing with mathematical patterns, you suddenly need to work out the formulas behind them.