Monday, July 5, 2010

What do Cambridge Phd students do when they are stressed?

Punting...

BBQ...

Formal Halls...

Celebrations...

Support our boat racing team...
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Playing Wii?

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Bumper Cars (in tuxedo)??
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Thursday, July 1, 2010

T. Tokieda

I was on the way to Trinity College when I suddenly paused. "I have tonnes of work waiting for me. Should I really be listening this talk about 'physics of toys'? Anson, did say it is THE lecture to go for..." For a moment I turned my back away from the city, but fortunately I did another U-turn and ended up at Trinity College for the lecture.



It turned out that this one of the best lectures that I have ever been to in University of Cambridge. Not only is Tadashi Tokieda a brilliant mathematician himself, he is also a genius in making what seems complex mathematics into something that everyone could understand.

He never ceases to capture the audience's attention, alternating between good humour and extraordinary mathematics in every moment of his lecture. That is hard to achieve. In one instance, he took a piece of white paper, crumpled it and then stepped on it. Then he unfold it and ask, what did you see? You see lines, random lines. But if you try to draw a crumpled piece of paper by using networks of random lines, you will immediately recognise that the drawing isn't a crumpled piece of paper. This means that there is more than just random lines in a piece of crumpled paper. Did you realise that for each point on the crumpled paper, there can only be an even number of lines coming out from that point? If there are only four lines coming out of a point on that crumpled paper, then did you know that the sum of the opposing sectors are equal? He proved all these without using a single equation. All he had was 3 slides and less than 100 words in the 2-hour lecture. When I have to write what he had actually explain in that lecture, I'm lost for words. So if you find it difficult to understand what I have just told you about crumpled paper, it is my fault, definitely not his.

He went on to talk about negative Poisson ratio and origami and how this revolutionise the way the satellites fold their solar panels. He did all these without using any equations. You get a real sense that what he is talking about is really complex, interesting and cutting edge but yet everyone in the room understood it completely. At the end of the lecture, not only do I feel entertained, but also feel that I have learned so much in just 2 hours.

During the Q&A session, one audience asked, "you said you haven't solve this problem negative Poisson ratio. Why?" He answered, "Because it's hard!" to the laughter of the audience. He went on, "It's hard, but not because of what you think. The difficult thing about research is that unlike in school, you have to formulate the problem which you yourself is going to solve. If the problem is too easy, it becomes uninteresting to the research community. If it becomes too hard to solve, it becomes uninteresting to you. So how should you formulate the problem, set the conditions right so that it can be interesting yet solvable. The common fallacy is that people think research must be important. They are wrong. Research must be interesting."

I'll remember him, T. Tokieda.