Prof. Don Zagier, Truly a Great Mind of this Era
Prof. Don Zagier, Truly a Great Mind of this Era
  • Reporter Park Seo-Kyung
  • 승인 2012.05.02 19:52
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Since the beginning of April, the Department of Mathematics has been hosting Professor Don Bernard Zagier, one of the four directors of the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics and a professor at the College de France. He finished high school at age 13 and completed his B.A. and M.A. at MIT in just three years. Zagier then received his Ph.D. at 20 and became a professor at age 24. He specializes in number theory, and he is also known for discovering an elementary proof of Fermat’s theorem on sums of two squares. He has given several lectures for a wide spectrum of audiences, from high school students to professors during his stay at POSTECH. The Postech Times interviewed him and asked about the significant issues that involve POSTECH.

How did you first find out about POSTECH?
I’ve been a friend of Prof. Young Ju Choie for about 35 years. She came to Maryland University for her Post Doctoral experience. We worked and even wrote a paper together. She first invited us (Prof. Don Zagier and his wife) to come to POSTECH to give lectures in 1992, when POSTECH was still young. This is my second visit to Korea and POSTECH. Currently, I’m a professor at College de France, which is very unique and special in the world. It allows a small percent of teaching outside of Paris, even outside of France. So, I am here to give lectures as a part of my College de France course.
How was the lecture atmosphere?
I gave a lecture to what I was told would be an audience of undergraduate students. In the lecture, however, there were lots high school students, and they all seemed to understand the lecture delivered in English. The fact that graduate, undergraduate, and even high school students can understand English lectures to this extent, and reacted to some jokes, was really impressive. Moreover, the students’ relaxed mood was good to me. It was also interesting to see about 15 students approaching me when the lecture had ended and asked for autographs. In Germany or France, some students would ask for autographs from famous singers, but never a mathematician!
You received a high level education at young age. And here in POSTECH, there are lots of students who graduate high school early and began school early. What do you think about getting ahead early in age?
It depends on the person. There is no rule. In my case, I worked really hard to get permission from the school administration. In America, they insist students take every single course. So I attended evening school and summer courses to graduate early both in high school and at MIT. In general, I wouldn’t recommend “superpass” schooling. I’ve seen bright, gifted people who gave up studying because they were pushed too hard. It was fortunate that nobody forced me to do anything, including my parents. I would recommend faster learning if there are systemized programs allowing gifted students to advance faster because I think it is always better to learn early. At a later age you can be learning harder material and have deeper understanding of previously learned material. But they must not be pressured.
There are on-going debates over English lectures in Korea because the subjects are already difficult in the mother tongue. What do you think of bilingual campus?
I think bilingual is absolutely wonderful. It is important to be able to communicate in English especially for scientists because you go abroad. Science is about communication, not just about computers. It is humans who think and share essential ideas. Of course, it might seem like a handicap for non English natives at first. As the students progress deeper into their fields of study, they will have to read and write countless papers in English. Moreover, many will be going abroad, and some will be giving lectures in English. It is the handicap that needs to be resolved sooner or later. Plus, learning new things is always fun.
You deliver many lectures, probably to various spectrum of people. Then, do you spend time to think about how to explain contents easier to people?
I really spend a lot of time thinking about how to explain difficult concepts easily to the non-mathematicians and mathematicians alike. When I was at MIT, I thought that professors were absolutely terrible at teaching and never even seemed to prepare for lectures. Several years later, however, I noticed that they were quite good at giving lectures to advanced students and peers, the were just not good at explaining difficult concepts to undergraduates. It is because they focus most of their time on their research which is why they were hired in the first place and need to do so to produce top research results every year. Students can make the professor better by asking him questions that they don’t understand. Chances are many others sitting in class also cannot understand, so you’re always doing a favor. Professors sometimes cannot know what you’re having difficulties with. If you ask, the professor will try to explain in different words.