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Friday, February 13, 2015

Math Minds: David Massey

David Massey, a full professor of mathematics at Northeastern University and the founder of the Worldwide Center of Mathematics, sat down with our math intern Tori for an interview this week. He is the first in hopefully a string of mathematicians who will be interviewed for this new blog series.
David B. Massey, Ph.D
Are you currently involved in any research?
Yes - I study abstract notions of space in any number of dimensions. I prove things about what those spaces look like at places where they’re not smooth [singularities].

How do you picture those?
You don’t really. You picture what happens in low dimensions and hope that it gives you intuition for the higher dimensions. You can’t picture the higher dimensions, so you prove theorems that describe them. I’m interested in singularities because they’re a great blend of topology, commutative algebra, algebraic geometry… a lot of stuff.

When did you first become interested in math? Was there a specific moment when you knew you wanted to pursue this field?
I had two terrible math teachers in high school. There was my geometry teacher, and then my algebra II teacher was even worse. I was actually thinking about being a lawyer. I was always doing math though; I proved my first theorem while working on a computer program in 10th grade. I finally fell in love with math in 11th grade. My Pre-Cal teacher was very good. His name was Mr. Smith, he had just received his master’s degree, and he was just very excited about teaching math.

Do you credit anyone in particular for guiding you to a career in math?
My father tripled majored in math, physics, and astronomy in college. He didn’t do anything with that though; he went into the family business. But he was always very excited and supportive of my pursuit of abstract mathematics.

Have you experienced any roadblocks in becoming a mathematician?
Not of the kind that I think you mean. In a sense, math IS roadblocks. You don’t know if the things you’re trying to prove are true. Maybe you find out that what you suspected is false or maybe you just never know one way or the other. If you think of problems as roadblocks, you shouldn’t go into math. You need to enjoy the puzzles.

What was your favorite math class?

If you could attend a class taught by any mathematician or math professor, living or deceased, whose class would it be?
Riemann. Newton or Archimedes of course would be cool, but their mathematics was part of the early foundations of mathematics. Somehow I think that Gauss was a bad teacher – I’m not sure why I think that. However, Riemann had amazing ideas, which only Gauss fully appreciated at the time, and I’ve gotten an impression that Riemann was a good teacher.

What would you want him to teach?

Do you have a favorite proof?
Because it’s just so simple, and yet so cool, the proof that the square root of 2 is irrational. A trivial proof by today’s standards, but still so cool.

Any general advice for undergrads or students looking to go into math?
Many undergrads end up majoring in engineering because there aren’t many jobs outside of academia entitled “mathematician”. But most importantly, don’t go for a Ph.D. in mathematics unless you love math. You have to be someone that thinks about proofs all the time, you have to think about them in the shower, you have to dream about math, and wake up thinking about math. You have to think it’s fun. If you don’t find it fun, you’re going to be miserable.

Newton or Leibnitz?
I don’t think there’s any question that Newton developed Calculus first. Leibnitz’s notation is superior. Calculus wouldn’t be as popular today without Leibnitz. Newton is known as a great mathematician and physicist, but Leibnitz is known as a co-inventor of Calculus plus being an intellectual in many areas outside of mathematics.

As a more personal question that obviously won’t be a part of future interviews, why did you start the Worldwide Center of Math?

Thank you so much for being the first mathematician in our new series, Dave! If you have any additional questions, feel free to leave a comment.

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