Plugging a Math Gap

Harvard mathematician Shing-Tung Yau says China trails the pack in his field. He’s tapping money and power to change that.
It was 1993 and China was bidding for the 2000 Olympics. with the country brimming with confidence, a Chinese-born Harvard mathematician figured this was the time to ask China to host another global event held every four years. Shing-Tung Yau and his longtime mentor, another Chinese mathematician, won a meeting with then President Jiang Zemin, so he flew in from the U.S. They proposed that Beijing host the International Congress of Mathematicians, the largest conference in the math world. If China could spend billions on games that would showcase the best athletes, they argued, it could easily afford a conclave that would highlight the best mathematical brains. They were talking to a former engineer. Jiang was sold.

Yau has long been on a mission: to boost what he sees as the low level of mathematics in China and raise the profile of Chinese mathematicians. The congress didn’t come to Beijing until 2002 (and China lost its first Olympics bid, though the games will arrive next year). But Jiang’s approval and the accompanying media splash helped Yau tap wealthy moguls for the centerpiece of his efforts: building three advanced mathematics institutes. “I want to train the next-generation leaders of China in math,” he says. “I don’t believe any modern society can be built where the general public doesn’t have a decent knowledge of math.”

A master of networking and fundraising, Yau constantly works his Rolodex to keep the money flowing and to persuade the best Chinese math minds from around the world to sign on as associates of his institutes. A big attraction is the 57-year-old Yau himself: He’s the leading Chinese mathematician and ranks among the top ten in the world, says Phillip Griffiths, a math professor and a former president of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

To Westerners who see China’s math students regularly ranking near the top in international comparisons and Chinese mathematicians populating the math faculties at the finest overseas universities, Yau’s crusade seems like overkill. But he says that at the highest levels, mathematicians in China are far behind their Western counterparts: “Most Chinese still use technology from America. I want them to create their own research so they don’t rely on others and don’t copy.”

One reason is that for decades China sent its best math students abroad. Most find a welcoming environment to do research–or get lucrative jobs in the private sector–and never return. This brain drain is a big hurdle for creating a corps of world-class math wizards in China. “For China to become a society built on technology, it needs a solid background, and math is the basic language for that,” says Yau. “Physics, software, engineering, banking, insurance–all of these depend on math research.”

So Yau founded the Institute of Mathematical Sciences at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1993 and serves as the director. He also started the Morningside Center of Mathematics in Beijing in 1995 and the Center of Mathematical Science in Zhejiang University in Hangzhou–100 miles southwest of Shanghai and one of China’s oldest universities–in 2002. For his day job he’s been a professor at Harvard for 20 years, specializing in geometry, differential equations and mathematical physics. A U.S. citizen, Yau won a Fields Medal (the equivalent in mathematics of a Nobel Prize) in 1982, a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1985 and the U.S. President’s National Medal of Science in 1997.

“Yau is like God in China,” says Tony Chan, the assistant director for mathematics and physical sciences at the National Science Foundation outside Washington, D.C. and a visiting professor at the Hong Kong institute. “He goes to China and he can see the premier. In the U.S. even the director of the NSF cannot see President Bush.”

But in the past year Yau has gotten into two very public spats. One was with Beijing University, which he accused of corruption. The other was with the New Yorker magazine, which in August portrayed him in an article as trying to steal credit for solving the Poincaré conjecture, a 103-year-old math problem considered the holy grail of geometry and topology. He says the charge is completely false; other news outlets looking into the issue found evidence to back him up.

Situated in a corner of a lush 330-acre college campus in the New Territories and occupying three floors of the simply named Academic Building No. 1, Yau’s Hong Kong institute started slowly. “In Hong Kong most rich men [who give money to schools] want a building named after them,” says Yau. “But we didn’t even have a building.”

An undergraduate at Harvard led Yau to his first big donor, one who didn’t ask for naming rights and declined an honorary degree. That donor was the student’s father, Malaysian billionaire (but Hong Kong resident) Robert Kuok. He gave $6 million that started an endowment and attracted the institute’s first full-time faculty member in 1998, a professor from New York University. Then Kuok introduced Yau to his friend, and Asia’s richest resident, Li Ka-shing, who donated $1.3 million. Ronnie Chan, a Hong Kong real estate tycoon who had known Yau since his days teaching at Stanford University in the 1970s, introduced him to his uncle, Thomas Chen, who dished out another $1.3 million.

A crucial $2 million donation came from William Mong, owner of Shun Hing Electronic Holdings in Hong Kong, a leading distributor for Panasonic since the 1950s. Sitting in a gilded conference room at his company’s headquarters in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood, Mong recalls the difficulties of attending school as a teenager in rural China during the Japanese invasion, when he occasionally had to dodge bombs. But “once I became an agent for Panasonic in 1953, I saw Japan’s technological advancement and I was very impressed,” he says. “It made me wish we had more capable engineers in Hong Kong and China, and that’s my aim now.” The money helped to endow a chair and hire another permanent faculty member.

Today the institute gets 100 applicants from China and elsewhere in Asia for each class of 20 in its five-year masters-and-Ph.D. program. One attraction is programs that collaborate with the engineering and physics departments on topics such as betting on horse races, creating 3-D images of people and predicting the weather. Another draw is an impressive array of visiting faculty from China, Japan, North America and Europe. “I can’t get these people to come to China,” says Ronnie Chan. “But Shing-Tung Yau can.”

For the Morningside Center in Beijing, Yau got help from the Chinese government and Ronnie and his brother, Gerald. (Gerald and Yau had been friends since their future wives were roommates in San Francisco in the late 1960s.) The government donated a plot, and the brothers put up the money for a building the center shares with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It trains 250 researchers a year in six-month-long sessions. Now, in a bid to take on research institutes abroad, it offers an award that it hopes will someday rival the Fields Medal. Most of its graduates are working in universities across China. “I hope these students will have an influence on the future of China,” Yau says.

A native of Guangdong province and one of eight children, Yau fled China with his family after the Communists took over in 1949. Growing up without electricity and running water in a village near the Chinese University of Hong Kong–where his dad was a professor–he was more interested in hanging out with his friends and skipping school than in learning arithmetic. But when he was 14 his father died and he became serious about his studies. He enrolled in Chinese University and in 1969 moved on to graduate school at University of California, Berkeley. There he met his mentor, the late Shiing-Shen Chern, regarded as one of the greatest geometry experts of the 20th century. It was Chern who traveled with Yau for their meeting with Jiang in 1993. In 1971 and just 22, Yau earned his Ph.D.

Next to his math talent, the most remarkable thing about Yau, his colleagues agree, is his ability to collect money. “Yau knows how to sell,” says Peter Li, a math professor at UC, Irvine. “He is relentless in his pursuit, like a car salesman.” Yau says he is very practical about it, although his friends say a better term is “too direct.” “Normally you have to go to ten dinners with these rich people before you can ask about a donation,” says Yau. “But I don’t have that kind of time, so I ask after the first dinner.” He tells potential donors: “Money is nothing. It’s all about your legacy.” Over breakfast at a Howard Johnson motel he once persuaded a Chinese engineer living in New Jersey to donate $2 million to the math center at Zhejiang.

And maybe it’s this bluntness that got him into trouble with Beijing University–which he accused of inflating the value of its research–and the New Yorker. “He’s a very forceful personality, and in academia they may not be used to a bulldozer of a guy,” says a friend of Yau’s. The magazine alleged that Yau was taking credit for solving the Poincaré conjecture away from a Russian mathematician, Grigory Perelman. Yau is demanding an apology, but the magazine issued a statement saying it stands by its story. “That article was a misunderstanding of the culture of mathematics and a misunderstanding of Chinese culture,” he says. Perelman posted the answer online, but didn’t show how he solved it. That set off several teams trying to duplicate his work while also fully outlining the process, as required by academic journals. Two of Yau’s students, spurred by Yau, won this race in 2006.

Yau is an impatient man. Sitting in his office at Harvard Square, he answers e-mails while chatting with a visitor. “There is a fear in the news media that China is rising,” he says. “But it’s better to create understanding between cultures, and math is a common language for that.” His vision, he says, is to make his Hong Kong institute–his only one that awards doctorates–the Harvard of Hong Kong. “It took Harvard a few hundred years to be built. Hopefully, it won’t take us as much time. We just need enough funding.”

by Megha Bahree

 03.12.07

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