Touching hearts and souls
Professor Nalini Joshi is regularly preoccupied with the “deep and the beautiful”. For her and for many graduates of the University’s Mathematics Department, mathematics approaches a spiritual experience. To teach it or pursue it is akin to a calling.
“When I meet graduates of the course, even people who were here half a century ago or more, you can still see it in their eyes,” she says. “Mathematics touched them, quite profoundly very often.”
Her descriptions of the hard wooden benches of the lecture theatre (“you should try sitting on them for an hour, it’s quite an education”) contribute to the sense of vocation, an image of single-minded stoics pondering some great unknowable. Joshi has immersed herself in the mysteries of the Painlevé equations for many years. But graduates of the University of Sydney’s School of Mathematics and Statistics are very much plugged into possibilities. Even those that stretch far into the future.
“You can’t guess what will happen in the future,” Joshi says. “For example, all of the stuff you have in your mobile phone, and all of the secure internet transactions you perform without thinking about, all rely on coding theory. The mathematics that underlies those applications dates back 100 years or more. When that research was being done, no one had any idea how it would eventually be used.
“I can’t say what the application of any of the mathematics we do right now might be. It might not come for another 30 years, or 60 years. It might not come in my lifetime, but I know it will.”
Joshi completed her undergraduate studies in 1982, receiving a Bachelor of Science with Honours in applied mathematics. She also has a PhD and MA from Princeton University in Applied Mathematics and has worked all over Australia and the world, including Princeton, Kyoto, Manchester and the Isaac Newton Institute of Mathematical Sciences at Cambridge. In 2002, she returned to the University of Sydney to take up the Chair of Applied Mathematics, the first woman to do so.
As an alumna herself, she recognises the special bond that exists between former students and the University. She regularly encounters graduates of the School for whom “maths touched their souls,” she says. “When they came through here they weren’t thinking about what they were going to do afterwards, what job they might get,” she says. “They were thinking about beauty, the thing that happens to your mind when you go through a course of study here. Years later, even if they have pursued careers away from mathematics, in law or business or whatever, somehow they remember that feeling of expansion, a spiritual sense that there is something important going on and that they might be able to help make that happen for someone else.”
Philipp Hofflin is one such graduate. His donation was to initiate the first International Research Travel Scholarships to support outstanding PhD students in the University’s School of Mathematics and Statistics to explore research collaborations on a global scale. His support enables one leading PhD student each year to interact in research with mathematical scientists over a period of up to two months at a host institution of their choice.
“I’m a graduate of the School from the early ’90s [he also received his PhD in 1998] and I had a lot of opportunities, thanks to the University and also to the British Council, the Japanese government, and to various people who supported my travels. I want others to have similar chances,” he says.
Former students are not the only ones donating to the future of the department, says Joshi. “All kinds of people put forward modestly for prizes and scholarships,” she says.
“People don’t want to hand over money simply to facilitate the type of work that they do. It’s not a matter of ‘you give me
X dollars and I can do Y’. It’s not for the application that people are giving money. It’s because somewhere in their hearts, mathematics touches them and they want others to share that feeling.”
Words: Jason Blake