Colombian mathematics Tatiana Toro Calderon (Bogotá, 57) was selected as the new director United States Institute for Mathematical s Research, one of the most important centers of thought in the world. From his Seattle home, amid a strong heat wave of more than 42 degrees Celsius, Toro explains the urgent need to educate all children in the world in mathematics and emphasizes the role of this science in tackling the major challenges facing today ‘s society, including global warming and global warming; coronavirus.
This scientist, who at the age of seven learned the theory of sets with beans and colored blocks at the French lyceum in Bogota, was selected in 2019 as one of the best educators at the University of Washington, where she has been working since 1996. Toro was the first woman to represented Colombia at the World Olympics in Mathematics, graduated from university in four semesters, and dedicated her life to understanding the limits of geometric measurement theory and partial differential equations.
The Colombian scientist insists on the need to change traditional methods of teaching mathematics in schools so that they cease to be a difficult and boring subject that no one likes. “Mathematics must be a game for children“She says convinced.
Question. You are a woman and Latin in a world of predominantly white American men. Do you think that there are still many gender, racial and class barriers that need to be overcome when doing mathematical research?
Reply. There are barriers in science, and not just in Latin America. They are real. I would say that at all. I know that they cannot all be corrected at the same time, but in our work at the head of the institute we will try to overcome them, especially to minimize racial, economic and gender barriers. The institute has put in place specific mechanisms and programs to help correct certain discrimination. There is a great deal of effort to represent women in all our programs. I would like to be able to do the same with racial and socio-economic barriers, when we look at who is doing math in the world, we find that very rarely are boys with poor families, it is a group that is important to help.
P. In this sense, what is the significance of a solid education in mathematics at school?
R. I believe that good math training opens many doors from an early age. Mathematics teaches critical thinking, problem solving no matter what profession a child chooses. It’s a way to logically face the world. A person in the field told me a while ago: we hire people who have a doctorate in mathematics and we don’t care in which field, because what we hire is not an expert, for example in algebraic topology, but a person who thanks mathematics knows how to think, can dose, can turn problems and solve. The same goes for an elementary school child.
“To solve the problems of society, it is urgent to educate all children in the world in mathematics”
P. So what can be done to stop mathematics from becoming a subject hated by most children?
R. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I learned set theory with blocks of many colors and many sizes. I learned to count beans. Math was a very fun game for me. That’s why I loved them. And I think what interested me at the age of seven may be of interest to all children. It is necessary to change the way mathematics is taught in schools. It must be a game in which you can discover the rules yourself. Exercises will then be made to strengthen these rules.
P. What is the role of mathematics in solving the main problems of today’s society?
R. For example, let’s talk about climate change, which affects us all. As we are in this interview, the temperature in my house in Seattle is the highest in a long time, over 43 degrees Celsius. Do? One of the things I said at the beginning is that learning math gives children the ability to think analytically about problems. I believe that one of the difficulties that should have convinced people that climate change exists, that it is real, that it threatens us and that it could end the planet, is that sometimes it is difficult to understand the causes and correlations that generate it. Someone with a good knowledge of mathematics may understand that burning coal in China makes the climate in some regions colder than before or rising. Someone with a gap in math may not understand this easily. And this lack of understanding means that nothing is happening. So with many aspects of life.
“We need to change the way we teach math in schools.” It must be a game in which you can discover the rules yourself. “
P. Interesting to this argument, in addition to understanding the logic of problems, I imagine that mathematics offers many practical applications to solve them …
R. From a practical point of view, of course, there are mathematical models that show what could happen if we behaved in a certain way, they say what would happen if the temperature rose by one or two degrees. Same with coronavirus. The University of Washington, where I work, has created the first models of the spread of covid around the world. These models have been used by various governments to determine how to initially handle a pandemic. However, I want to insist that the most important thing is to try to ensure that everyone living on this planet uses mathematics to understand the logic of the problems that threaten us. To solve society’s problems, it is urgent to educate all children in the world in mathematics.
P. Let’s go back to his appointment. What are the short-term challenges of your new job at the American Institute for Mathematical Research?
R. First, I will focus on helping to restart mathematical research that has been paralyzed for more than a year by coronavirus. In my opinion, there is a generation of mathematicians and mathematicians who are at risk of a pandemic. There are many doctoral students and recently graduated experts who can be discouraged, who have long sought to carry out research at a distance and without networks of knowledge, without travel, without attending conferences. Because of mathematics, it is important for this generation to find a way to reactivate their research, and the institute can play a very special role in this.
R. There are programs that were developed at the institute a few years ago and have had a very strong impact on the development of various areas of mathematics. We are a measure of excellence in research. However, our work is much more than scientific and academic. Recently, educational, scientific and mathematical dissemination programs have been developed for ordinary people at the highest level.
R. Just before this interview, we had an inventory meeting of the American National Mathematical Festival, it is a very big event. This time about 40,000 people were involved. It is a tool for disseminating mathematics to the general public, especially children and young people. In addition, we try to address populations that have historically been underrepresented in mathematics. I really want every child from a young age to be able to enjoy math, no matter where they come from, what their family history looks like or their financial resources. The goal is that if you like it, you can do it.
P. What have been your main research directions in recent years?
R. I work in two specific fields: geometric measurement theory and partial differential equations.
P. The equation looks very complicated, what does the geometric theory of measurement consist of?
R. I want you to train mentally: Imagine you have a wire and you put it in a bucket of soapy water. When you remove it, you will see the soap that remains around the wire forming bubbles that intersect in certain ways. No matter how the wire deforms, the ways in which the soap bubbles intersect always seem to be the same. Geometric measurement theory studies these types of problems.
P. What is it for?
R. The theoretical framework needed to understand this phenomenon is the same as needed to understand some species of nature. There are some microorganisms that live at the bottom of the sea, invertebrates that move by filling with water and draining. When they die, the cartilage solidifies where bubbles remain, causing them to move. The way the solidifying bubbles intersect in the cartilage is exactly the same as the way the soap bubbles intersect in the wire. They do it at an angle of 120 degrees. The same goes for beehives. The lines where they intersect always do this at an angle of 120 degrees. It is a pattern that is repeated in nature. The reason this happens is that in nature, equilibria are found after minimizing energies.
P. What are the implications for everyday life?
R. Although I can’t solve the immediate problem at the moment, it helps to understand how some natural systems work. Some time ago, when we started studying number theory, no one would have imagined that this would be the basis of e-commerce. The mathematical problems that are now developing in the academy may have practical applications in 20 or 40 years, which we cannot imagine yet.