My favourite video portraits of mathematician

I have compiled a YouTube playlist that contains short video portraits of famous mathematicians. The videos in this playlist have always motivated me and for some reason I like watching videos like this a lot. This sometimes feels like it’s a strange obsession of mine, reminds me a bit of a teenager who obsesses with his favourite internet personality (or TV personality when i was still a teenager). But on the other hand I realized that these videos also contain a few memorable quotes that I would like to point out here.

Of the 2018 portraits of the Fields Medal recipients, the first one in the playlist is of Peter Scholze. This video contains the quote

“There’s always an infinite number of problems to be solved in mathematics. […] whenever you solve one there are ten more coming.”

That quote certainly resonates with me because I have also made the experience that solving/understanding one problem just naturally leads one to asking more questions.

In Caucher Birkar’s video, I very much liked the quote

“Reading mathematics […] is like going to a […] beautiful town. When you walk around you see monuments, you see beautiful architecture. And that’s like the first stage, where you just see what other people have created. The second stage is like, if I suddenly have wings and I fly over a city and I can see a lot more than before.”

Very poetic matopher!

In Akshay Venkatesh’s video, my favourite quote is this:

“When I was maybe around seven, I remember I had this spiral notebook and I had just learned about binary. And I remember writing, in red, various numbers translated into binary. I think just manipulating numbers makes me feel happy.”

This quote shows in a somewhat sincere way that in order to make some progress (in mathematics or in any field really) one needs to enjoy the process, the working with the tools (or the people involved). In any case, it must be fun to do it. This idea can really be translated to every person and every type of human activity. It’s also something that Martin Hairer mentions in his 2014 Fields Medal portrait by saying that one must be “genuinely interested”.

While Manjul Bhargava mentions the importance of playing with toys to somehow stimulate the mind, Jacob Lurie, in his MacArthur Fellow portrait, likens mathematics to “a giant playground, filled with all kinds of toys that the human mind can play with. But many of these toys have very long operating manuals”. That’s certainly a cool metaphor. And in the comments to this video some person said this: “Many of these toys have very long operating manuals. Yeah, ‘Higher Topos Theory’ is like 900+ pages long…” (Higher Topos Theory being a book/article of Lurie’s). But the point that Lurie is trying to make is that some mathematical phenomena are not that difficult to explain and presenting them in engaging ways might certainly help lightening up common mathematics classes (below university level).

By the way, if you like the videos in my playlist, you might also be interested in the movies that George Csicsery made produced by ZALA films. Among other documentaries, he made films about Yitang Zhang, Paul Erdős and Maryam Mirzakhani that are approximately an hour long.

And last but not least I must say that I like watching all scenes in all of these videos that contain footage of notebooks. I find it fascinating to see what and how other people make notes and mostly it’s just beautiful to look at them.


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