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  • Transcriber: Helen Chang Reviewer: Tanya Cushman

  • "I love mathematics"

  • (Laughter)

  • is exactly what to say at a party

  • if you want to spend the next couple of hours

  • sipping your drink alone

  • in the least cool corner of the room.

  • And that's because when it comes to this subject -

  • all the numbers, formulas,

  • symbols, and calculations -

  • the vast majority of us are outsiders,

  • and that includes me.

  • That's why today I want to share with you

  • an outsider's perspective of mathematics -

  • what I understand of it,

  • from someone who's always struggled with the subject.

  • And what I've discovered,

  • as someone who went from being an outsider to making maths my career,

  • is that, surprisingly, we are all deep down born to be mathematicians.

  • (Laughter)

  • But back to me being an outsider.

  • I know what you're thinking:

  • "Wait a second, Eddie.

  • What would you know?

  • You're a maths teacher.

  • You went to a selective school.

  • You wear glasses, and you're Asian."

  • (Laughter)

  • Firstly, that's racist.

  • (Laughter)

  • Secondly, that's wrong.

  • When I was in school,

  • my favorite subjects were English and history.

  • And this caused a lot of angst for me as a teenager

  • because my high school truly honored mathematics.

  • Your status in the school pretty much correlated

  • with which mathematics class you ranked in.

  • There were eight classes.

  • So if you were in maths 4, that made you just about average.

  • If you were in maths 1, you were like royalty.

  • Each year,

  • our school entered the prestigious Australian Mathematics Competition

  • and would print out a list of everyone in the school

  • in order of our scores.

  • Students who received prizes and high distinctions

  • were pinned up at the start of a long corridor,

  • far, far away from the dark and shameful place

  • where my name appeared.

  • Maths was not really my thing.

  • Stories, characters, narratives - this is where I was at home.

  • And that's why

  • I raised my sails and set course to become an English and history teacher.

  • But a chance encounter at Sydney University

  • altered my life forever.

  • I was in line to enroll at the faculty of education

  • when I started the conversation with one of its professors.

  • He noticed that while my academic life had been dominated by humanities,

  • I had actually attempted some high-level maths at school.

  • What he saw was not that I had a problem with maths,

  • but that I had persevered with maths.

  • And he knew something I didn't -

  • that there was a critical shortage of mathematics educators

  • in Australian schools,

  • a shortage that remains to this day.

  • So he encouraged me to change my teaching area to mathematics.

  • Now, for me, becoming a teacher

  • wasn't about my love for a particular subject.

  • It was about having a personal impact on the lives of young people.

  • I'd seen firsthand at school

  • what a lasting and positive difference a great teacher can make.

  • I wanted to do that for someone,

  • and it didn't matter to me what subject I did it in.

  • If there was an acute need in mathematics,

  • then it made sense for me to go there.

  • As I studied my degree, though,

  • I discovered that mathematics was a very different subject

  • to what I'd originally thought.

  • I'd made the same mistake about mathematics

  • that I'd made earlier in my life

  • about music.

  • Like a good migrant child,

  • I dutifully learned to play the piano when I was young.

  • (Laughter)

  • My weekends were filled with endlessly repeating scales

  • and memorizing every note in the piece,

  • spring and winter.

  • I lasted two years before my career was abruptly ended

  • when my teacher told my parents,

  • "His fingers are too short. I will not teach him anymore."

  • (Laughter)

  • At seven years old, I thought of music like torture.

  • It was a dry, solitary, joyless exercise

  • that I only engaged with because someone else forced me to.

  • It took me 11 years to emerge from that sad place.

  • In year 12,

  • I picked up a steel string acoustic guitar

  • for the first time.

  • I wanted to play it for church,

  • and there was also a girl I was fairly keen on impressing.

  • So I convinced my brother to teach me a few chords.

  • And slowly, but surely, my mind changed.

  • I was engaged in a creative process.

  • I was making music, and I was hooked.

  • I started playing in a band,

  • and I felt the delight of rhythm pulsing through my body

  • as we brought our sounds together.

  • I'd been surrounded by a musical ocean

  • my entire life,

  • and for the first time, I realized I could swim in it.

  • I went through an almost identical experience

  • when it came to mathematics.

  • I used to believe that maths was about rote learning inscrutable formulas

  • to solve abstract problems that didn't mean anything to me.

  • But at university, I began to see that mathematics is immensely practical

  • and even beautiful,

  • that it's not just about finding answers

  • but also about learning to ask the right questions,

  • and that mathematics isn't about mindlessly crunching numbers

  • but rather about forming new ways to see problems

  • so we can solve them by combining insight with imagination.

  • It gradually dawned on me that mathematics is a sense.

  • Mathematics is a sense just like sight and touch;

  • it's a sense that allows us to perceive realities

  • which would be otherwise intangible to us.

  • You know, we talk about a sense of humor and a sense of rhythm.

  • Mathematics is our sense for patterns, relationships, and logical connections.

  • It's a whole new way to see the world.

  • Now, I want to show you a mathematical reality

  • that I guarantee you've seen before

  • but perhaps never really perceived.

  • It's been hidden in plain sight your entire life.

  • This is a river delta.

  • It's a beautiful piece of geometry.

  • Now, when we hear the word geometry,

  • most of us think of triangles and circles.

  • But geometry is the mathematics of all shapes,

  • and this meeting of land and sea

  • has created shapes with an undeniable pattern.

  • It has a mathematically recursive structure.

  • Every part of the river delta,

  • with its twists and turns,

  • is a microversion of the greater whole.

  • So I want you to see the mathematics in this.

  • But that's not all.

  • I want you to compare this river delta

  • with this amazing tree.

  • It's a wonder in itself.

  • But focus with me on the similarities between this and the river.

  • What I want to know

  • is why on earth should these shapes look so remarkably alike?

  • Why should they have anything in common?

  • Things get even more perplexing when you realize

  • it's not just water systems and plants that do this.

  • If you keep your eyes open,

  • you'll see these same shapes are everywhere.

  • Lightning bolts disappear so quickly

  • that we seldom have the opportunity to ponder their geometry.

  • But their shape is so unmistakable and so similar to what we've just seen

  • that one can't help but be suspicious.

  • And then there's the fact

  • that every single person in this room is filled with these shapes too.

  • Every cubic centimeter of your body

  • is packed with blood vessels that trace out this same pattern.

  • There's a mathematical reality woven into the fabric of the universe

  • that you share with winding rivers,

  • towering trees, and raging storms.

  • These shapes are examples of what we call "fractals,"

  • as mathematicians.

  • Fractals get their name

  • from the same place as fractions and fractures -

  • it's a reference to the broken and shattered shapes

  • we find around us in nature.

  • Now, once you have a sense for fractals,

  • you really do start to see them everywhere:

  • a head of broccoli,

  • the leaves of a fern,

  • even clouds in the sky.