A maths whizz says he has been inspired by mathematical research and is determined to solve famous problems.
“In mathematical research, you can seldom predict your progress; it is like finding a way out of a maze,” says Hang Lung Mathematics Awards Gold Award winner, Bai Zhiyuan.
Bai was among 260 students in Hong Kong who have mastered secondary school-level maths, and were searching for an opportunity to broaden their horizons in the field.
The Awards was just what they were looking for – it gave them an opportunity to solve some of the world’s most difficult mathematical problems.
The Awards, which ended last month, is a biennial competition. Contestants have to submit a university-level research paper on a topic of their choice, and present it in an “oral defence” in front of a scientific committee formed by world-class mathematicians.
Bai, 17, stood out from the other competitors with his investigation into a possible approach to solve the Trapezoidal Peg Problem among Convex Curves. His attempt was inspired by a video he came across on YouTube two years ago. Although it was his first attempt at writing a research paper, Bai said he was not too stressed, and handled it step-by-step under his teacher’s guidance.
“My schoolteacher, who was my research adviser, had helped me a lot by providing reading material on related problems and historical attempts,” said the La Salle College student. “My initial draft was quite clumsy and redundant, and he simplified it for me.”
Tackling a famous unsolved problem was by no means an easy task. Bai said he did not know whether the theorem he wanted to prove was right or wrong. This was very different to what he has been doing at the Mathematics Olympiad, where contestants are often given proven theorems to work out the details.
“If you tell me a theorem is correct, it is much easier to prove. But research is different. You may be lost in all sorts of possible directions, so it was all about being patient and persistent,” the Form Six student said.
Bai’s Awards win has motivated him to pursue advanced mathematics at university and contribute to the field after graduation by finding answers to other complicated mathematical problems. “The world of mathematics has no boundaries. When I have equipped myself with more sophisticated tools in modern mathematics, I want to make more contributions,” he said.
Bai’s aspirations are shared by the Silver and Bronze Award winners, who said the competition helped them discover their interest in more than just calculations. They hope a new elective subject can be introduced to satisfy their thirst for knowledge.
Bronze award-winner Vincent Li Tsz-chung, who worked on the Divisibility of Catalan Numbers, expressed his views on the local secondary school syllabus. The Form Six student, who hopes to study science at university, is taking the extended modules in DSE mathematics. Vincent said there should be an Advanced Mathematics elective for students like him.
“Currently, the extended modules are taught outside school hours, so there isn’t enough time for us to learn,” the 17-year-old United Christian College student said.
“I hope we can add an elective on high-level mathematics, so the gap between the secondary school curriculum and university curriculum will be narrowed.”
Bendit Chan Tsz-hin, 15, the youngest among the winners, shares a similar view.
The silver award-winner said the competition helped rekindle his interest in research, a passion that he could not pursue because of a lack of research opportunities in secondary school mathematics.
“After joining the Awards, I realised mathematics can be very diverse and advanced, and I was drawn to doing research more than calculations,” said Bendit, who produced an impressive paper on Containing Geometric Objects with Random Inscribed Triangles.
The Pui Ching Middle School student added that he wished more people would see the beauty of mathematics, without being intimidated by numbers and symbols.
“We live in a technologically-developed world that is driven by numbers,” said Bendit. “I believe, in the near future, having a vast knowledge in mathematics will be similar to speaking a foreign language fluently.”