Meet Super Bowl Ad Star and Math Expert in New Ryan Podcast, ‘Inside UVA’
Audio: ‘Inside UVA’ with Ken Ono, the Thomas Jefferson Professor of Mathematics and chair of the College of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Mathematics.(17:06)
Ono wants to be remembered for his scholarship.
Ken Ono, professor of mathematics: I won a prize from the president of the United States for proving a theorem. And that flash of insight came to me when I was lying on this $20 salvaged couch at Penn State many, many years ago. And it was such a beautiful flash of insight that I bounded up out of this couch. I hit my head on the angled roof of the corner office of McAllister Hall. And if I was standing right in front of you, you would, you can probably see through Zoom, there’s a dent in my head. I had a concussion, I got sent to the emergency room. But when I came to hours later, I wrote down the equations, and it worked.
University of Virginia President Jim Ryan: Hi, everyone. I’m Jim Ryan, the president of the University of Virginia, and I’d like to welcome all of you to another episode of “Inside UVA.” This podcast is a chance for me to speak with some of the amazing people at the University and to learn more about what they do and who they are. My hope is that listeners will ultimately have a better understanding of how UVA works and a deeper appreciation of the remarkably talented and dedicated people who make UVA the institution it is.
Today’s guest is professor Ken Ono, the Thomas Jefferson Professor of Mathematics and the chair of the Mathematics Department. Ken, welcome.
Ono: Thank you, Jim. It’s delightful to be here.
Ryan: So, you are a man of many talents. You joined the faculty at UVA in 2019. You’re currently the chair of the Math Department. In addition to being a mathematician, you’ve helped coach and train UVA swimmers. You are an accomplished triathlete. You have helped produce a film and have starred in a Super Bowl commercial. I think you are genuinely a renaissance man. I want to cover all of this. But I want to start with your day job.
What exactly does a mathematician do? I mean, I get the teaching part of it. But I’m really curious about the research part of it.
Ono: Great, I’m so glad that you asked because I want to be remembered primarily as a scientist. I’m a mathematician. And as we like to say, in mathematics, math is everywhere around us. Anything that you can measure, quantify, space, some of the questions that I think about have applications to quantum gravity, some of the work that I do in number theory has applications to, for example, the design of the internet. And what I study in number theory are some of the oldest problems that exist in mathematics that could relate to and have applications to signal processing, it can have applications to the theory of black holes, some of my work plays an important role there. And it also plays a role in the dynamics of making someone swim very fast in the pool. So math is everywhere.
Ryan: And when you are working in the field of number theory, it’s not traditional research, in the sense that a historian reads through documents. Is it more like solving a puzzle? And if so, how do you actually go about it? Are you, are you sitting in a room and thinking really hard and then have a flash of insight? Or are you trying out things, and some seem promising? And some don’t? I’m just curious, I’m really curious about the process. You know, you see these – you watch these movies like “Good Will Hunting,” and it just seems like, “Oh, something comes to the person and then they write it out on the board, and voila.”
Ono: Right. So, it’s very funny that you lead off with this question that way. Part of my work is, as a mathematical historian, some of my most important works are the result of studying documents that are hundreds of years old. Sometimes you have to go back and visit the writings of the biggest people in your field, the most influential mathematicians, because beautiful ideas sometimes were decades before their time. And so I’ve definitely benefited from studying the manuscripts left behind by an Indian mathematician by the name of Ramanujun, who’s really quite a remarkable story. Maybe we’ll talk about him in connection to the film.
Ryan: Do you think that mathematicians are born or made, or a little bit of both?
Ono: Well, that’s a great question. You can be a good mathematician in many different ways.
So as a runner, you know, there are many different kinds of runners; there are the sprinters, there are the distance runners, right? There are the middle-distance runners and, and to be successful at every one of these specialties requires a different set of skills, but you’re not going to see someone who can run a fast 100-meter dash run a 2:10 marathon. Now, the same analogies can be made in terms of mathematical talent.
We all remember the kids in second and third grade that could just do incredible calculations in their brain, the whip-fast calculators. But make no mistake, to be a good mathematician you could either be the fast calculator, you could be someone who is just soaking up information all the time, someone who is always learning. And someone who is always learning just, you know, accumulates a toolkit of ideas that put them in a position where they can solve problems, perhaps more than others.
And there’s another type of person, the truly imaginative brain, the person who can make up and craft out solutions, using ideas that no one has ever thought before. Think the Salvador Dali of mathematics. And what we try to do here at UVA, in our math department, as we rework our undergraduate degree, is to try to foster an environment where we recognize all of these different kinds of talents. Because there is no one way to be a successful mathematician.
For me, I don’t think I am whip-fast. I think my strength is literally just curiosity. I like history. I like creativity in the arts, I like talking to musicians, where the ideas seem more like, you know, flights of fancy. And that’s actually how I do my mathematics. I would like people to think that mathematics is an art. And maybe most people won’t find my theorems beautiful. I do want people to understand that many of us that work in theoretical mathematics view ourselves as artists.
Ryan: Right. What got you into it in the first place?
Ono: My father was a longtime math professor at Johns Hopkins; the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. But when I was in middle school, when I was in high school, the last thing I wanted to be was anything that my parents thought I should be. So sometimes you have to travel a very long way to travel the short distance properly.
Ryan: And so did you come to mathematics later in life?
Ono: I did. I certainly would not have been anyone’s image of a good student in college, I was always very good at seeing and understanding how theorems worked very quickly. And so for many years, until my mid-20s, I thought mathematics was something that you just see. And so the transition to becoming a researcher was very difficult for me. Because the problems that really matter aren’t the ones that have easy solutions. In fact, this is an important moral for all of us, right? It’s easy to access information, but to produce information that matters, that drives mankind forward, they’re generally hard to come by.
And so I had a great Ph.D. adviser, who helped transform me at UCLA when I was a graduate student. He was a polymath. He was a renaissance man. And we learn from our mentors, and that’s something I learned from him. His name was Basil Gordon.
Ryan: So talking about mentors has me thinking about the teaching of math. And my sense is that a lot of people – and I would put myself in this category – at some point, got turned off by math, and felt like, well, they just didn’t have the aptitude. And I wonder whether some of that is just the way math is taught? Would you agree with that? And do you think that math is a particularly challenging subject to teach? Or is it just if you pay attention to how you teach it, you can be successful and keep people from deciding math is not for them?
Ono: This is a great question. I’m glad you brought that up.
One of the challenges that we face in mathematics is that mathematics is a very old discipline. We’ve been proving theorems. We’ve been teaching courses more or less the same way for many, many, many decades. And so it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that many students could enter our classes here at UVA, either not trusting in their abilities, or expecting to have kind of a dry class.
Well, I take that as a personal challenge. Just this past Saturday, I gave a presentation at a foundation event to some alumni in the Washington, D.C., area where I took on this challenge. How do I make mathematics beautiful and relevant? What was supposed to be a 20-minute presentation probably went on for an hour. I ended up staying until 10 o’clock at night, and I thought it was fascinating. And it’s actually not very hard to do.
As I said, numbers are all around us. The harmonics, for example, in music, or the motion of water, or even the process by which sand piles at the beach. These are all mathematical processes that are models of things that anyone with any life experiences can understand. It’s not true that you have to teach your calculus class with the idea that Farmer John has this many feet of fencing and he’s trying to maximize the area in which, right, right, right? That’s not true.
And I should say that here at UVA under the direction of Jim Rolfe. He’s heading our lower-division courses. We’ve come a long way just in the last three years.
Ryan: Boy I’m really glad to hear it. So I’m going to shift gears and talk about your career in Hollywood. Can you tell me a little bit about the film that you helped produce?
Ono: If you live long enough, crazy things can happen to you in life. In 2014, I received an email from the Pressman Film Co.; you certainly know films that Pressman has made. They made “The Crow,” they made “Conan the Barbarian,” they made “Wall Street” with Michael Douglas. They’ve made 80 or so feature films. And in 2014, I received an email from one of their directors, Matthew Brown, asking me to have a Skype meeting the next day to discuss a film about mathematics.
That next day, what was supposed to be a 20- or 30-minute Skype ended up being probably two or three hours. And I learned that they were going to make a film about an Indian mathematician named Ramanujun, who had inspired much of my own work. And so they wanted me to come up with some equations for the chalkboard.
But the conversation went very long, because they discovered that I knew quite a bit about the story of Ramanujun, and by the end of the conversation, Matt just asked, “Is there any way you could hop on a plane and come out to Pinewood Studios next week for pre-production?”
A week later, I’m at Pinewood Studios working with the art department. I think I’m an outgoing person, and I ended up being elevated to basically every role within the production company. And by the end, I was an associate producer of the film. It was super fun. I got to train Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel, teach them how to talk about mathematics. And at the conclusion of the filming, I participated in the actual editing. I attended some screenings. And I traveled with the actors all over the world for film promotion.
Ryan: No kidding.
Ono: Yeah, if you look me up on Facebook, my profile has a picture of me with Anna Kendrick. She tracked me down at the Zurich Film Festival after I had been on stage talking about our film.
And she said, “You’re the mathematician, right?” And I’m flabbergasted. You’re, you’re Anna Kendrick, you’re Anna Kendrick.
And she says, “I’m about to film, make a film with Ben Affleck about a mathematician, and I’d love to chat with you.” And for 15 minutes, I talked to Anna Kendrick about making a film about mathematics. I will say she wasn’t quite right. She made a film called “The Accountant” with Ben Affleck. I actually ended up seeing it.
Ryan: I wondered – I was gonna ask that. That was not so much about math.
Ono: But like I said earlier, mathematics is everywhere. So it’s in accounting as well.
Ryan: Well, the film that you worked on, remind me the title of it. I watched it and I loved it.
Ono: “The Man Who Knew Infinity.”
Ryan: Oh, right. Yeah. Yeah, it’s a spectacular film. If those who are listening haven’t seen it, you should. Well, I know, we don’t have much time left. And I want to make sure that we’re able to talk about the work that you’ve done with the UVA women’s swimming and dive team. So what first got you connected with the team? And can you talk a little bit about the work that you’ve done with them?
Ono: Sure. So before I came to UVA, I spent 10 years as a professor at Emory University, where my son swam on the collegiate swim team. My son actually won a national championship in backstroke for NCAA [Division 3]. And one of my undergraduate thesis majors, his name was Andrew Wilson, was a walk-on at Emory as a swimmer. Walk-on means that you probably will never travel with the team. But he was a brilliant math student.
And so we started trying to make swimmers faster using mathematics, kind of as a fun project at Emory. Andrew went from walk-on at Division 3 Emory to Olympic gold medalist in Tokyo this past summer. And so as Andrew improved in swimming, people started to notice and ask, “What is it you guys are doing at Emory?” And I ended up being invited out to test U.S. National Team members at the request of USA Swimming.
So when I arrived here in 2019, Coach Todd [DeSorbo] was already aware of some of the work that I had done. And he reached out to me and it’s been a blast. And so –
Ryan: What do you actually do?
Ono: I don’t want to give away too much of what we do.
Ryan: Fair enough.
Ono: Right? Some people think I should start a business. That’s not what I want to do. I’ve had waterproof accelerometer gyroscopes assembled that I placed on the swimmers to collect reams of data with regard to their execution of their various events. And anybody can do that part. These streams of data are massive, 512 data points every second.
But then comes the mathematics. And so the mathematics that we do, some of it is relatively simple data analysis, but some of it’s actually also very significant and rather complicated. Completely analyzing one swim that might be two minutes long could take five hours for us to analyze properly.
And so swimming is simple periodic motion where you take 10 strokes this way, 10 strokes back, but you want to find the targets of opportunity, where there are departures between swimmer A and swimmer B. And to do that very well is very time-consuming. But I think it works. I think it works.
Ryan: Well, it seems to be working really well. Ken, thanks for taking the time. It’s really been wonderful to speak with you.
Ono: Alright, thank you, Jim.
Mary Garner McGehee: “Inside UVA” is a production of WTJU 91.1 FM, and the Office of the President at the University of Virginia. “Inside UVA” is produced by Mary Garner McGehee, Brooke Whitehurst, Matt Weber and Nathan Moore. We also want to thank Lewis Reining, Professor Ken Ono, Monica Shack, Athena Hanny and McGregor McCance. Our music is “Turning to You” from Blue Dot Sessions.
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We’ll be back soon with another conversation about the life of the University.
If the name Ken Ono is familiar to you, it may be because he starred in a Super Bowl week commercial this past winter.
A world expert in number theory, the Thomas Jefferson Professor of Mathematics and chair of the College of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Mathematics was tapped to appear in a new Miller64 beer commercial that began running in the week leading up to the Super Bowl.
Now, Ono is the star of another program – UVA President Jim Ryan’s podcast, Inside UVA.
In the latest episode, the two discuss Ono’s gift for math, his teaching and another surprising role of his: using mathematical theory to help coach UVA’s swim team.
Ono said while those experiences were incredible, he does not want them to be his legacy.
“I want to be remembered primarily as a scientist,” he told Ryan. “I’m a mathematician, and as we like to say in mathematics, math is everywhere around us.”