A&S Magazine Fall 2019

Not Just About the Numbers

Not Just About the Numbers

KEN ONO

By any measure, Ken Ono is an exceptionally accom-plished mathematician. His CV runs to 66 pages of publications, presentations, distinguished lectures, leadership roles, awards, grants, and honors. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and a Presiden-tial Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers bestowed by former President Bill Clinton. A paper he recently coauthored on the Riemann Hypothesis — an unsolved but influential 160-year-old conjecture related to prime numbers — occasioned widespread coverage in the scientific press. He also edits multiple journals and serves as vice president of the American Mathematical Society.

But as he joins the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences faculty this fall as UVA’s  new Thomas Jefferson Professor of Mathematics, Ono emphasizes that he wants to be known for more than math.

“I don’t want to be defined by the papers I write on some complicated-sounding mathematics topic,” says Ono. “A professor is supposed to be much more than that. I have benefited from having some great professors at critical points in my life, and I would like to believe that I could do my part in paying that forward.”

John Imbrie, chair of the College’s Department of Mathematics, says if there were one word to describe Ken, it would be “engagement.” 

“Some may think of mathematicians as sitting in an ivory tower proving theorems,” Imbrie says, “but Ken is the opposite of that.”

Indeed, in addition to the many students he has mentored, the Research Experience for Undergraduates seminars organized, the books written or coauthored, and the committees, panels, and boards served, Ono judges science fairs, appears on public radio science programs, and presents to audiences at international conferences and middle schools alike. He even represented the United States three times as an athlete at the ITU World Cross triathlon — and was a competitive bicycle racer in college.

"Being a faculty member here is about good scholarship, but it's also about engaging with the world, being a good mentor, developing the next generation of scholars -- and Ken is doing that." - John Imbrie, Mathematics chair

Rebellion, then inspiration
Ono showed an early gift for mathematics, and his parents expected him to follow in the footsteps of his father, a mathematician at Johns Hopkins University. As a teenager, however, he rejected that path and dropped out of high school.

“I did my best to be anything my parents didn’t want me to be,” he says.

In his 2016 memoir, My Search for Ramanujan, Ono explores this adolescent rebellion and the punishing self-doubt that tormented him for years. And he writes of how serendipitous encounters with extraordinary mentors ultimately led him to embrace a true passion for the subject he had once vehemently rejected.  

There was an undergraduate professor who “recognized that I had to somehow learn that I could give myself permission to want to be a mathematician,” Ono says. And Ono’s Ph.D. thesis adviser at UCLA taught him how to be a free thinker, encouraging him to “fall in love with mathematics” and to understand “that the whole point of graduate school was to become a creator, an artist with mathematics.”

Then there was Srinivasa Ramanujan. An Indian mathematician who died at age 32 in 1920, Ramanujan never finished college, yet filled notebooks with strikingly original formulas that continue to yield important applications today. Ramanujan’s life and work have deeply inspired Ono’s own; he edits the Ramanujan Journal, served as an associate producer on the feature-length movie about Ramanujan, The Man Who Knew Infinity, and now directs the Spirit of Ramanujan STEM talent search (spiritoframanujan.com) to identify and support “the next Ramanujans” around the world.

It is the model of these mentors that Ono carries into his own work and to his new position at UVA. 

“One of the reasons for going to college or graduate school is finding out who you were meant to be,” he says. “The professors that matter are the ones who help you discover who you are.” 

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