Reminiscent of the mathematician’s winding trajectory
The internationally acclaimed mathematician, Professor Yau Shing-tung, talked about his half-century ties with CUHK. “The transition from secondary school to CUHK was like a journey from a brook to a big river. At CUHK, I developed a deeper and more systemic understanding of mathematics. My thinking pattern and learning attitude also became mature. And the interaction and discussion with my teachers left their mark on me. Their guidance had a profound influence on my academic pursuits and the way I teach.”
As one of the most influential mathematicians, Professor Yau’s research in differential geometry has impacted a wide range of disciplines such as astronomy and theoretical physics. In addition to solving a long-standing question in general relativity and proving the Calabi conjecture, he has introduced the concept of “quasi-local mass” in general relativity, which can be of help in getting around the conundrum – the non-locality of the energy density in relativistic gravity. Professor Yau has also collaborated with astronomy, physics and philosophy experts at Harvard University to establish the “Black Hole Initiative”, which is the world’s first interdisciplinary centre exploring black holes.
Professor Yau’s public lecture “Tolo Homecoming – Reunion for CUHK’s Diamond Jubilee”, held on 24 April as part of the Science Faculty 60th Anniversary Distinguished Lecture Series, is a resounding success, drawing around 300 in-house attendees plus more than 600 online. He spent his undergraduate life at CUHK from 1966 to the summer of 1969. “I was admitted to a university in Taiwan, and they offered travel expenses and a four-year scholarship, but I decided to enrol at CUHK’s Chung Chi College. It was the first important decision in my lifelong pursuits as a mathematician.”
Professor Yau recalled that at the inauguration ceremony for the freshmen, then Head of the Department of Mathematics Mr Tse Lan-on, said: “Even if you couldn’t become the pillars of the temple of mathematics, it’s still good enough to be able to decorate the walls of this temple.” Those words provided the spark of inspiration that drove him to work hard. Professor Yau also listed several inspiring CUHK teachers, including Dr E. J. Brody, Mr Chow Hing-Lun, Professor Stephen Salaff, and Professor Ronald Francis Turner-Smith. The one who had the deepest connection with him was Salaff.
“I often expressed my opinion in Salaff’s classes, and even helped him to provide proofs of theorems. That’s why I left him a good impression. He invited me to his home twice a week to discuss mathematics, and we prepared the lecture notes together.” Recognising his talent and diligence, Professor Salaff encouraged him to apply for graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. After graduating with a master’s degree, Professor Yau studied for a doctorate, attaining his PhD degree within three months.
Indirectly, Professor Yau’s ties with CUHK go back nearly 60 years to his father Professor Chiu Chin-yin. In the autumn of 1954, Professor Yau’s father, Professor Chiu Chin-yin, joined Chung Chi College as a professor of philosophy. Before Chung Chi College could move from its premises on Caine Road, Hong Kong to then remote Ma Liu Shui to build a campus, it needed to purchase the watercress fields owned by local farmers. Since most of them were Hakka descents surnamed Yau, Professor Chiu (editor’s note: Professor Chiu’s Chinese surname is the same as Yau in Cantonese) lobbied them as a Hakka person to sell the fields. Eventually they agreed to sell their fields and moved to Chek Nai Ping, also in Shatin. Professor Yau Shing-tung says, “Eventually they agreed to sell their fields and move to Chek Nai Ping, also in Shatin. The Ma Liu Shui site is of great significance to the development of Chung Chi College and CUHK in the years to come.”
Professor Yau is Distinguished Visiting Professor-at-Large and Director of The Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMS) at CUHK, as well as an Emeritus Graustein Professor of Mathematics at Harvard University. He was conferred the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, by CUHK in 1980. He was invited to conduct research at the Institute for Advanced Study of Princeton, and taught in Stanford University, Stony Brook University, and the University of California, San Diego. He has been a faculty member at Harvard since 1987. In 1993, Professor Yau returned to his alma mater and initiated the establishment of IMS, where he served as Director to lead research, while contributing to teaching and coaching postgraduates. In his 40-year career, he has received numerous awards and honours. These include the Fields Medal, the Veblen Prize in Geometry, the MacArthur Fellowship, the Crafoord Prize and the US National Medal of Science. In 2010, Professor Yau received the Wolf Prize in Mathematics in recognition of his lifetime contribution to geometric analysis and his enormous impact on many areas of geometry and physics.
Professor Yau Shing-tung is pleased to see that IMS and the Department of Mathematics at CUHK are becoming more full-fledged. They have gone through many hardships and succeeded in nurturing talent for the nation, for Hong Kong, and the mathematics community, fostering the development of basic sciences in China. “Our PhD graduates have been recognised by internationally acclaimed universities including Harvard University to work as post-doctoral researchers. On the auspicious day of commemorating the 60th anniversary of CUHK, I hope that everyone will strive to lay the foundation of the Chinese nation’s solid foundation of basic science research.”
By Jenny Lau
Photos courtesy of the Faculty of Science