Stories about Math: Ken Ono

On August 1st, the Fields Medal, often described as the Nobel Prize of mathematics, was awarded at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Rio de Janeiro. This ceremony takes place every four years and we’re recognizing this prestigious award with a month of math stories on Before the Abstract. Stay tuned every week for a new true, personal story from mathematicians themselves!

This week, Ken Ono tells a story about his Eureka moment while working on one of Ramanujan’s unpublished manuscripts.

Listen on iTunes.

 

This is the first episode in our Math series, from our show earlier this year at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in collaboration with The Story Collider. Stay tuned for new stories, airing every Thursday:

8/9: Ken Ono

8/16: Seth  Cottrell

8/23: Moon Duchin

8/30: Daniele Struppa

9/6: Piper Harron

 

 

Raid Amin: Statistically improbable

Statistician Dr. Raid Amin defies all odds to chase his passion

My PhotoI love statistics. For me it is like the magnifying glass detectives use in classic, black and white movies. Statistics can unlock mysteries, and makes me feel powerful in lifting the darkness and shedding light on circumstances that appear unsolvable. It was also my salvation from the political and social tumult of my youth, and the solution to my own seemingly impossible situation.

I chose to study statistics in college due to my lack of proficiency in language. While I studied in my native Iraq, I had lived outside the country and had difficulty speaking and reading Arabic. This forced me to avoid any subjects that required a deep understanding of lengthy text. But I could still “read” and understand formulas and logic – the language of statistics. I had found my home, so to speak.

After my graduation from Baghdad University I got a job as a statistics specialist at a multi-national organization focused on adult education. My employer explained to me that, “Eighty percent of [my] work would not be in statistics,” and that the other 20 percent of my time could be used to do any statistical work I wanted to pursue. While not ideal, it was still better than being dragged to the front as a soldier in the war between Iraq and Iran; students from so-called “less important” disciplines were pushed to the forefront for what amounted to World-War-One-style battles. Engineers and physicians were sheltered from such fighting. Like my fellow statisticians and doctors, I was not expendable.

One morning as I still lay in bed, I heard a thunderous roar outside of our home. The sound was an Iranian air force Phantom fighter jet dropping the additional fuel tank it required to make the flight from Tehran to Baghdad. A day later at work, all employees were summoned to the safest floor during a bombing raid on Baghdad. Needless to say the deafening sound of fighter planes flying very close to our building on the Tigris River was terrifying. When I returned home that day, I made up my mind that it was a good time to try and leave Iraq to study abroad.

Party politics

My college education started in the College of Business Administration and Economics at Baghdad University. I majored in statistics, and in 1978 I graduated with the seventh highest grades out of more than 400 students. My wish was to continue my education in the Master’s program at Baghdad University where my late father was the Director of Graduate Studies. But there was one catch – neither he nor I were members of the Baath party that ruled Iraq at that time. One day while my family was eating lunch, my father turned and said that officials told him that unless I join the party, I will not be allowed to join the graduate program. My reply to my father was that in such a case I preferred not to become a graduate student. He was not happy with my reply and told me that I needed to think carefully about the consequences to my future goals. We finally agreed to a compromise – I would not join the party, but would still apply.

About twenty students were accepted into the statistics graduate program that year, based on their grade point averages for their BS degrees. Based on this criterion, I should have been in without a second thought. However, when the admission names were published in the official newspaper, I recognized students one through six in rank order. But the seventh name on the list was not “Raid Amin,” but was in fact some other student. What had been told to my father had come to pass, and I was denied admission. Weeks later my father came home from work and threw my application folder on the table. It has been returned to him since he was the Director of the Graduate Studies.

On top of this, college graduates were not even given their official BS diplomas unless they were party members. I wanted to study overseas in Germany (where I had lived for a brief while) or in the UK or the USA, but in order to apply I needed my official diploma. Since I had still not joined the party this would be a problem. But in some stroke of fantastic luck my diploma was somehow included in the rejected application folder that had been returned to my father! I was ecstatic for such a surprise outcome from my failed application, and this was the moment that changed my fortune.

“Applying” resolve and resourcefulness

In order to apply to schools abroad, I had to get this diploma translated from Arabic to English by the US Embassy in Baghdad. However at that time there was no US Embassy, only a US Interest Section at the Belgian Embassy. I took several busses, and about 90 minutes later I arrived to find two or three Iraqi soldiers and police officers stationed outside the building. To this day I can still remember how scared I was to walk up to the building, fearing what the resulting penalty might entail if something went wrong. I chickened out and made the bus trip back to our home where my late mother was waiting for me in the kitchen. She was unhappy with the outcome, and emphatically encouraged me to consider returning to get the diploma translated and certified.

After two additional attempts I finally summoned the courage to walk up to the front gate. As I approached one of the guards stopped me, machine gun dangling from one of his shoulders, and inquired as to why I wanted to get inside a US Interest Section. But I had my excuse prepared: I told him that I was picking up my Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) score, and to my elation, he believed me. I entered and I picked up my TOEFL documents first (I was not lying), and then waited until my turn to look into getting my diploma translated. After going through a lengthy, multi-step process, and forking over what amounted to a fortune given my income, I finally obtained several copies of certified translation documents bearing the red wax seal of the US Interest Section. I was a very happy young man, to say the least!

My next task was to figure out where to apply. It was not permitted to apply to overseas universities, especially in the USA, so I had to be as discrete as possible. But it got worse. In addition to the privileges denied non-party members, typewriters were not allowed without written permission from the Interior Ministry. But I needed a typewriter as I was required to submit a typed application. One of my friends agreed to lend me an old typewriter, but only for a few days. I recall him arriving under the cover of night to deliver that heavy machine. I snuck it up into my bedroom on the second floor of our home, and each night I typed one letter. Once I had my letters in hand, my next challenge was smuggling the letters out of Iraq. I was lucky to know some incredibly gracious people who agreed to take my letters with them and mail them as they traveled to conferences abroad. Heartened by the fact that I thought I had found a way to leave Iraq, you can imagine my devastation to learn that while my applications had been well-received by renowned statistics departments, each graduate school insisted on “original” diplomas, refusing to accept “certified translations.” I could not believe such silliness – didn’t they understand my circumstances? But I refused to give up on my ambitions, and I found another way.

In order to get an official BS diploma issued by Baghdad University, in English, I needed an I-20 form. But in order to get the I-20 I needed to have my official transcripts in English. The Graduate Administrator of my top choice in programs had a German name, and I still had my elementary school “Zeugnis,” or, diploma, from the Matthias Claudius Volksschule in Bonn, Germany where I had studied as a child. Since I had no other options I mailed Professor Hinkelmann my German diploma, along with a letter explaining my predicament – this “catch 22.” I had, in effect, actually applied to a graduate program in the USA based on my German elementary school education! Finally, after waiting patiently for a sign, Professor Hinkelmann sent me the I-20 in the mail, which in turn allowed me to obtain my official transcripts. I was accepted to the program and could finally, legally leave Iraq to study in the US.

Wheels up

It was during the winter of 1981 when my Dad drove me to Baghdad Airport to fly to New York. We were both excited and scared at the same time. What if some security officer blocked my departure? There were still many things that could go wrong but this time things would work out as planned. I still recall the strange feeling of walking the corridors of JFK airport upon arrival, in shock that I had actually made it there, when I heard over the loudspeakers, “Mr. Amin … Mr. Amin …please identify yourself.” The first horrifying thought that ran through my mind was, “they found out!” But it turned out to be an agency that volunteered to help international students find their way out of the airport. I had forgotten that I checked that box on my application!

It continued to be a bumpy ride for me for a while, really until the day I finally got my Green Card. The United States fought their own two wars with Iraq, and I was often reminded by others that I was not wanted. But in my heart I knew that I had done the right thing leaving Iraq. And to this day statistics remains my passion, and my saving grace, as it has always been. It lifted the darkness of my early struggles, and afforded me the freedom to fulfill my dreams. And for that I will be eternally grateful.