Sleepless in Taiwan

I am in Taipei for a mathematics conference in celebration of the 60th birthday of a great colleague, a superior scholar, an enriching scientific collaborator, and a dear friend,  Chang-Shou Lin. What a treat it is to be here –notwithstanding the 18 hours voyage from Vancouver. Chang-Shou’s analytical talent, his deep insights, his strong determination, and his  unequaled work ethics combine to make him a formidable mathematician. He could have easily secured, upon graduating from NYU in 1984, a faculty position in any one of the top US universities. He chose instead to go back to Taiwan. He was on a mission.

Chang-Shou Lin wanted Taiwan to become a major player within the world’s mathematical community. His dream was to see a new generation of Taiwanese rise up to the top of the heap in advanced mathematical research. Twenty five years and 2 research institutes later, it looks like he is succeeding. How did he do it?

His first and foremost priority was to create serious, intense, and competitive environments of research activity in whatever Taiwanese institution he was frequenting or/and leading. And this he did by being himself extremely serious, notoriously intense and highly competitive. Working week-days and week-ends, and practically living on campus, Chang-Shou’s focus and determination to crack the “next” mathematical problem in PDE (Partial Differential Equations) is unshakable. His students know that he doesn’t expect any less from them.

Totally committed to the advancement of the younger generation of Taiwanese mathematicians, he not only advises, directs, and connects local students to research  happening elsewhere, but he also and mostly “pushes and pushes them”  hard to work and succeed. Way before Perelman’s proof of the Poincaré conjecture was polished and verified, he undertook the arduous task of going through it in details with the graduate students, in a long series of working seminars.

Chang-Shou Lin has also been busy contributing to the founding and directing of two highly successful research institutes, the National Center for Theoretical Sciences (NCTS) and the Taida Institute of Mathematical Sciences (TIMS). In this effort, he could always count on the support of a living legend of modern mathematics, a tireless promoter of research in mathematics and physics, Fields medalist and Harvard professor, Shing-Tung Yau.

In both speeches he gave at the conference and at the banquet, S. T. Yau did not mince his words of respect, friendship, and affection for Chang-Shou. Most touching was to realize that this “modern day monarch of Asian mathematics” had also written a poem to his friend for the occasion. Yau confided that his decision to spend his whole sabbatical year in Taipei was inspired by Lin’s dedication to his country’s mathematical future. To put this in perspective, I say that we would be very lucky in Canada (and our students so much enriched) if we could  manage to get S-T. Yau to visit for a single week!

Worth mentioning is that Chang-Shou has also been loyal and grateful to his friend and mentor, S.T. Yau. When in August 2006, a New Yorker article on the Poincaré conjecture,  shamefully and unjustly savaged Yau’s personality and contributions, Chang-Shou wrote to the New Yorker condemning the article. “ It is so malevolent that I felt very upset for many days,” he wrote. “Yau has done a lot to promote the mathematics development in China, Hong-Kong and Taiwan.” “Yau’s generosity is the true image of him.” These are the values that Chang-Shou lived by. That’s what counted for him and as such, Yau had obviously passed and surpassed the bar of his expectations.

Talking about generosity, I am reminded of how Chang-Shou proceeded to take on a challenge from his own government by accepting to lead a sweeping primary school textbook reform as well as teacher training in Taiwan. Well aware that mathematical talent had to be nurtured early in life, he selflessly dedicated 5 years of his professional life towards this colossal effort. I am also reminded how, a few hours after another destructive typhoon hit Taiwan, he decided to redirect his talent towards mathematical modeling of tropical climate  and weather systems. I don’t know where he currently stands on this front.

As he was presenting Chang-Shou’s work to the international audience present, a former student was overwhelmed by emotion and couldn’t carry on. The minute of silence that followed was the most amazing tribute that a scholar could receive. Happy birthday Professor Lin.

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One Response to Sleepless in Taiwan

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