This week Mona’s guest is Iain Gordon, Professor of Mathematics at the Hodge Institute and Head of the School of Mathematics.
Mona Siddiqui: First of all, tell us a little bit about your research and what it’s like being Head of the School of Mathematics.
Iain Gordon: My research is in an area of maths that’s called representation theory. It’s a relatively abstract part that would be called pure mathematics, which is in some sense the way in which mathematicians study symmetry but the kind of symmetry that appears in what I might call the real world. This means things like in geometry, maybe in particle physics, and things like that. I’ve been working in that area now for about fifteen years. It’s part of algebra and geometry more generally which is what the Hodge Institute is about, and it’s a glorious piece of mathematics that changes its shape and the types of things that it influences and it uses frequently. I’ve been Head of the School of Mathematics for 8 years now, and I’m certainly very worried that when I stop doing that and go back to doing representation theory, the world is going to have moved on quite a lot and there’s going to be loads for me to learn which is exciting but also a bit terrifying. It’s like being a PhD student again.
MS: Were you always a mathematician?
IG: Yes in the sense of it’s always been something that’s been interesting to me. I never realised it was possible to do it as a job until I got towards the end of my undergraduate degree. Since then it’s been the main thing that I’ve been doing, I haven’t really deviated from that. It’s my first love, and also my first hate.
MS: As someone who has always been drawn to maths, can you understand people who struggle with maths?
IG: Absolutely! One of the things I’m very conscious of as a mathematician, is how difficult I find it. I did a project last summer with my undergraduate students which was about a topic about which I knew almost nothing and it was really wonderful as I was the person who was learning the most and being put in the most awkward situations and having to stand in front of something and not know what I was supposed to do. It was great to remember that. I think the thing which is really important to me is knowing as well that mathematics has access to some types of knowledge but it also has no access to other types of knowledge and I think that different people have different things that motivate them, or that are interesting to them and that makes a difference.
MS: On that point, do you think it’s true that we as a country lag behind in mathematics?
IG: I think it depends at what level you mean so, as a country, at research level mathematics, the UK is amazing. It’s benefitted a lot from the fact that mathematics is a very international discipline and everybody who does it at a research level is united by a common language.
I think at the school level it’s a slightly different story, certainly there is a perception, which is a wrong perception, that in the UK to do mathematics you really have to be a genius at mathematics which a completely incorrect description. You just need to come to the halls of JCMB to see all the different mathematicians around – none of us is a genius. I also think that there’s sometimes not necessarily a good articulation in the UK about some of the benefits that mathematics and mathematical thinking can bring.
MS: As you know this conversation focuses on your one regret and one hope, so whether in your recent or distant is there one regret that you can share with us?
IG: This is a horrible question, and I’ve been stressing about this for ages. One of the things I definitely don’t have a regret about is the fact that I’ve made loads and loads of different mistakes and I think that they’ve been really important for me to be whoever it is that I am. If I was to put those as regrets, I would be saying something about who I was.
I do regret the fact that I haven’t done anything which seems to be a particularly bold endeavour where I’ve failed spectacularly and I’m not trying to say that I’ve succeeded spectacularly either, but the way in which I’ve moved through things, thought about things, and tried to achieve things has never necessarily been a way that’s set me up to fail enormously.
I think in my personal life some of that gets manifested. When I was in my late teens I thought that I wanted to have a massive family of about four or five kids, and now I only have two, and the two I have are spectacularly nice people that I like very much but I wish that I had more.
MS: And what’s one hope that you carry forward?
IG: It’s simply related to the two kids that I have. It’s a very simple hope but I hope that they’re happy enough when they’re older. That’s it!