How I fell in love with math

In Russian: https://naprienko.blog/2019/05/09/how-i-fell-in-love-with-math/

In high school, my interest in school education disappeared completely. So I wrote down all my grades in all subjects and calculated which classes I can never go to anymore and still get a decent grade in my high school diploma. Opposite of these subjects I wrote FUCK IT and did not attend these classes anymore.

I did not like everything about school. In particular, math.

Why substitute some numbers in the discriminant formula, and then substitute the discriminant in another formula to get some other pair of numbers that the teacher required of me? I did not understand what I was doing. I did not even realize that I had found the roots of a quadratic equation. For me, it was a substitution of numbers for obtaining grades. Such an exercise on attention. And of course, I did not understand Vieta’s theorem, too.

But it was even worse with geometry: I did not understand anything at all. Some constructions, some incomprehensible words, and all this for some meaningless purpose. I remembered the Pythagorean theorem and could substitute numbers into it, but I had no idea how to solve all other problems in which there were no numbers. I could calculate the angle using the scalar product, but I could not understand that some angles in a circle are twice as large as others, and derive information from this fact about another angle.

While studying at school, I have never seen a mathematical proof. I did not know the proof of the Pythagorean theorem. I never proved anything at school. The culture of mathematical proof has passed me by. When I finished school, I knew that in mathematics there are formulas into which numbers can be substituted. I did not understand other things in mathematics at all.

And I have never participated in math olympiads. I did not go to math circles, did not solve interesting problems and did not go to the math summer schools. I didn’t write Q.E.D at the end of my solutions and didn’t know at all that some schoolchildren could do olympiads seriously, go to All-Russian olympiads, and then enter in the best universities of Russia (and the world).

By the way, I did not want to go to any university. To calm my mother, I went with her to the nearest university (Polytechnic University) closest to my house, they told me that they would take me with my grades, so I applied for this university. I did not apply to any other university. I learned about my admission while hitchhiking across Russia in Samara from the computer of the hosts on the Couchsurfing. This was not an important event for me.

I thought I would get a job as a programmer. I will save money, move from my parents, buy illegally a military ID (so I don’t have to go to the army which is mandatory in Russia), and will live without a damned university and the next years of useless education. I remember sitting in a shopping center and looking for vacancies on my phone in order to get a job as soon as possible and not go to university. But it wasn’t so easy to find a job, so I started going to classes to keep getting the scholarship.

And there it was — Mathematics.

It was hidden under a ridiculous line in the schedule: «History of algebra and geometry» (lecture) by Rybkov M.V. The course with this stupid name was led by a young mathematician Mikhail Rybkov, who decided not to read the material in a monotonous boring voice, but to really explain the statements and their proofs.

This was the first lecture in mathematics. We started with complex numbers. We defined complex numbers, then we learned how to add and multiply them. Then we represented them in a trigonometric form. And then we wrote down De Moivre’s formula for raising complex numbers to a power. After that, the teacher said: and now we will prove this formula.

I heard the sound of my heart.

Prove it? We will not believe the written result, but prove it? I myself will be able to check every step of the proof and understand that what is written is true? I myself am the measure of my confidence in the truth of the statement? I was blown away by a wave of new sensations, new experiences, philosophical feelings. I seemed to have touched the truth. It was something!

I returned home and downloaded books on philosophy and the history of mathematics: Klein, Russell, Stillwell — I read one by one. All this time there was a whole dimension around me that I didn’t even suspect. Accessible and inaccessible, comprehensible and incomprehensible, sacred and trivial.

Everything has changed.

After that everything was simple: I talked more and more with Mikhail Rybkov about mathematics, then transferred to the Institute of Mathematics at the Siberian Federal University in Krasnoyarsk, began to study the theory of entire functions, then transferred to the Department of Mathematics at Higher School of Economics in Moscow, began to work on random matrices, graduated from HSE with honors, enrolled in graduate school at Stanford and began to study number theory. And that’s what I’m doing now.

One initiative and ambitious teacher who decided to bring life to the subject he taught was able to completely change my life. In personal conversations with him, I learned about the life of mathematicians, about their work and career, and that this mathematical world is not far off, it is accessible and real. And it is waiting for me. Thank you, Mikhail!

After I began to study mathematics, I fell in love with understanding. It became interesting to me to understand and be aware of different things in mathematics and outside it. I became interested in all school subjects only after graduation. And now I very much regret that my parents did not transfer me to a good school, in which I could learn physics, chemistry, biology, literature, history, and everything, everything, everything else that interests me now, but I have so little time now for.

“The mistakes of teachers are not so noticeable, but ultimately they are no less expensive [than doctors’].” — The Irony of Fate.

Please, if you teach (any subject!), bring a soul into your class. Your example, your passion, your not indifferent attitude can touch one of your students, and you can transform someone’s life for the better. Even a course with the idiotic name “History of Algebra and Geometry” in the group of engineers of the Krasnoyarsk Polytechnic University can radically change someone’s life. My example shows that this is possible. Thank you!

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