Alumni interview: Colin Aitken

Q: What prompted your interest in mathematics?

A: This is kind of a weirdly specific story. I was really bored one day, and decided it would be fun to learn algebra (I was taking pre-algebra at the time, so it seemed like a reasonable next step.) Not being a great decision-maker, I decided that the best way to do this was to read a book I found on my dad’s bookshelf called “A Book of Abstract Algebra”, which must of course be about high school algebra! The book was fantastic and beautiful, and I raced through it and came out with an entirely new view of mathematics. The next year was mildly confusing when I got to class and proceeded to see absolutely none of the math I had been so thrilled by. It turns out that abstract algebra is a completely different (and way cooler) area of math from high school algebra, so I had accidentally entered the word of “real” mathematics.

Q: Did you participate in competitive mathematics? How did that experience affect you?

A: I was in math club here at Leland for four years. I think the two most important effects this had on me were that it helped me improve at creative problem solving, and it introduced me to a community of people across the country who also liked math as much as I did. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of either of these – knowing how to think creatively is literally the most important part of succeeding in math or science, and having friends who like the same things as you is really valuable. (That’s not to say, of course, that you shouldn’t have friends you don’t like the same things as you – those tend to be the friends I’ve learned the most from! Nevertheless, it’s difficult to become really good at anything if you don’t have somebody willing to talk with you about it.)

Q: What do you find attractive about mathematics?

A: Math is really quite beautiful. This sounds a little weird coming from a high school math perspective, where there’s a really large focus on things like memorization and bizarrely useless things like conic sections and various “standard forms”, but there are two things that make higher math (say, past linear algebra) really pretty: the first is the sheer beauty that comes in simplicity. (Why are there infinitely many primes? Well if not, we could multiply them all together and add 1 to get a number not divisible by any prime, which is impossible. It feels almost too simple, which I find really pretty.) The second is how amazingly applicable it is – like why would things like infinite dimensional spaces of complex numbers decide how electrons work, or weird algebraic topology provide a new way of understanding data distributions? Even when I technically understand the answers to questions like these, I’m still really stunned by them on an intuitive level.

Q: What was your favorite class? Why? How did it change your career goals?

A: There are so many great classes I’ve taken, [but] I keep coming to the conclusion that the class that’s most influenced the last year I’ve spent at college was AP Literature. This is true on a number of levels — on the shallow end, I learned how to read books, write papers as quickly as possible and analyze literature, which I’ve ended up using way more than I’d expected, particularly through adventures in theater and Bible studies. We talked a lot about social issues in a deeper way, which really helped me to grow as a person. Thinking honestly about how you can better yourself and society is a lot more important than thinking about numbers or shapes.

Q: How are you enjoying your advanced mathematics classes at MIT?

A: MIT classes are so much fun.  They’re sort of miserably difficult (like people with A+s and 5s on AP Physics struggle with intro to physics here. It’s kind of insane), but they’re nice because the subject matter is really really cool. (We’ve literally had problem set problems in a few of the grad classes here along the lines of “with this hint, prove the theorem that was this random person’s life work.”) There’s kind of a mentality in math here that it’s better to be completely lost than to keep doing things you already know, which on one hand is really frustrating but on the other hand means you learn a rather absurd amount, and you discover that if you think you understand something well, you don’t understand it well enough.

Q: What concepts in mathematics and science did you struggle with?

A: I’m really bad at remembering things. I was in the middle of a physics test last Wednesday and I forgot how to solve differential equations, which meant I spent the rest of the test awkwardly staring at my sheet of paper. I also occasionally have to stop and try to remember how addition works. I guess that’s kind of weird now that I mention it.

Aitken, a sophomore at MIT, graduated from Leland in 2013.

This article was part of the “Mathematics and Technology” theme of Last Word.