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My life: Felipe Cucker

The City University professor tells Sarah Lazarus why he is mad about maths


IDYLLIC CHILDHOOD I was born in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, in 1958. At that time, Uruguay was like a paradise and we enjoyed a very good quality of life. My childhood was not just happy, it was idyllic. But when I reached my early teens, conditions in Uruguay deteriorated. The economic situation gradually worsened and social unrest grew. In 1972, the military seized power and created a dictatorship. Around the same time my father passed away. So my wonderful childhood came to a very abrupt end.

A CALCULATED MOVE I found maths easy at school so when it was time to choose my subjects for the preparatorios (the courses Uruguayan students take for two years prior to university) I chose maths subjects. This was a pragmatic choice rather than a romantic one. Maths appealed because it required the least effort - I was lazy! But, during the two years I spent studying for the preparatorios, I fell in love with mathematics. It was more complicated than I had anticipated and I had to work hard but, in doing so, I realised how much I enjoyed it. By the time I finished school I knew I wanted to become a mathematician. Some members of my family tried to discourage me because mathematicians don't make much money, but my mother understood my feelings and supported me.

NO SPAIN, NO GAIN It wasn't an easy decision for my mother. In Uruguay, in the early 1970s, there had been just a handful of professional mathematicians. They were left-wingers and when the military dictatorship took power they were all either jailed or they fled the country. So, when I finished school, there was no one teaching mathematics at university level. My only option was to leave the country. I visited different embassies and asked in each one what would be required to study maths in their country. Some nations had very restrictive immigration policies and demanded a small fortune, as a warranty, for me to study there. Eventually, the Spanish government offered me an opportunity which required only that I sat an examination. I passed the exam and moved to Barcelona.

MEATLESS IN BARCELONA When I left for Barcelona my mother didn't say it but she was destroyed. They were tough times in Uruguay and she had already lost her husband. there was no Skype or e-mail in those days. I tried to write her letters, but my handwriting is so bad that even I cannot read something I've written. Eventually I abandoned letter-writing and bought a cassette recorder. I recorded 30 minutes of conversation, once a week, and sent the cassettes. I would tell my mother that everything was fine. The truth was I was very poor and during my first year in Barcelona I didn't eat meat at all. Believe me, that, for a Uruguayan, is very serious - Uruguay has the highest consumption of beef per person per year, so life without it was a challenge. Later I started doing private tutoring for school children so I had a bit more money.

After my degree I did a PhD and then took up an academic position in Barcelona. Some years later, in the mid-90s, I made my first visit to Hong Kong, to spend a few weeks working with three other mathematicians on a book we were writing together. I had the most fantastic time, so, when I later received a job offer from City University, I jumped at the chance. The post was for two years but I never left.

MATHS ON THE MIND Mathematics is unique. When you study other sciences you deal with things which are real and out there in the world, exterior to yourself. Maths is not "out there". It's in your imagination. This is what I love about maths - it flows from my own ideas and mental processes. And maths is creative. There are no raw materials, there is only what's inside your head. It's hard to explain but the solution to a mathematical problem can be very elegant, very beautiful. And for me this beauty is mesmerising.

GEOM-ART-RY While I was studying for the preparatorios in Uruguay, I also indulged in the world of art. I attended classical concerts, visited art galleries, saw art-house movies and studied film theory at the weekends. I made my own attempts at art, too - I wrote some bad literature and created some terrible paintings. I also dabbled extensively in photography and I was better at that.

I was amazed when I learned that the geometry I was studying at school - projective geometry - had its origins in the use of perspective developed by painters of the Italian Renaissance. Some artists, notably Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca, had a good understanding of mathematics. They used it to work out the exact size of objects in a painting. Everyone knows that objects which are depicted as further away must appear smaller, but exactly what size should they be? The artists were using precise calculations to work this out. I have been fascinated by the relationship between maths and art ever since. I've spent decades thinking and reading about it. Then, a few years ago, I met a media artist, in Hong Kong, with interests complementary to my own. He arranged for me to teach a course on mathematics, especially for artists, in the School of Creative Media. Using the material I developed for the course as a starting point, I went on to write my book, Manifold Mirrors: The Crossing Paths of the Arts and Mathematics.

LIKE PABLO SAID The work I do now has its roots in my youth in Uruguay, far away in time and space. There's a story about the artist Picasso which perfectly describes my feelings. Someone complained to Picasso that he was charging too high a price for a picture which took him only a few hours to draw. Picasso replied, "Yes it took only a few hours to draw, but it took my whole life to create it." And that's how I feel about my book - it took five years to write, but my whole life to create.


Professor Felipe Cucker will give a talk called "Maths and Art" tomorrow at 7.30pm for Cafe Scientifique Hong Kong at The Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Road, Central. E-mail for details.



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