Recently, two pieces of international news have pleased and excited the people of Korea. One was about a Korean-American mathematician, June Huh, who received the prestigious Fields Medal, and the other was about a South Korean pianist, Lim Yun-chan, who won the Gold Medal in the famous Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Both winners are young: Huh is 39 and Lim is 18, which made him the youngest gold medalist in the history of the Van Cliburn competition. Huh is the first Korea-born recipient of the Fields Medal. He received the Fields Medal together with three other awardees from Britain, France and Ukraine. At the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, a Russian pianist received the Silver Medal, and a Ukrainian pianist won the Bronze Medal. Inadvertently, it looked like a symbolic gesture of seeking peace between Russia and Ukraine. In addition, Ukraine amazed the world by producing well-placed competitors in both of these honorable awards.
The thing that pleased Koreans most was the two winners’ calm and insightful responses to reporter‘s questions regarding their feelings about the honor. Huh said with composure, “For me, studying mathematics is a process of understanding my own biases and limits. Generally speaking, math is a study of how we humans think and how deep we can delve into our thinking.” Then, he added, “When in middle school, I wanted to be a poet because I wanted to express what I cannot express.”
Lim, too, impressed us by calmly answering, “Winning the gold medal at the international piano competition does not improve my piano skill. Constant practice does.” He also came up with a remarkable answer, “I think we communicate through music when we cannot correspond through language. I think music is born when we go through profound sorrow and grief.” Then, Lim added, “When young, I read Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ avidly in order to understand the ‘Dante Sonata.’”
According to Chairman Cha Yun of Cha Yun Public Relations, with these poetic answers, the two awardees nicely sublimated mathematics and music into arts and literature. Indeed, with their penetrating and perceptive comments, Huh opened our eyes to the nature of mathematics, which can even turn into poetry, and Lim taught us that music could be another type of language which can overcome the limitation of words.
The wise and humble comments of these two award winners can put some of us older people to shame, especially when we get easily carried away and become overexcited by their accomplishments. Listening to the two medalists, however, we realize that we should stay calm and be modest. Indeed, humility brings respect.
The two winners should make our politicians ashamed too. While they are busy skirmishing, faultfinding, and slandering each other, they seem barely aware that national security is at stake and a perfect storm in the economy is rapidly approaching a crisis. People are sick and tired of politicians’ incompetence and constant brawls.
Huh’s case reminds us of the importance of having a great mentor at college. If Huh had not met professor Heisuke Hironaka from Harvard who came to Seoul National University as a visiting professor, his life would have been quite different. Thanks to his mentor‘s support and encouragement, Huh became interested in math and later decided to pursue his Ph.D. in the US.
Huh also highlights issues in our educational system, which so often fails to recognize and support promising students. If Huh had stayed in Korea, his extraordinary talents could not have flowered fully. Due to his poor undergraduate record at Seoul National University, Huh was turned down by all of the American universities he had applied to except one, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, and now he is a professor at Princeton.
Naturally, the Korean Ministry of Education should be embarrassed, too. Many people have complained that the Ministry’s main concern is how to regulate secondary schools and universities with redundant, stifling rules and regulations. Instead, the Ministry should encourage schools to look for students with extraordinary gifts and support them, not flunk them.
The above two winners have also greatly encouraged our writers, suggesting that it is about time for them to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Indeed, Korea has quite a few internationally well-known writers, and their works have been winners of many prestigious literary awards worldwide, except for the Nobel Prize. Therefore, it is high time that Korea produced a Nobel laureate.
We applaud Huh and Lim for their outstanding accomplishments. We also applaud their profound insight into math and music, which has brought them the utmost honor. They have made us proud and happy.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.