The math students dropped out because they could not understand anything

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

June Huh took a path less taken to the peak of the math world:

Huh was born in 1983 in California, where his parents were attending graduate school. They moved back to Seoul, South Korea, when he was two. There, his father taught statistics and his mother became one of the first professors of Russian literature in South Korea since the onset of the Cold War.

After that bad math test in elementary school, Huh says he adopted a defensive attitude toward the subject: He didn’t think he was good at math, so he decided to regard it as a barren pursuit of one logically necessary statement piled atop another. As a teenager he took to poetry instead, viewing it as a realm of true creative expression. “I knew I was smart, but I couldn’t demonstrate that with my grades, so I started to write poetry,” Huh said.

Huh wrote many poems and a couple of novellas, mostly about his own experiences as a teenager. None were ever published. By the time he enrolled at Seoul National University in 2002, he had concluded that he couldn’t make a living as a poet, so he decided to become a science journalist instead. He majored in astronomy and physics, in perhaps an unconscious nod to his latent analytic abilities.

When Huh was 24 and in his last year of college, the famed Japanese mathematician Heisuke Hironaka came to Seoul National as a visiting professor. Hironaka was in his mid-70s at the time and was a full-fledged celebrity in Japan and South Korea. He’d won the Fields Medal in 1970 and later wrote a best-selling memoir called The Joy of Learning, which a generation of Korean and Japanese parents had given their kids in the hope of nurturing the next great mathematician. At Seoul National, he taught a yearlong lecture course in a broad area of mathematics called algebraic geometry. Huh attended, thinking Hironaka might become his first subject as a journalist.

Initially Huh was among more than 100 students, including many math majors, but within a few weeks enrollment had dwindled to a handful. Huh imagines other students quit because they found Hironaka’s lectures incomprehensible. He says he persisted because he had different expectations about what he might get out of the course.

“The math students dropped out because they could not understand anything. Of course, I didn’t understand anything either, but non-math students have a different standard of what it means to understand something,” Huh said. “I did understand some of the simple examples he showed in classes, and that was good enough for me.”

After class Huh would make a point of talking to Hironaka, and the two soon began having lunch together. Hironaka remembers Huh’s initiative. “I didn’t reject students, but I didn’t always look for students, and he was just coming to me,” Hironaka recalled.

Huh tried to use these lunches to ask Hironaka questions about himself, but the conversation kept coming back to math. When it did, Huh tried not to give away how little he knew. “Somehow I was very good at pretending to understand what he was saying,” Huh said. Indeed, Hironaka doesn’t remember ever being aware of his would-be pupil’s lack of formal training. “It’s not anything I have a strong memory of. He was quite impressive to me,” he said.

As the lunchtime conversations continued, their relationship grew. Huh graduated, and Hironaka stayed on at Seoul National for two more years. During that period, Huh began working on a master’s degree in mathematics, mainly under Hironaka’s direction. The two were almost always together. Hironaka would make occasional trips back home to Japan and Huh would go with him, carrying his bag through airports and even staying with Hironaka and his wife in their Kyoto apartment.


Meanwhile, Hironaka continued to tutor Huh, working from concrete examples that Huh could understand rather than introducing him directly to general theories that might have been more than Huh could grasp. In particular, Hironaka taught Huh the nuances of singularity theory, the field where Hironaka had achieved his most famous results. Hironaka had also been trying for decades to find a proof of a major open problem — what’s called the resolution of singularities in characteristic p. “It was a lifetime project for him, and that was principally what we talked about,” Huh said. “Apparently he wanted me to continue this work.”

In 2009, at Hironaka’s urging, Huh applied to a dozen or so graduate schools in the U.S. His qualifications were slight: He hadn’t majored in math, he’d taken few graduate-level classes, and his performance in those classes had been unspectacular. His case for admission rested largely on a recommendation from Hironaka. Most admissions committees were unimpressed. Huh got rejected at every school but one, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he enrolled in the fall of 2009.

At Illinois, Huh began the work that would ultimately lead him to a proof of the Rota conjecture.


  1. Ross says:

    What an amazing story. Thanks for sharing.

    This seemed familiar:

    “…the conversation kept coming back to math. When it did, Huh tried not to give away how little he knew. “Somehow I was very good at pretending to understand what he was saying…”

    ‘Fake it til you make it’ is a more common (and more robust) academic technique than outsiders might realize.

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