SPIEGEL Interview with Mathematician Ken Ono 'You Will Never Succeed'

Ken Ono is an award-winning mathematician who specializes in number theory. As a kid, his parents pushed him hard to be the best, and it almost drove him to ruin. He talked to SPIEGEL about young prodigies, suicide in Japanese culture and divine afflatus.

Emery University mathematics professor Ken Ono
Robin Rayne Nelson/ DER SPIEGEL

Emery University mathematics professor Ken Ono


This month saw the publication of the German-language translation of Ono's autobiography, "My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count." In the book, Ono, who teaches at Emory University near Atlanta, details his years-long struggle to gain the recognition of his father, Japanese-born American mathematician Takashi Ono. It was only after US President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Early Career Award in 2000 that his father finally uttered the words he had so long yearned to hear: "I'm proud of you."

As he sought to cope with his parents' high expectations, Ono found solace in the legendary story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a prodigy from India, who rose at the beginning of the last century without any formal training to become one of the greatest mathematicians of his time.

SPIEGEL sat down with Ono for an interview in Atlanta.


SPIEGEL: Professor Ono, how often do you get letters from people who pretend to have squared the circle?

Ono: Oh, I probably get letters claiming to solve major open problems a few times a month. And they can actually be rather interesting. I'm presently corresponding with a prisoner in Illinois. He will probably never see the light of day any more, but it turns out he is a brilliant mathematician.

SPIEGEL: But this is an exception?

Ono: Of course. It's the one in 100 that has value. There are lots of enthusiastic people out there who, without proper training, don't know to distinguish correct from incorrect solutions.

SPIEGEL: Is it possible to discover prodigies by way of such letters?

Ono: We try to. We founded an initiative called the Spirit of Ramanujan, making reference to the famous Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who made a number of amazing discoveries without having any formal education. The goal of our initiative is to find similar geniuses. We are going to solicit applications from anyone in the world. And based on those, we will give awards to the 40 most talented. We've already found a student in Qatar, a 12-year-old boy who is amazing. We have very high hopes.

SPIEGEL: So, Ramanujan wasn't as unique as people usually assert?

Ono: Well, we do not need to find a true Ramanujan. If we find highly gifted people who would otherwise have remained undiscovered, I would already be very happy with that.

SPIEGEL: You dedicate your own autobiography to Ramanujan. He has been dead for almost 100 years. Why should we care about him?

Ono: Never as much as today! Ramanujan discovered formulas decades before they would be important. He was certainly acknowledged during his lifetime, he was elected fellow of the Royal Society, as the first scientist from India ever. But the extent of his importance became obvious only much later. His citations, which are a measure of relative importance of his work, exploded starting around 1970, about half a century after his death. And even today people make reference to him, whether they work in arithmetic geometry or in graph theory. Even the distribution of black holes can be described using his ideas. Or take another example: Later this week we will be meeting with some chemists. And what kind of mathematics do they use for their work? The formulas of Ramanujan.

SPIEGEL: Is there anything laypeople can learn from his life story?

Ono: Absolutely. This is why Hollywood just made a film about him. The message is that talent can be found anywhere.

SPIEGEL: Ramanujan failed in his exams and dropped out of college. He could just as well have ended up doing office work in Madras, India.

Ono: Yes. Godfrey Harold Hardy, who discovered Ramanujan, complained about the inelastic education system that almost destroyed a genius like Ramanujan. Well, and what's our education like today? Far more inelastic. We test and test our students; some teachers don't teach anything but passing those tests. The outliers like Ramanujan are the first ones we lose in such a system. But I don't want to lose anyone.

SPIEGEL: Ramanujan played an important role in your own life. Can you remember the first time you heard about him?

Ono: I even remember the date. It was April 7, 1984. I was 16. That day, a letter came from India. It was written by Ramanujan's widow, but I didn't know anything about him at the time. It was for my father, who was a math professor with a high reputation. So I gave it to my father and didn't think much of it. A few hours later, my father came out of his office and he clearly had been crying. I had never seen him cry before. "This letter here", he said, "it is very important." And then he told me the story of Ramanujan, this two-time college dropout, who was one of his heroes.

SPIEGEL: Why was this story so important for you?

Ono: I was at a pretty low point in my life. My parents are first generation Japanese immigrants and everything that was good in their life was related to my father being very good at math. They drilled us, me and my two brothers, to be as successful as him. We were supposed to be conquerors of our field. There was never a test score that was good enough. When I came in second, it was a catastrophe for my parents. "You are worth nothing. You will never succeed," they said. And now this -- there was a college dropout that my father seemed to adore!

SPIEGEL: The story of Ramanujan helped you escape the suffocating atmosphere in your parents' house?

Ono: Yes. I had to escape. And when I referred to the example of Ramanujan they let me go live with my brother Santa, who had just graduated from the University of Chicago.

SPIEGEL: But you still hadn't escaped the extremely high expectations of your parents.

Ono: No. Later on I studied mathematics as my father had done, and everywhere I was haunted by those voices: "You are not good enough. You are going to fail."

SPIEGEL: Once you even tried to take your own life.

Ono: You are talking about the incident in Montana. It's in my book. I had never told anybody about it, not even my wife Erika.

SPIEGEL: What happened?

Ono: Well, I don't consider myself to be a suicidal person. It was a moment of weakness, at the deepest point in my life. It was in 1992. I had just finished my thesis, and then there was this conference in Montana. I was to give my first real lecture. My wife is from Montana, so I thought I'd impress them and then they would surely give me a job. It's a bit foolish, but Erika and I had even talked to a banker about a loan for a house.

SPIEGEL: And then came the lecture …...

Ono: …It was a disaster. Nobody at the University of Montana thinks about number theory, and I tried to impress them by giving them the details I was most proud of. This is a common mistake that you make when you're young. Nothing I said after the first two or three slides made any sense to the audience. People were falling asleep during my talk. What made it worse was there was a grumpy professor who came up to me and said: "You wasted my time!"

SPIEGEL: Which was probably the worst thing he could have said to you at that moment.

Ono: You named it. It was terrible. Soon thereafter I drove my Hyundai Excel to a social event at a nearby college and I thought, "It seems you are destined to fail." I had given my best in my thesis and what had I accomplished? Nothing. I had wasted the time of the audience. I was so depressed. I remember there was this long, straight road. It was raining. And then there was this logging truck coming the other way. "I should just end this," I said to myself, and then I steered over the yellow line, headlong into this truck.

SPIEGEL: And then what happened?

Ono: Quite honestly, I can't tell you. He started blaring his horn. And the next thing I remember is me in my car on the shoulder on my side of the road and the windshield wiper is going back and forth. Was it a minute later or 20 minutes? I really don't know.

SPIEGEL: What was your parents' reaction to the book? Were they aware of how much they made you suffer?

Ono: It's interesting that you ask this. Actually, after my book was published, my brother Santa, who is the president of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, gave a speech in which he talked about his own suicide attempts. The first time was when he still lived at home. I had not known about that. The second time he was already a professor of biochemistry at the Johns Hopkins Medical School. You should think that if anyone had the right to say the he was at the top of his game, it's my brother Santa. But he was still viewed as the black sheep of the family. He doesn't work in a theoretical field. Therefore, for my father he is somehow a lesser professor. Santa will never get over that.

SPIEGEL: How do your parents handle two of their sons publicly talking about their attempts to commit suicide?

Ono: With suicide, it's a strange thing in Japanese culture. It's acceptable. My parents would have been devastated if one of us had been successful, but they would have somehow accepted it.

SPIEGEL: How did you eventually manage to liberate yourself from the expectations of your parents?

Ono: Well, I do love my parents even though I was very angry with them for the first half of my life. I finally understood what it really means to do mathematics. And there again, Ramanujan turned out to be sort of a guardian angel for me. At some point -- it was the summer before my senior year, and my achievements weren't overwhelming -- I flipped through the channels and stumbled upon this film, "Letters from an Indian Clerk." There he was again: Ramanujan, the man my father had been talking about. I don't know what I would have done if I had not been reminded of him. Probably I would have ended up working for an insurance company.

SPIEGEL: So you see some parallels in the way you do mathematics?

Ono: It would appear arrogant if I compared myself to Ramanujan. But yes, I think the way I do math is probably not very different from what he did. I imagine that he would sit on the porch of his home in India or on the cool stone temple floors, doing his work sort of in a trance. Probably he had his eyes closed in order to shut out all external influences. Now and then he would scribble things on a slate, and when he had worked out a formula he would record his findings in his notebooks.

SPIEGEL: And that is how you work as well?

Ono: Yes. In my house you would find not more than two or three math books, and no pads of paper. Half the time I do my work, it's on the sofa in my living room stretched out with my eyes closed, almost as if I was asleep. Hours will go by, and I just let my thoughts wander.

SPIEGEL: But then where do the ideas come from? In his notebooks, Ramanujan mainly assembled formulas without any explanation, deduction or proof -- just the naked formulas. Were these revelations that fell straight from heaven?

Ono: Even for us today this remains a mystery. Just take for example the page of which I have this facsimile on my computer. It's from a letter that Ramanujan wrote to Hardy shortly before he died. He had just discovered the so-called mock theta functions with which I have been dealing a lot in my work. The formulas that Ramanujan put down here, cannot be the result of computation, because the methods to perform those computations have been worked out 70 or 80 years after his death. He must have had deep insights. We will never completely understand how he came to these findings.

SPIEGEL: He himself said it was a goddess who told him.

Ono: Yes. Based on what we know about him -- and in particular about his mother, who worked in the temple -- it must have appeared to him quite natural that the family's goddess Namagiri would send him his visions.

SPIEGEL: What do you think about this kind of explanation? Is it all just hocus pocus?

Ono: Well, when I think about my own work, there usually is one or the other light bulb moment where there is this flash of insight. Where do these ideas come from? Supernatural? Enigmatic? Divine? You can take that any way you like. I think the human mind does a lot of things that we could call somehow divine.

SPIEGEL: Ramanujan seems to have had a very strong sense of beauty. What is it that makes one formula "beautiful" and another less so?

Ono: That's a great question. Funny enough, if you were to circulate Ramanujan's notebooks among mathematicians today without telling them it was Ramanujan's work, 90 out of 100 would say, "How ugly. Crazy expressions filled with lots of variables set equal to other crazy expressions with lots of variables." So how do we know that there is something brilliant in it? I think that when you discover that his ideas end up being important for mathematics of the future, this reveals their beauty.

SPIEGEL: So he had the gift of prophecy?

Ono: Absolutely, in a way. Although he didn't predict black holes, for example, he somehow knew things that would become vitally important in their theory. I wish I could have some insight into how he found his formulas. I'll never have that, but I'm just very grateful that I live at a time when we've finally come to understand how those formulas could be useful.

SPIEGEL: Is the richness of his ideas exhausted by now? Or will his notebooks be an inspiration for new discoveries in mathematics forever?

Ono: You can compare his notebooks with an incomplete Bible, where each of the passages only begins with the first sentence, and you can only divine where it will go. By now all the formulas from his notebooks have been proved. But it doesn't mean we understand why he cared. Will this provide us with insights for another 100 years? I have no idea, but I don't see progress slowing down yet.

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pwells1066 08/03/2016
1. Divine intervention?
I am NOT a mathematician as my career and life went in a different direction. My son and grandson are however statiticions and so maybe there is something in the genes. The point I wish to pick up however is that many years ago whilst teaching a night school course on fabric analysis to do with the processes of knitting yarns in certain pattern configurations on different types of machine I was asked a question I could not answer and, as it was the end of the class said I would come up with an answer next week. That week I was working running a factory and very busy with my church work and so did not get down to finding a solution until the evening before I had to tell my students the answer. I sat down at seven that evening and at 3am the next morning had no answer. As I had to be up at 6:30 to get ready to go to work and being very tired I prayed a short prayer saying, "Lord I am doing what I can for you, if you want me to continue give me the answer". Immediately an algorthym came into my head. It was something like 4.372. I tried it on a number of variable and it worked. I cannot explain where it came from or how such a number came about but it worked. I said earlier I am not a mathematician and so I don't even know if the number I came up with is an algorthym but I guess there was a 'divine' element in the resolution of my problem somewhere. Now. Over to you clever folks who can respond to this fascinating article on a much more technical level.
afrikaneer 08/04/2016
2. Everything Good Is Divine
Immigrants perceive education to be the saving grace for their children. As divine design have it, talent can be found anywhere and in any human being- Mr. Ono's father believed in his kids talent and his immediate job was for them to believe it also; he did it the best way he knew. At the end, he was right, he had the most remarkable sons any father would want to have. Notwithstanding Mr. Ono's work as a math teacher at Emory University, and his extensive work in number theory, we applaud his indefatigable dedication to global search for young mathematical talent thru "The Spirit of Ramanujan Initiative"-Definitely, I see divine intervention in the whole story. (Spiegel, thank you for such inspiring interview)
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