Math Prof. Reveals Unconventional Path and Early Struggles | The Life of Ken Ono

“My life doesn’t look real,” Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Mathematics Ken Ono said.

From the looks of his laidback, vibrant orange Hawaiian shirt, you would never know how busy his schedule is. How From a National Geographic interview a few hours prior to co-writing a TV show, Ono seems to never have time to take a breath in between teaching three math courses and managing his research.

Ono’s currently busy life is hardly telling of his unconventional past.

Friday, Ono spoke at the White House regarding the release of The Man Who Knew Infinity, a movie based on the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan. Deemed one of the greatest mathematicians, Ramanujan made crucial advancements to the analytical theory of numbers despite having no formal training.

Ono’s father Takashi Ono idealized Ramanujan. After Ramanujan passed, Ono’s father was one of 80 professors who donated to fund a bust of the mathematical mastermind for Ramanujan’s wife. Decades later, he received a thank you letter that brought him to tears.

“My dad didn’t even cry when his parents died, but when [my father] got this letter, he opened it, and he came to me a couple hours later in tears,” Ono said.

Despite being a two-time college dropout, Ramanujan still managed to contribute significantly to the world of mathematics, Ono said.

On one of the first paragraphs of his book My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count, Ono explains that he was not always so fond of mathematics. He admits that he did not receive his first A in college-level math until his senior year.

Ono described the approach of his Japanese immigrant parents as one of a “tiger mom,” which is understood as a parenting technique that involves academic stringency at the cost of a child’s well-being and happiness.

“If I wasn’t the best student, then I would bring shame on my family. It was understood that it was my duty to be ‘the best,’ ” Ono said.

According to Ono, this continuous pressure weighing down on him was so overwhelming that he tried to take his own life in 10th grade. Ono flunked all his classes one semester, dropped out of high school and ran away from home after 10th grade.

Ono believes that there are many people who seek to take as many AP courses as possible, care deeply about having a high class ranking and mold their lives around a career with a high salary.

“Is the mindless pursuit and devotion in seeking out these kinds of numbers what leads to happiness?” Ono asked. “Nobody is going to say yes, but everyone who is listening — especially those who are young — are going to say, ‘But these are things you’re supposed to do.’ ”

Ono’s father did not challenge his decision to move out; he simply asked that he do it safely and live with his brother in Canada. Ono argued it was unfair that his parents demanded him to be a perfect student when his father idolized Ramanujan, a two-time college dropout.

“I love my parents, but I did not understand any of [their parenting] growing up,” Ono said. “How could I?”

Ono did not want to put any effort into his academics. He avoided hard classes; he simply wanted to “get by.” Ono’s unmotivated mindset began to change with the help of a few notable mentors.

With the aid of Johns Hopkins University Psychology Professor Julian Stanley, an advocate of academically gifted children, Ono was admitted to the University of Chicago (Ill.) despite lacking a high school diploma. However, he was stuck in his old mentality of cruising through with minimal effort. He graduated without distinction with a 2.7 GPA.

Another mentor struck a chord with Ono: Paul Sally, UChicago’s “pirate professor,” known for wearing a black eyepatch. Despite Ono’s low grade point average, Sally helped Ono get accepted into top graduate programs at universities, such as the University of California, Los Angeles.

However, Ono continued to put minimal effort into his studies. He failed his first Ph.D qualifying exam and did not try to improve his situation. Then, he met his Ph.D. advisor, Basil Gordon. Gordon nurtured Ono and taught him to appreciate simplicities like art and music before starting any mathematics. Together they took walks on the beach and watched sunrises. Ono developed a renewed passion for math and loved his research. He wrote his thesis inspired by one of Ramanujan’s unpublished manuscripts.

Throughout college, Ono did the bare minimum academically and maintained a C average. Years later, mathematician Andrew Wiles used the information in Ono’s thesis to solve what the Guinness Book of World Records deemed “The Hardest Math Problem,” Fermat’s last theorem.

“This is a story I haven’t been telling until last year because people think, ‘Well, he advises the president.’ No one would believe it, so that’s why I have to tell it,” Ono said. “My path’s not what anyone expects. I didn’t follow the usual paths.”

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