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Snippets of A Conversation With Prof. Devadoss

Prof. Devadoss is a visiting professor in the Harvey Mudd Math Department this year. He is a professor at Williams College.

Jane: So I heard that you’re an awesome prof!

Prof. Devadoss: That’s good to know…so you talked to that one person?

J: Hahaha no, no. How do you like teaching at Mudd so far?

D: It’s been awesome. You know, Multivariable [Calculus] is one of my favorite classes to teach, because it’s so visual, right? You’re trying to take kids from one-dimensional curves to surfaces, and so, I love to draw, and I love for my students to see math, rather than just to do it. […] I think that Math 60 is a great door for that.
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J: Have you been drawing all your life, or I guess how has art influenced you?

D: Both my parents have PhDs, and my dad has a PhD in math, and my mom has a PhD in botany, in biology. So I used to look at her old notebooks, and they were all pictures of plants that she had drew. I think a lot of that comes from her, and I guess the math part comes from my dad…I don’t know if it’s easy to compartmentalize into pieces. But, I think I’m a doodler, like I don’t find my work worthwhile to sit there for days to draw it, but I do scribble all the time. I did take a drawing class in college, which was one of my favorite classes.

J: I saw that you have a lot of pictures that you took, so is photography something that you also enjoy doing?

D: You know, it happened when our first kid was born, and somehow my wife said, you know, we should get a decent camera to record these things. So it was an old SLR that I got. […] And I think the fact that the feedback was so quick, in terms of you taking a picture and realizing what it looks like, means that […] to me photography is very much like the math I do, because when I’m writing a research paper, that’s the punch line in terms of how math is spoken. You have to share papers so that you can put it on the web for other people to read and give it to journals. But every paper that you write is only two-dimensional, but the work that I do is in high dimensions, like four and up. […] So you can imagine these high dimensional things that one is thinking about, but at the end of the day, my work in 2D on a piece of paper. As a teacher, I’m trying to think what’s the best way of drawing this picture so my audience can understand the research I’m doing, or how this theorem works. And I think photography is very much the same way, … it’s the same kind of struggle.

J: What is your research about?

D: Umm, since I’m old, right, my research is scattered. If I were starting as a grad student, I would have a few ideas going on. I’ve done lots of different things, but they all have a theme to them, which is [that] I love to think about configuration spaces. And what that means is spaces of all ways something can be configured. Instead of looking at one particular move in a chess game, you look at all possible moves, so all possible configurations that a chessboard can have. Or, all possible positions a robot can be at.

J: Wouldn’t that be like a vector space?

D: Yeah exactly, but instead of using the word vector, you just delete it. It’s just a space, a huge space of all possibilities. You want to walk through the space, ask questions about the shape of the space. For example, does this space look like a sphere, like a high dimensional sphere? […] And you know then you could ask, those are all topological questions but, then you could ask geometric questions, like given two points in this space what’s the shortest distance between them? […] So that’s configuration spaces in a big sense but … I care about juggling, origami folding, phylogenetic trees, particles and the way particles can collide. I’ve even written papers on cartography, on how terrains can change, and how maps can change as you scale in and out. Again, it feels like I’m doing a lot of things, but I only have one or two hammers in my hand that I’m just hitting with my hand, and I’m just hitting these problems that look interesting to me.

J: I went to your Moody lecture a couple weeks ago, and I really enjoyed it. For people who weren’t able to go, could you summarize the theme of the talk?

D: So like an hour in a minute?

J: Hahaha.

D: I guess to me, the main point is, and I don’t think I said this directly but, the more you learn about things outside your discipline, the more it’s going to help your discipline. So I know especially, I tailor this for Mudd students, because they have this belief that the science in the core is the key to getting great success in the future. And HSA, when I talk to my students, when they take their [humanities] classes it’s sort of on the side. To me, I feel like that’s a great detriment in the long play. I think in the short run, it’s great, in the sense that for you to get a job […], the HSA classes get in the way, probably. But in the long term, in five or ten years, you will be not just a better person, but I think you’ll be able to connect ideas in your company, and in the way you design and think. It feels like a waste of time right now, because you have to do these problem sets that have immediate results, […] whereas if someone asks you to read Moby Dick, nothing’s in jeopardy if you read or don’t read it. Or I can imagine, if I don’t code right, some big thing’s going to happen to my company, so I need to learn how to code well. So you can visualize why coding is important, but not why reading Moby Dick is important. But that’s exactly the goal of old people like me. To tell you that that’s great, I’m so happy you’re thinking that way, but here’s some wisdom. This is like old-school Asian wisdom; trust us, right? And a lot of my interests, that they’re scattered across the board, has a lot to do with my liberal arts, undergraduate degree. So I took the least number of math classes needed to graduate, and I took all these other classes. I think in the long run, that’s really helped me. When I first went to grad school, it was awful. […] But in three or four years, when I figured out the math, then I had an advantage, because not only did I know as much math as [the other students] did, I also had these cool ideas that I could connect with, that they hadn’t seen before.

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