This blog is about Simon, a young gifted mathematician and programmer, who had to move from Amsterdam to Antwerp to be able to study at the level that fits his talent, i.e. homeschool. Visit https://simontiger.com
Simon’s passion for science and his unique way to see the world have blossomed again once we have pulled him out of school, where he was becoming increasingly unhappy and was considered a problem student. The only way to set his mind free and allow him to follow the path that suits him best, the path of self-directed learning, was to leave Simon’s native Amsterdam and The Netherlands, where school attendance is compulsory.
I am sharing this at the time when educational freedom and parental rights in The Netherlands are in serious danger to become limited even further. It is bittersweet to celebrate Simon’s beautiful journey and at the same time see how The Netherlands are chasing away extreme talent as we are aware of more stories similar to that of Simon’s.
Simon has been fascinated by these possible-impossible puzzles (that he picked up from the MajorPrep channel) for a couple of days. He prepared many paper visuals so that Dad and I could try solving them. This morning he produced this beautiful piece of design:
This is Simon explaining Diffe-Hellman key exchange (also called DiffeHellman protocol). He first explained the algorithm mixing watercolours (a color representing a key/ number) and then mathematically. The algorithm allows two parties (marked “you” and “your friend” in Simon’s diagram) with no prior knowledge of each other to establish a shared secret key over an insecure channel (a public area or an “eavesdropper”). This key can then be used to encrypt subsequent communications using a symmetric keycipher. Simon calls it “a neat algorithm”). Later the same night, he also gave me a lecture on a similar but more complicated algorithm called the RSA. Simon first learned about this on Computerphile and then also saw a video about the topic on MajorPrep. And here is another MajorPrep video on modular arithmetic.
One more blog post with impressions from our vacation at the Cote d’Azur in France. Don’t even think of bringing Simon to the beach or the swimming pool without a sketchbook to do some math or computer science!
Take any real number and call it x. Then plug it into the equation f(x) = 1 + 1/x and keep doing it many times in a row, plugging the result back into the equation.
At some point you will see that you arrive at a value that will become stable and not change anymore. And that value will be… φ, the golden ratio!
But this equation also has another answer, -1/φ. If you plug that value into the equation, it will be the same, too. The real magic happens once you have rounded the -1/φ down (or up), i.e. once what you plug into the equation is no longer exactly -1/φ. What happens is that, if you keep going, you will eventually reach… φ as your answer!
While in Southern France, Simon really enjoyed solving this puzzle (he originally saw in a Brilliant.org vid). He was so happy with his solution he kept drawing it out on paper and in digital apps, and later shared the puzzle on Twitter. This sparked quite a few reactions from fellow math lovers, encouraged Brilliant to tweet new puzzles and now Brilliant follows Simon on Twitter, how cool is that!
In reaction to Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus (the part about humans evolving to break out of the organic realm and possibly breaking out of planet Earth):
When you cross the street there’s always a risk that an accident will happen that has a non-zero probability. If you live infinitely long, anything that has a non-zero probability can happen infinitely many times in your life. For example, if the event we are talking about is an accident, the first time it will happen in your life, you’re already dead. So when you cross the street and want to live infinitely long there’s a risk that an accident will happen and you die. So we come to the conclusion, that if you want to live infinitely long it’s not worth crossing the street. But there’s always a risk that you die, so if you live infinitely long, it’s not actually worth living. So we’ve got a little bit of a problem here. Unless you come to the more extreme idea of detaching yourself from the physical world all together. And I’m not talking about the sort of thing that you don’t have a body, but somehow still exist in the physical world. I mean literally that you live in a pure mathematical world. Because in mathematics, you can have things that have zero probability of happening. You can have something definitely happening and you can also have something that is definitely not happening.
However, there’s another thing. How does mathematics actually work? There are these things called axioms and it’s sort of built up from that. What if we even do away from those axioms? Then we can actually do anything in that mathematical world. And what I mean by anything is really anything that you can from any set of axioms that you can come up with. There’s a little bit of a problem with that, you can come to contradictions, it’s a little bit risky. We are really talking about the ultimate multiverse, we’re talking about quite controversial stuff here. The only way anyone can come up with this is by pushing to the extremes.
What do I love most about Simon’s learning style and being around him are the precious moments he pulls me out of my regular existence, sits me down next to him and shares a piece of his sharp vision with me. I often take notes to make sure I haven’t missed out on the details. Reading back the notes I am often surprised at the hidden layers in his razor-sharp logic that hadn’t revealed themselves to me at first or had even seemed irrelevant to my journalist mind eager to cramp everything to the size of a cocktail bite. Sometimes, Simon takes over and types the rest of the blog entry himself. Like this time.
Dad says he saw someone by the swimming pool reading the book A Mathematician’s Apology. We google it and find out it’s a 1940 essay by British mathematician G. H. Hardy about the beauty of pure mathematics. Knowing how much Simon is drawn towards pure mathematics and that he, too, prefers pure mathematics to applied mathematics, I tell him about our discovery. Simon replies that it’s a silly question to ask him whether he knows Hardy: Yes, Hardy was actually the one who invited Ramanujan!
Simon pauses his breadboard tutorial, comes to the balcony with the view across the Cote D’Azur, sits down against the wall of bright purple flowers and patiently tells me an interesting fact about Hardy. It’s just a fleeting tiny conversation, but the beauty of Simon’s precise memory, the connection I feel to Simon and the setting is so striking I would rather grab my video camera but I don’t dare move as not to lose momentum. I later ask Simon to repeat the facts he told me so spontaneously.
“Hardy came up with the total number of chess games. Well, Shannon estimated it to be 10^120, however Hardy estimated it to be 10^…, 10^50.
Simon was showing Dad a graph of how technology is developing exponentially, y = a^x. Dad asked for a specific value of a, and Simon said: “All exponentials are stretched out or squished versions of the same thing.” He then quickly came up with the proof (“a few lines of relatively simple algebra”). “If all exponentials are pretty much the same, that means that all exponentials have proportionately the same derivative.”