Discovering Antwerpen, Group, Milestones, Murderous Maths, Notes on everyday life, Set the beautiful mind free

Auditing a class at the university

Simon’s just finished auditing a class at the University of Antwerp. His first experience at the university came via a road less traveled. But then again, one may argue that we all walk the road less traveled because there’s no “normal pathway” that fits everyone.

Last spring, I shared a few videos of Simon studying at home and a couple of university professors in his MathsJam club mentioned he would probably enjoy a course in Complex Analysis (Calculus with complex numbers). I grabbed that opportunity and asked whether they would actually allow him to sit in the lectures.

Simon audited the course for one full semester (September to December), with me accompanying him to all the lectures to make sure he didn’t disturb anyone with his “youthful enthusiasm”. Before we arrived at the first lecture, I’d made it clear to Simon that we absolutely must remain silent in class. I wasn’t sure he would manage to control himself, for the main reason that had never managed to do so before, not even at the theatre. But then again, maybe at the theatre he sensed that the condition wasn’t as crucial. On our first day, I knew the professor was nervous about Simon possibly disturbing the class, I was nervous myself and I couldn’t believe how nervous Simon suddenly was. There was one thought nagging me: Have I spoiled it by my stern warning about keeping quiet?

Simon kept incredibly quiet. He didn’t even dare introduce himself. I had never seen him this way before. The professor was relieved, even elated. On my part, I was shocked by the high level of the course and whether Simon was too tense to tune in. The course turned out to be for college seniors; in Simon’s case, possibly a year or two too early. With Simon you never know. He always learns top down, and when I say “top” I mean Mount Everest top. “We try a couple more lectures and then see if it’s too much for you”, I told Simon.

The second and the third time, he was still quite nervous, but later he let go of most of that tension. Several times he got very bored, two hours felt like a long time for him to sit quietly. Still he said he didn’t intend to quit. And once, at the end of October, at the moment when I positively lost it and didn’t have any clue about what the professor was talking about anymore, he whispered in my ear: “Now it’s actually getting interesting!” During the break, he summed up the general idea about the zeta function and the professor said he understood it correctly.

I don’t like asking Simon how much he understands every time. I don’t think it’s a fair question to ask. We didn’t attend the practice section of the course because it didn’t match Simon’s schedule (the practice lesson started early in the morning and was impossible to combine with Simon’s late night classes from New York). Auditing a class doesn’t involve any compulsory attendance, Simon won’t be doing the exam. During the last several sessions, he was relaxed about being able to control the volume of his voice and sit quietly when necessary. It was at the uni that I heard him whisper for the first time! At the last lecture, he was treated to his favourite topic, the zeta function.

My general conclusion is that auditing a course has been a nice way to get exposed to what studying at the uni is like, even though we may have picked the wrong course in terms of difficulty level or in terms of what interests Simon at the moment (contrary to last spring, when he was all about calculus and complex numbers, he is currently investing most of his time into logic, computer science and computer electronics). He definitely still misses a lot of fundamental knowledge, especially in integral calculus, but by now I’m familiar with his learning style and know that he will come back to what he hasn’t dealt with properly when the time is ripe, at the new turn of the spiral, so to speak.

I know attending classes won’t be Simon’s primary source of knowledge as he learns best through self-study (mainly videos and books), but such experiences are definitely going to mean something both in terms of personal growth and mathematical thinking. “Do you want to audit a more fundamental calculus or integral calculus class here at the uni?” I asked him the other day. “No, of course not! I can just learn that on Brilliant!” he answered. “A course on sequences perhaps, as suggested by one of the professors?” – “No, I don’t want to”, – Simon replied.

Maybe we’ll be back at the uni at a later stage, with more practical discussion involved instead of passive listening, and in a subject/at a level he feels less timid to actively contribute to that discussion. What would also help is if there was a more official way to follow university courses for bright young minds like Simon. At the moment, it’s only possible as a personal favour or if I sign myself in and take Simon along, which contributed to Simon’s timidity and being afraid to feel present.

We’ll just be taking it one step at a time, grateful for the freedom that we have. My very special thanks go to Simon’s math professor who has a kind and courageous heart. He has also signed his newly published book for Simon:

Faculty of Mathematics in Antwerp
Can you see Simon?
Simon extremely nervous on the first day
Several weeks later, much more relaxed
“”Now it’s actually getting interesting!”
“I know where this is going!”
Community Projects, Computer Science, Group, Milestones, Murderous Maths, Notes on everyday life

Simon introducing himself for the World Science Scholars program

This is Simon’s introductory video for the World Science Scholars program (initiative of The World Science Festival). In May this year, Simon has been chosen as one of the 30 young students worldwide, joining the 2019 cohort for exceptional talents in mathematics. Most of the other students are 14 to 17 years old, age was not a factor in the selection process. To help the students and their future mentors to get to know one another, every World Science Scholar was asked to record an introductory video, no longer than 3 minutes, answering a few questions such as what is the biggest misconception about math, what your favourite branches of math and science are and who among the living mathematicians you’d like to meet.

Throughout the program, the students are given access to over a dozen unique interdisciplinary online courses and have the option to complete an applied math project, alone or as a team, consulting real experts in the field of their project. Simon has already started the first course module, on Special Relativity by Professor Brian Greene. The course has been specifically recorded for the World Science Scholars and reflects the program’s ethos: it’s self-paced, no grades, it relies on beautiful animations and visualizations, it’s full of subtle humour, is dynamic, thought-provoking and quite advanced (exactly in TheĀ Goldilocks Zone for Simon, as far as I could judge), yet broken up into easy-to-digest pieces. It’s difficult to predict how Simon’s path as a World Science Scholar will unfold (I’m afraid of making any predictions as he is extremely autodidact), but so far we have been very pleased with the nature of this program and it seems to match our non-coercive, self-directed learning style. I have especially liked one of the course’s main postulates: “Simultaneity is in the eye of the beholder”.

Simon watching Brian Greene’s Special Relativity course
Studying light clocks
Light clocks. Does the moving light clock tick slower?
Simon thinking about the question: Does the moving light clock tick slower?