Hi Richard! When did you feel that mathematics was something you were really interested in?
- At high school, when my school teacher draw a picture of the tangent function and suggested that the curve went up to infinity and came back behind the blackboard, to continue again from minus infinity. Probaby I was 13 or 14?
Did you ever consider other career paths?
- I wanted to become a physicist like my father. I started following a special programme in mathematics and physics at university - it was specially designed for un-practical people who could not do experiments. This way such people did not have to do chemistry and did not have to spend time in the lab, they could just do physics full time from the second year. However the physics courses were unintelligible while the maths courses were fascinating. The physics classes were big, the maths classes were small. The maths tuition was well organised, the physics tuition not at all. So I accidentally became a mathematician.
Why do you find mathematics so interesting and fascinating?
-Beautiful patterns? No need to remember all kinds of details. Just understand the underlying structure and then you know everything you need to know.
Have you run into setbacks during your career? Were there times when your work were difficult and full of setbacks? What have you done to move on and what have you learned?
- Yes I have run into very major setbacks. From time to time I got bored and needed to move into something new. Several times this succeeded. But quantum physics turned out to be too big and at one point I felt my move to this field was going to be a total failure. At the same time I had a lot of other setbacks and stress (university administration). I got pretty sick (depression). Well the first time this happened I didn't learn much from it, because it came back again a few years later. And again. Right now I have learnt that you can learn a great deal from depression. You must not suppress your memory of the experience. I learnt that there is a lot wrong with our Western way of thinking about ourselves and that there is a lot of value in Buddhism and in meditation.
Have you ever during your career felt that you are not as smart, bright and clever as everyone else?
- I have constantly felt during my career that I was not as smart bright or clever as everyone else. I always knew that I had been incredibly lucky a few times (choice of problem, meeting the solution through some amazing coincidences). But I came to the conclusion that I probably do have some talents since I saw things which for me were very obvious and came very naturally, but which for other people were amazing achievements. I come to the conclusion that scientific talent and mathematical talent has many dimensions. And that the wonderful thing is how people with different talents by chance can link up and collectively make some huge step which no one can do on their own.
What is your greatest career moment so far?
- Getting the Dutch nurse Lucia de Berk out of jail (convicted for serial murder of her patients, on the basis of bad statistics). What would be the ultimate math-thing to do/solve? For me, the current challenges are to get Ben Geen (UK) out of jail and to get Daniela Poggiali (It) out of jail but I am afraid that these challenges are too big for me. But I know that these people are innocent and they have been or are going to be convicted of killing patients on the basis of bad statistics and hysterical witch hunts.
Did you have a role model within mathematics or science when you were young? Why did you choose this person?
- I was very inspired by a number of different teachers. At university: John H. Conway (Cambridge). As a postdoc: Niels Keiding (Copenhagen). Niels had the philosophy that science was fun.
Do you have a role model today?
- No I don't have a role model in mathematics or in science. I have to do the best I can with the talents I have myself.
How would you describe the core of Mathematics?
- I wouldn't describe the core of mathematics. There are things which you should experience. Describing them in words is a waste of time. Some people immediately recognise the beauty of a proof e.g. that there are infinitely many prime numbers. The delight of understanding a proof like that is, for me, the core of what mathematics is about.
Which is your favorite book in Mathematics?
- I don't have a favourite book in mathematics.
Which is your favorite book of all books?
- Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn.
What do you do in your spare time?
- Read, listen to music, walk, cycle, meditate, visit the sauna, do Facebook, argue about politics; travel; collect (and prepare) wild mushrooms
What are your expectations for the Sonja Kovalevsky days?
- That they will be fun