“I’m not interested in games whose rules were set down by humans. I’m only interested in games set down by nature” – Tadashi Tokieda
Tadashi Tokieda is a professor of Mathematics at Stanford University. He has a PhD from Princeton and had previously worked at Cambridge. But that is still the mundane part of his resume. He worked as a painter first and then as a classical philologist (one who studies and reconstructs ancient languages), before starting off with Mathematics in his twenties. He also speaks ten languages.
But what Tadashi is famous for are his ‘toys’ – little science devices which surprise and excite the audience, from little children to adults. The excitement comes from the understanding of the science behind them. During these spells, he also connects his toys and their science to various other scientific and mathematical phenomena, making the whole experience memorable.
Tadashi’s toys could be normal everyday things, classical toys or some objects he has carefully created. For one, he explores the secrets behind the pitch of the sound on tapping on a coffee cup. In another, he goes at length about how a ‘slinky‘, (so familiar to most kids) has an unexpected behavior and explores the science behind it. In yet another brilliant experiment, Tadashi plays with paper, paperclips and rubber-bands to amuse you, but at the same time, initiate you to some of the key ideas of topology and through that, some of the profound ideas about Mathematics itself.
Tadashi wields his toys almost like how magicians would wield their props on the stage. But unlike magicians, he also lets his secrets out at the end, which are essentially rules of science and nature. After watching them, anyone in the audience, including children, would be able to perform them. His toys are also simple, unlike the tricky puzzles set to make it difficult to solve. He says: “I’m not interested in games whose rules were set down by humans. I’m only interested in games set down by nature”.
I had been following Tadashi and his toys for a while, but was freshly impressed by a recent talk by him, organized by the International Center for Theoretical Sciences. In this, he talks about applying Physics to Mathematics (yes, not the other way around !!) so that you can get better insights into the abstract ideas of Mathematics. For example, Tadashi says that the rule that “the arithmetic mean is always greater than or equal to the geometric mean” can be shown to be linked to the second law of Thermodynamics that says “the entropy of a system always increases”. Thinking about the fact that Tadashi came into the world of Mathematics much later in his life, this sounds quite natural. He articulates this very well in his podcast interview on how he understands Mathematics through his experiences in everyday life.
Watching Tadashi talking about his toys is really inspiring. He is excited every time he does this, often straying into French, Russian and Japanese, in search of the precise words. Tadashi appears to have a vision of the core underlying ideas of nature, which he tries to render into his toys, abstract constructs of mathematics and the specialized words in the various languages he speaks.
[PS: We are really excited to report that Tadashi San himself responded to this article and appreciated what we are trying to achieve through these. Hopefully we will be able to share more exciting things on this in future. ]
Sankar is the founder and CEO of Silver Pi.
He had worked in Banking and Technology for about three decades before switching to Education. He is an Electrical Engineer by training, with a career in Technology and Banking across Japan, USA, Singapore and India.