Visibility of Asian Americans in Mathematics

Appeared in Notices of American Mathematical Society
Volume 54, Number 1, January 2007. Page 6.

During the Madrid ICM-2006, there was considerable popular press coverage on a focal topic leading to it, namely the Poincare Conjecture. Among the coverage is an August 28 article in New Yorker by Nasar and Gruber. It was a much talk-about piece of publicity on mathematics at many dinner tables. Jackson's "Conjectures No More?" in your September issue of the Notices followed.

After reading these two articles in parallel, it is then particularly gratifying to read Goel's article on "An Invisible Minority" concerned with the need of Asian American mathematicians in the context of our social political environment. There are many reasons for being gratifying.

A difference between Jackson's piece and Nasar-Gruber piece is in the latter adding the spice of S. T. Yau being "Chern?s successor" or "Chern's heir". While some mathematicians may interpret this plot in terms of Chern and Yau's professional accomplishment, due to the political incarnation of "heir" and "successor" the New Yorker actually creates for its general readers the plot of a political power struggle. We find the addition of this plot being a way to stereotype Asian Americans in the shadow of a politburo. It is particular ironic that when Yau has the courage to speak openly against corruption in China in the past year, he has never got the usual kudos in the American popular press, and is instead portrayed as an aggressor. It brings us to Goel's article concerned with the challenge facing all Asian mathematicians in the USA. As people with South Asia origins are subjected to the stereotype of a terrorist, people of East Asia origins are subjected to the stereotype of a communist. Both are taboos in the American society.

Yau's achievement in Mathematics is well known within mathematics community. It is equally well known that he has successfully produced nearly 50 PhD students in mathematics and has many collaborators across the globe. Perhaps, it is less well known that he has donated personal fund to establish scholarships for mathematics students, has donated tens of thousands of books to educational institutions, has helped raise tens of millions of dollars to promote mathematics education and research, and has raised fund to promote interaction among scientists across subject boundaries and national borders. For the Asian Americans below the glass ceiling, it is disheartening to see such a successful and dedicated academic being subjected to the smear of popular press. For the Asian American scientists and their children negotiating their ways through the minority situation in our political system but excluded outside the "under-represented" designation, especially in academic institutions, Goel's piece provides a much needed, timely and refreshing perspective.

Bun Wong and Yat Sun Poon
Professors of Mathematics
University of California at Riverside