Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lecture: Tadashi Tokieda talks about toys @ MIT

On Monday night one of my friends asked me at the last minute if I wanted to attend a talk at MIT on Tuesday given by Japan-born Dr. Tadashi Tokieda (who styles his name T^2 on his homepage), director of studies in the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge, who's in Boston doing a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.

Contrary to stereotype I wasn't a math whiz at all. I only did well in geometry and struggled through all of my other math classes. To this day I can't do simple arithmetic in my head and trying to do calculations when I do crafts takes far, far longer than it should (and often produces incorrect results). I haven't voluntarily gone to a math lecture since my undergrad days, but after watching a few minutes of a couple of lectures T^2 has given in the past and noticing the audience was laughing a lot, I decided to go.

I hesitate to call T^2 Japanese - he seems to be one of those rare people who's a citizen of the world - born in Japan, educated in France and the United States, currently based in the UK and lectures around the world. He's a modern Renaissance man - trained in the classics but switched to mathematics at some point and these days he says he's been dabbling in physics. He speaks more than a half dozen languages (his talk was in English but there were notations on his slides in Japanese and he threw in some Ancient Greek at the end). He draws incredibly cute hedgehogs and ducks thinking about math, plays with toys, and publishes in three languages.

I wish I'd had math and science teachers like T^2. He urged people in the back to come closer because they wouldn't be able to see his demonstrations from the back. He said he knew we were in the 21st century but that despite the fact that he had slides, the important part of his lecture was the demonstrations, "Think 18th century," he said to much laughter. He delivered his lecture in his socked feet and made extensive use of Japanese onomatopoeia, which for some reason I found hilarious. His slides incorporated cute drawings among the mathematical equations. A few minutes in I was thinking that he was surprisingly physically expressive for someone Japanese and would probably make a good comedian. When technical difficulties arose with the projectors, he proceeded to fill the time by telling a long joke about a rabbi and two people having a quarrel in his synagogue (from which I learned a new Yiddish word - schlemiel). Later in the lecture he stood on a table to do a demonstration with a slinky.

Dr. Tokieda demonstrates with a slinky

The equations were over my head, but it didn't matter. His demonstrations were fascinating. Lectures can be so dry, but he kept the audience interested and laughing. In conclusion he said that we tend to think of science as existing only inside classrooms, labs, and other serious places but that science doesn't stop happening when researchers go home for the holidays. Nature is always producing science - it's happening all around us, all the time. He urged people to consider the science in "toys" (by which he means any simple object that you can play with).

The talk was not recorded but you can watch a similar talk that he gave at the Radcliffe Institute a few months ago. I'm very disappointed to have missed his exhibit at Harvard. There's also a lecture he gave to the Swiss Mathematical Society in 2011 on Science from a Sheet of paper and an interview with New Scientist at the Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition in 2007. If you ever have the chance to see him speak in person, you should go, even if you're not a math-science person.


  1. Wow, published in Japanese, French, English and German... I wish I'd known about the lecture! I did see his exhibit though -- I put pictures at

    1. Thanks for sharing! Did you have fun playing? :)

  2. Yes -- I only wish I had more time that day to play :)