AustMS2021 plenary profile – Richard Brent

This is the eighth in a series of interviews with the plenary speakers for the upcoming 65th Annual Meeting of the AustMS.

  1. What is your earliest mathematical memory?

 It’s hard to be sure, but I do remember being pleasantly surprised to learn that 1 + 2 + … + n = n(n+1)/2 – I don’t recall if I worked it out for myself or not. When a young boy (aged about 6) I used to amuse myself on long car trips by doing mental arithmetic, but maybe that doesn’t count as “mathematics”.

  1. What made you decide to become a mathematician, and when?

When I went to Uni (Monash, 1964-67) as an undergraduate I was undecided between maths, physics and chemistry, but I found that chemistry was too “ad hoc” and physics too “experimental” for me. Also, Monash had a great maths (and stats) department in those days – people like Gordon Preston, Zvonimir Janko, E. Strzelecki, Terry Speed, etc. So perhaps I decided to become a mathematician around 1966, in my third year at Monash. As a graduate student at Stanford (1968-71), I took courses from some great mathematicians (George Polya (in his eighties), Menahem (Max) Schiffer) but ended up graduating in Computer Science (which also had mathematicians: Forsythe, Golub, Knuth, etc). I then worked at the mathematical end of computer science for many years, and did not get a “real” job as a mathematician until the age of 58, when I became a Federation Fellow in MSI at ANU.

  1. Name a favourite paper by a contemporary mathematician, and why (or more than one, if you can’t decide).

This paper improved on several earlier papers, and any further improvement would require proving (or disproving) the RiemannHypothesis. (Several other papers by Terry Tao are also amongst my “favourites”.)

  1. What historical mathematician would you like to be able to talk maths with? What would you ask them?

Bernhard Riemann. I would ask him what he knew (or believed to be true) about the Riemann zeta function, but had not published.

  1. What result would you like to see in mathematics in the next 10 years?

A proof that P ne NP, or that the Riemann Hypothesis is true, or that the optimal exponent in the complexity of matrix multiplication is strictly greater than two, or […]. One attraction of mathematics is that there is never a shortage of interesting open problems!