S.T. Yau's Complaint

From Sing Tao via Boxun, there is a complaint from one of the greatest Chinese mathematicians ever: S.T. Yau (丘成桐).  This man has won the Fields Medal and must be considered among the greatest.  His field is in global differential geometry.  While I know a great deal about the subject, the blog readers will probably not want to read the details.

What is the deal?

According to recent reports, the universities have recently received instructions from the Ministry of Education not to report on the criticisms of mathematician Tian Gang by S.T. Yau.  No articles are to be posted on the subject.

When S.T. Yau was interviewed, he said, "I don't care.  I work in China.  I don't take a dime from anyone.  Everything I do is on behalf of academics in China."

S.T. Yau also said that he is going in and out of China with his American passport (note: as opposed to his Hong Kong re-entry permit): "... because I am afraid that they would send me to jail."

What is the real deal?

S.T. Yau has been criticizing the "fake name" academician problem in mainland China.  He accused a number of mainland Chinese scholars of accepting both mainland and overseas full-time salaries without fulfilling their professional duties.  That includes his own student Tian Gang (田刚).

According to S.T. Yau, Tian Gang is both an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a "full-time" member of the Institute of Mathematics at Beijing University as well as a "full-time" professor of Princeton University in the United States.  According to S.T. Yau, Tian Gang spends one or two months each year at Beijing University and receives a salary of 1 million yuan.

S.T. Yau said: "Tian Gang was one of the pioneers to inspire others to take on the titles of academicians.  I must bear a great deal of responsibility because he became famous on account of me.  I tried to nurture him, and I spent more time on him than on my son."

Hmmm ...

Let me say, "Get real!" because I have my history of bitterness.

If I look at the biography of Shing-tung Yau, there is this first section:

He was born in Shantou, Guangdong province, China and moved to Hong Kong.  He studied mathematics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong from 1966 to 1969.  He did his graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, where his advisor was Shing-Shern Chen.  After receiving his Ph.D. in 1971, he spent a post-doctoral year at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton.  He then spent two years as an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Here, I will collate Yau's history with my own personal knowledge and experience.  First, my father worked for the Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and he had told me about this mathematical genius at CUHK.  The man was a legend as an undergraduate.  I also attended the State University of New York (1971-1974 as an undergraduate and 1975-1978 as a graduate student in Applied Mathematics/Statistics).  I have never met S.T. Yau, even though he was a legend there too.

Anyway, I want to now tell about my own experience within my department at SUNY at Stony Brook.  I decline to name names but it would not be difficult to track them down.

When I entered Graduate School, my department was known as the Department of Applied Mathematics (as distinct from the Department of Pure Mathematics that S.T. Yau was in).  In the first year, the powers-that-be decided that it was going to be expanded into the Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics.  During that experiment, I would be the first ever doctoral student in the Statistics track.  Who were the professors?  One assistant professor was hired from Princeton University and another from the University of California (Berkeley), and then an associate professor was hired from Princeton University (and he would become my thesis advisor).

What is the standing of the department in the academic community?  Like nothing, because there were just three up-and-coming promising young Turks.  This was not going to draw any public attention.

What to do next to establish a nationally prominent department of statistics?  Hire several more "promising young Turks" or one "superstar"?

As it turned out, they hired a "superstar".  There was a luminary in Columbia University (New York City).  He was perfectly happy there, he had a great research program going there and he had collaborators and students.  But he also had a family with two sons.  He was not going to let his children attend school in New York City (note: too dangerous, too unruly and all that).  He identified Ward Melville High School (across the street from the State University of New York at Stony Brook) as the ideal school for his kids.  He procured an appointment as full professor of statistics at Stony Brook and relocated his family over there.  Thus, the school got to list his name on the faculty roster.

Except there was no one with whom he can work with out there.  So here was his schedule: on Monday-Thursday, he would hop on the LIRR train and commute to Columbia University and work with his old colleagues and students.  Every Friday between 2pm-3pm, he held office hours at Stony Brook.  I don't know whom he was meeting with, because I have never ever spoken to him during the entire time that I was there.

For the graduate students, there were more serious consequences.  A prominent person such as him needs to have an office appropriate to his stature.  There was no suitable office as such, so they took the graduate students' recreational room (where we used to play table tennis) and gave it to the man!

Bitterness!  Rancor!  You name it.

But it would also happen that on account of that particular name on the faculty roster, the State University of New York broke into the top twenty highest ranked departments of statistics in the country.  Yes, when I mention that I have a doctorate from SUNY at Stony Brook, other statisticians actually admit that they know of the place.  There were obviously different opinions as to whether that was worth it, but the weight carried by the poor graduate students was much less than the department and university bigwigs.  Maybe I didn't think so, but I was just a nobody.  The same thing applies to S.T. Yau's situation.  I read recently that Beijing University was the top ranked university in Asia.  Do you suppose that the policy had anything to do with it?  I would not be shocked ...

P.S.  And I haven't even gotten around to tell you what Nobel laureate C.N. Yang was up to at SUNY at Stony Brook ... but that is another completely different story.