The Rubik's Cube Champion of Costa Rica

The Rubik's Cube Champion of Costa Rica

TWENTY-ONE QUESTIONS WITH DR. JORGE CALVO

November 18, 2014

Jorge Calvo is originally from San José, Costa Rica, and he grew up outside of Boston.  He came to Ave Maria University in Fall 2004, where he is currently Associate Professor of Mathematics and the department Chair. He teaches courses on functions, programming, and the senior seminar in mathematics. He agreed to an interview in his office on the second floor of the Academic Building. 

1. I wanted to study math at MIT, but my parents thought I should do something more like computer science. Lest we fight about it, I took some math and some computer science courses, and my plan was to see what sort of job I could get.

2. In the summer after my sophomore year, I did a REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I got to see what it might be like to do research in mathematics. The summer after my junior year, I went to Japan and “worked” for Toshiba for 90 days. I’m not sure how much work I did or what value it ended up being, but it taught me that doing research in math was a lot more fun than being in a computer lab all day long.

3. When I got back from Japan (I’m still amazed that I managed to make it back), I was decided on math. Because of my experience at UC Santa Barbara, I was confident in telling my parents that I was going to finish my degree, and then I was going to graduate school in math—and what was more, I was going to get someone to pay for it. I went back to UC Santa Barbara, and I worked on my Ph.D. with the same professor that I had worked with for my summer REU—Dr. Kenneth Millett.

4. My PhD work was in “Knot Theory.” Basically, it’s a special topic in a larger branch of math called topology. Topology is a fancy way mathematicians refer to geometry. There are three basic areas of mathematics: algebra, analysis (a fancy way of saying calculus), and topology. Topology is geometry on steroids; Euclid did great, but now we’re going to think about answering geometric questions in even more abstract universes.

5. Knot Theory is about understanding shape. If you think of a piece of rope, how tangled can that get? That’s about as complicated as Knot Theory can get. It sounds dumb, but it’s actually very difficult to understand these one-dimensional configurations. It’s embarrassing that in the 21st century we are still trying to figure out the first dimension!

6. My thesis was on octagons, and how they knot in 3D space. I tried to make a list of all of the possible ways they could knot, and found about 20. I had a picture of one of these knots, Knot 8.18, and it took me a year to figure out why I couldn’t build a model of it with wooden dowels. The proof is as ugly as sin—it’s a really awful proof—but it shows this knot doesn’t exist.

7. The amazing thing is, you start working on what seems to be the dumbest thing in the world, and it turns out to be really important. Back in the 60s, they came up with the drug Thalidomide to help pregnant women with morning sickness. It was discovered that the mirror image of the molecule caused birth defects; the molecule needed to be assembled, not just out of the right atoms, but also in the right way. Before this, there was no real understanding of that process. The FDA became interested in these things, and topology has become important for chemists.

8. I was a postdoctoral scholar at Williams College for a year, and then I was on the tenure track at North Dakota State in Fargo. I stayed there for five years, but then left and came to Ave Maria in 2004. The point of a tenure track is to convince the university that they want to invest in you, but it also works the other way around. North Dakota was nice, but I didn’t have a real connection with the place or the people. I thought I should find a place where I would not only survive, but also thrive. That’s what drew me to Ave Maria.

9. After ten years here, I’ve changed. I’m smarter in the humanities now. The humanities were the sort of thing I avoided in college, but now, I hang out with people who aren’t just mathematicians. I got to sit in on Dr. Trabbic’s Nature and Person philosophy class. Where else would I be able to do that? It’s fun to go to a Mathematics talk, but it’s also fun to talk about other things, and to talk about how these disciplines interact.

10. I’m working on a couple of textbooks. One of them is for Functions, and has been underway for nine years. The Functions course at Ave Maria plays the role of a pre-Calculus class, but it seems disingenuous to have a “pre” class as the one requirement for the core. My idea was to design a textbook that brings in a few of the really neat ideas from Calculus, couched in more accessible language so that the course is an accomplishment in itself, rather than just lots of prep work for something the students may never get to.

11. My favorite course to teach is the senior seminar course. I am vested in Functions, and I like the programing course, but senior seminar is really fun. It’s different every year. Seeing shy students, or those not so comfortable speaking in public, progressing through the year until they give their 30-minute presentation at the end of the semester—and they do it, and they excel at it—that’s really neat.  

12. The first book I got as a gift was a Spanish edition of the Little Princethat my aunt gave me. It was really hard to read as an 8-year-old.

13. My wife and I make sure that we do all our shopping on Saturday. If it doesn’t happen on Saturday, it just doesn’t happen. On Sunday, we go to Mass, and then we go on a hike or picnic, and then we go bird watching. Bird watching is a hobby we developed over the last few years—and it’s escalating, quickly. We have to remind ourselves when we’re talking to other people not to mention the bird watching. It’s already bad enough that I’m a Math professor.

14. As a child, I was the Rubik’s Cube Champion of Costa Rica. I was 10, and this TV show hosted the contest. The first week, I won the title uncontested. The second time, two of us showed up, and the other guy was probably faster than I, but he was trying to go so fast that he jammed up his cube and it exploded in his hands. The third time, I actually beat the competition fair and square. That was my claim to fame. Our neighbor taped it for us but lost the tape. No record of this exists except in the collected memory of my family. By the end, my mom talked me into retiring. She was sick of driving out to the TV station.

15. I hate traveling on airplanes. It’s not the planes, it’s the ordeal of getting on them. I just refuse to go through the millimeter wave machine, and I ask for the pat down—in a private room. I figure that disrupts their day the most. I’m starting to think that maybe I should just drive everywhere.

16. My morning routine begins with me making coffee for my wife, always. I brew the coffee, because the espresso-part of our machine died, but the milk steamer still works. So we drink some kind of drip coffee with foamed milk on top. Actually, my great grandfather was a coffee grower in Costa Rica. When my mom was growing up, she would go help out during harvest time. But that was all gone by the time I was growing up.

17. My number one piece of advice for students is a three-part piece of advice: 1. Read the book before you come to class; 2. Bring questions to class (and ask them); and 3. Read the book again after class now that those questions are answered. I don’t think I followed that piece of advice when I was in college, but if you go to class without having read the book, or even thought of it, you don’t really know what is easy or what is hard for you. The professor might have something he wants to talk about, but that might not have been what you needed clarity on.

18. If I were back in college, I would take Quantum Mechanics. I don’t know nearly enough about quantum mechanics. I vaguely have a cartoon version of it going on in my head. It’d be nice to know what was really going on. I’d take a course in that, quickly followed by a real chemistry course. I took something called Solid State Chemistry in college…I wish I had taken a real course.

19. My briefcase (should) always contains a red pen. I’m always going nuts when I can’t find my red pen. Which reminds me: When I was at MIT, we had a 2-part writing requirement. For the second part, we had to write a paper in a class in our major. The professor was very nice and gave me a good grade. Then, my paper was passed on to the official “writing requirement” person in the math department. This paper, which I was feeling pretty good about, came back dripping, literally dripping, in red ink. It was awful.

20. To stimulate the mind, try crossword puzzles. Not the crazy hard New York Times puzzles. I always start with the Florida Catholic ones. They are reasonable, and you can get them done. I think crossword puzzles work part of the mind that I don’t usually work very hard on. The number part of my brain? That’s good. Trying to come up with good words? That’s hard. Some people would say try Sudoku, but that’s more Math, which I really don’t need.

21. “May all your problems be math problems.”  That was the way my Calculus teacher signed my yearbook in high school.