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Monday, 4 September 2006
Page: 128


Senator WONG (9:54 PM) —I rise tonight to pay tribute to a fellow South Australian, and an Australian also of Chinese heritage, who has achieved much more than many in this country. I am referring of course to Professor Terence Tao. Professor Terence Tao is a young man of Chinese heritage who was born in Adelaide on 17 July 1975. Last month he became the first Australian to be awarded the prestigious Fields Medal in the 70-year history of that medal. The Fields Medal is described as the mathematics world equivalent of the Nobel Prize. It has been awarded to Professor Tao at the very young age of 31. It is quite an extraordinary achievement, and it deserves to be remarked on by this Senate and by all Australians as an extraordinary achievement.

Professor Tao is now based at the University of California. He was presented with this medal on 22 August in Madrid by Spain’s King Juan Carlos I. In accepting this honour, Professor Tao spoke about his interest in the connection between mathematics and the real world. I would like to make the point that, unlike many other mathematical awards, the Fields Medal is usually awarded for a body of work rather than a single, isolated research result. I want to make some further comments about Professor Tao. I do not think I have ever met him, but certainly anyone who was in Adelaide through the period of this young man’s scholastic career would have read occasional articles in the local paper, the Adelaide Advertiser, about his extraordinary academic abilities. He has an extraordinary IQ of 220. His father is a paediatrician and his mother is a former mathematics teacher. They are both migrants from Hong Kong. He first revealed his talents at the age of two by learning to read from TV’s Sesame Street. Later his parents found him typing out a copy of a children’s book on his father’s typewriter.

Whilst his parents have said that they gave him lots of toys to play with as a child, he actually loved to play with numbers and the alphabet. He began doing things such as organising the magnet numbers on the fridge into sequences and adding and subtracting them. By the age of five he had completed, with his mother’s assistance, a primary school mathematics course. By the age of 6½ he was in grades 3, 4, 6 and 7 for different subjects at his local primary school. At the age of 7½ he started senior mathematics and physics at high school, although he continued, obviously, to spend time with his younger peers. When he was eight he scored better than 99 per cent of 17-year-old prospective university students on an international aptitude test for mathematics. At 8½ he began high school full time and university mathematics at home. By 9½ he was spending a third of his time at Flinders University. By the time he turned 16 he had completed his Bachelor of Science from Flinders University with honours. The following year, in 1992, he completed his Masters in Science. In 1996 he earned his PhD from Princeton University at the age of 21. By age 24 he was a full professor in mathematics at UCLA. He has had an extraordinary career, and being awarded the Fields Medal tops a career which has included virtually every top international research prize in mathematics.

I want to make a couple of comments about the importance of education, and I will start with some comments that Professor Tao’s mother made. She said that part of his success can be attributed to the fact that the family was lucky to live in an area with a primary school, a high school and a university all within a few minutes driving distance. Perhaps that is one of the benefits, amongst many, of living in Adelaide. This goes to show that education is so important, and it is a stark reminder that government at all levels has a responsibility to invest heavily in education even when the benefits are not immediately clear. There is value in education not simply as a product or a service but as something that has inherent value in and of itself.

I have to say at times when there is discussion particularly of higher education, and the important focus on vocational aspects of higher education and the need to be practically relevant to today’s world, I think it is important that we do not lose sight of the importance of pure research. The fact is that we cannot know in advance the impact that research in what might seem an obscure area may have on our lives. For example, in the 1900s GH Hardy, a professor at Cambridge, stated that his work on number theory would never be used, yet today prime number theory is essential to the operations of the financial sector. It is unfortunate that under the Howard government we have seen such a decline in public investment in higher education. Australia’s public investment in higher education since 1996 has fallen by eight per cent. The average in the OECD is plus 38 per cent. That gives a stark indication of the priority given by this Howard government to education.

I also want to tell the Senate about a couple of things Professor Tao said. When you read his achievements, he obviously is a very disciplined man, but he obviously also has a sense of fun, which may not necessarily be apparent from such a prodigious level of achievement. When asked why he devoted his life to pushing the boundaries of his discipline, Professor Tao said, ‘Because it is fun,’ which is a wonderful way to describe your research focus and your research interest.

We do need young minds that are inspired to take up rewarding careers in mathematics and science. We need young Australians to take up new research, find solutions and answers to our world’s many problems and mysteries. As a nation, we need to find new ways of instilling in our future generations a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world, science and mathematics. It is great to see Australian minds competing against the world’s best and winning. I am sure all of us are extremely proud of Professor Tao. He is an example and an inspiration to everyone who is engaged in the noble quest of the pursuit of knowledge. Regarding Professor Tao’s achievement, having been widely reported both internationally and in the Australian Chinese media, I want to say this: I think the contribution of Chinese Australians to Australian life has been extraordinary, though perhaps unremarked upon for much of our history. Chinese Australians have lived in this country for very many years and unfortunately we do not often speak about the Chinese contribution to Australia.

Historically, we know of the presence of Chinese in this country since the 19th century, and I make the point that the Chinese community, particularly in the area of mathematics, science and medicine in more recent years, has made a great contribution to this country. Chinese Australians around Australia were extremely proud and continue to be extremely proud of Professor Terence Tao. He is an inspiration to many people in terms of his achievements and he is also yet another Chinese Australian who has demonstrated how a contribution in the area of science and mathematics can be so important. Tonight I acknowledge his extraordinary achievement, his extraordinary career and the great contribution he has made. He is now residing in California where, as I said earlier, he is a professor at UCLA. We look forward to his continuing contribution to the world of scientific achievement and the pursuit of knowledge.