McMicken Graduate Rises To Cambridge Challenge
McMicken graduate Carl McTague first attracted attention in 2003 when he was invited to present a keynote address at the 5th International Mathematica Symposium along with Nobel laureate John Nash and other famous mathematicians.
McMicken graduate Carl McTague first attracted attention in 2003 when he was invited to present a keynote address at the 5th International Mathematica Symposium along with Nobel laureate John Nash and other famous mathematicians. A junior majoring in both mathematics and music composition at the time, he focused his presentation on the music he had written using mathematical methods.
McTague recalls that while attending the symposium in London he "decided on a whim to take the train from King's Cross to Cambridge," where he "wandered as a tourist and eventually found the beautiful, newly constructed Center for Mathematical Sciences."
He returned home, applied to Cambridge, and after graduation from UC, traveled again to England to complete Part III of the Mathematical Tripos, which is the Certificate of Advanced Study in Mathematics required for admittance into the institution's PhD program. Students competing for the certificate have no collected assignments or tests prior to end-of-the-year exams in the first two weeks of June. Only a dozen or so of those who pass the exams with "distinction" are accepted as PhD candidates.
McTague reports that when examinations have been graded, "the Chairman of Examiners stands on an elevated balcony at the University Senate House and reads the names of those who passed in alphabetical order, followed possibly by 'merit' or 'distinction'. After this, copies of the class list are thrown from the balcony and shower down to the public below. This June the chairman forgot to say 'merit' or 'distinction' after candidates' names. When I finally found a copy of the class list, it took me a while to believe what the lowercase 'd' in parentheses after my name meant."
Not long after that victory, McTague learned that he had achieved yet another honor: a 2005-6 U.S. Student Fulbright Award to study mathematics at Heidelberg University in Germany. He also won a coveted NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to fund his PhD when he returns to Cambridge the following year.
McTague is currently interested in singular spaces—spaces that possess points (called singularities) where, no matter how far one zooms in, the space does not resemble a line or plane. For example, while a circle has no singularities, a figure-eight has precisely one. Singular spaces arise throughout mathematics and physics and have been studied for hundreds of years. For example, around 1700, Newton identified seventy-two types of singularities arising in cubic curves—the roots of two-variable polynomials of degree three considered as curves in the plane. Nevertheless, many important questions remain unanswered, and the study of singular spaces continues to be an active area of mathematical research.
"I've decided to focus on mathematics," McTague says, "but I intend to remain musically active. At present I’m looking for musically compelling ways to hear high-dimensional singularities."
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