Campus & Community

Not just numb3rs

4 min read

(Math whiz Carroll lives inside – and outisde – his mind)

Mathematicians have a reputation for being a bit detached from the concerns of ordinary mortals. Living in a realm of abstract ideas, of seductive puzzles and tantalizing conundrums, they tend to regard the ordinary physical world as so much clutter, annoyances to be perfunctorily dealt with before returning to their equations and proofs.

Mathematician Carroll has worked on the Harvard-based humor magazine Swift, serving as editor in chief last year. (Staff photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

Leverett House resident Gabriel Carroll is willing to admit a certain familiarity with this viewpoint, but his years at Harvard have broadened his awareness, to the point that now, as a graduating senior, he is about to take a geographical and cultural leap that most of us would find quite daunting.

“I used to think I’d be an academic mathematician, and in fact that’s still my default plan. But after a while I started noticing that there was a human world too.”

Carroll’s decision to establish citizenship in the human world is emphatically not the result of having to acknowledge any limitations on his potential to boldly go where no mathematician has gone before, as even a casual glance at his list of honors and achievements will amply demonstrate.

Carroll has been hailed as a prodigy since elementary school, when he received a grant from Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak for a software development project. In seventh grade he earned the highest SAT score in the state of California (he grew up in Oakland), including a perfect 800 in math.

In high school he was a USA Mathematical Talent Search grand prize winner, then went on to represent the United States in the International Math Olympiad (IMO), winning a silver medal in Bucharest, Romania, in 1999, then a gold medal and a perfect score at the 2001 IMO in Washington, D.C.

At Harvard he has continued to challenge himself, not just in math, but in areas where math is employed to illuminate other disciplines. For example, he has split his concentration between math and linguistics, writing an honors thesis in which he used mathematical tools to explore the process by which the human mind learns languages.

He has been active in the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics under the direction of Professor of Mathematics and of Biology Martin Nowak. The Program is dedicated to the use of mathematics to formulate concepts of evolutionary biology and describe the processes of mutation and selection.

He has also taken part in REACH (Research Experiences in Algebraic Combinatorics at Harvard). Combinatorics is an area of mathematics concerned with families of sets with certain characteristic arrangements of their elements. It asks what combinations are possible and how many there are. Carroll has authored or co-authored several original papers in this area.

But even while sailing these strange seas of thought, Carroll has kept an eye firmly fixed on Earth’s human shores. He has worked on the humor magazine Swift, serving as editor in chief last year and contributing to the social and political satire pieces that are the publication’s stock in trade. The magazine has given him an outlet for what he confesses is a rather peculiar sense of humor. On his personal Web site, Carroll describes himself as having “a flair for facetious statements which sound extremely plausible. The result is that my jokes are often taken seriously – and, conversely, my serious statements are perceived as jokes.”

As a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, he learned to put up siding and sheet rock on a building project in rural Tennessee. And he has tutored students in English in the Chinatown ESL program. That experience led him to study Chinese at Harvard, which in turn has led to this summer’s adventure.

“I enjoyed studying Chinese, and I thought, it would be nice if I had an excuse to keep this up.”

After graduation, Carroll will be traveling to Hunan province in China to work for a year as an English instructor with World Teach. He is looking forward to an experience quite different from any he has had before.

“I know what taking classes and writing papers is like, so I thought, let’s see what this is like.”