Tristan spent 8 years at the Ficino Day School, founded by the School of Philosophy, Auckland. He skipped high school and went straight to university to study science at the age of 12 and will complete his finals in Oct 2018, aged 16. Of the 40,000 students at Auckland University he is the youngest. What’s it like to be a child prodigy? Read on.
Tristan Pang, Auckland
What was most valuable from your education at Ficino?
I was at Ficino for eight years and was given many opportunities to learn, lead and serve. It was the perfect school for me, particularly in terms of personal and social development.
Ficino School provides a philosophically inspired education that promotes excellence and strength of character, nurturing students’ inner dignity and individuality. At Ficino we learned philosophy, mindfulness, literature, Sanskrit, and drama from as young as Year 1, which is a unique experience compared with other schools.
It was an easy transition for me to skip high school and go straight to university after graduating from Ficino. One of the most important values I took away from Ficino was respect. To be respectful, try to put yourself in others’ shoes and behave in a way that shows you care. Always be kind, polite, and empathetic and accept differences. So I was also able to gain respect from fellow university students, although they were at least six years older than me.
Do you meditate and/or have a pause between activities? What benefit does that give you?
At Ficino School, we learned to pause from Year 1 and meditate from Year 6. I didn’t realise how helpful this was until I was invited to give a TED talk, aged 11. I needed to present an eight minute talk live in front of more than 500 people without holding cue cards. It was frightening. I meditated back stage. Then, a minute before my presentation, I paused in the green room. I became very calm and confident from that moment. For the very first time, I did all of this without the teachers telling me to. I finally experienced for myself how helpful mindfulness can be.
The final year at Ficino was extremely busy for me. Besides delivering talks, making media appearances and managing my own online learning hub, I had to juggle three curricula. I was a Year 8 student and Head Boy, a private candidate of the Cambridge International Exams, and a part-time student at the University of Auckland. Meditation and pause became a vital part of my life and helped me to stay focused. I have never missed my daily five-minute meditation before bedtime.
My life is full of contentment and aspirations. I believe mindfulness activities help a lot.
What is it about patterns that interests you?
I started noticing patterns before I could talk. Patterns are everywhere in our environment – snowflakes have six-fold hexagonal symmetry, pine cones run multiple spirals, waves in water create ripples, crystals are arranged in the form of tessellations and so on. Those patterns are incredibly intricate and are beautifully formed in the natural world.
One example is ant colonies. There is no individual ant telling everyone what to do. Despite the lack of centralized decision making, ant colonies exhibit complex behavior. (See video below.)
It is a mystery why nature can be so uniform. While scientists and mathematicians are busy finding explanations, new forms of patterns are being discovered. I believe everything surrounding us is structured by patterns for us yet to discover. Finding out why and how is what fascinates me. I would like to be part of the collaborative effort to decipher these patterns and trends.
What are you most interested in at the moment?
My current area of interest is pure mathematics, and algebraic geometry in particular. Algebraic geometry is a field of maths which, in brief, studies the zeros of multivariate polynomials, or in other words, using algebra to solve geometric problems (and vice versa).
The applications are countless. In other fields of mathematics, it can be applied to any commutative ring with unity, such as the integers. The geometry of such a ring is determined by its algebraic structure, in particular its prime ideals. It can also be applied to fields such as category theory and schemes and number theory. A notable example of the latter is Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s last theorem. This used tools developed in algebraic geometry.
Outside maths, algebraic geometry is used everywhere, from robotics to computer science, and statistics to physics.
Do you help others less gifted than yourself?
In my term as President of the Auckland University Maths Club, I introduced outreach events in maths and strategic games to the wider pre-academic and non-academic communities. Strategic games stimulate the brain through problem-solving, routing skills, bargaining skills, and more.
In fact, I started offering my help prior to that when I became a full time student at the age of 13. I never miss a chance to help out – every semester I am a class representative – and in doing so, I can be a bridge between the university, lecturers and the students. I am also a mentor of the students who are a lot older than me.
What do you do to relax?
I swim whenever I can find time, usually twice a week during semesters and daily during the break. Swimming alone, one hour non-stop, helps build self-discipline, on top of the physical fitness and relaxation.
I don’t mind admitting that I found it hard to connect with people my own age before. Their interests normally didn’t appeal to me. They didn’t like mine either! When I was at school my friends were talking about 1D, the boy band One Direction. I was thinking of 11D, which is the eleven dimensions in string theory. It was really difficult for us to understand each other.
From a very young age, I liked to hang out with older people. I used to visit the park to play with the other kids but would go right up to the parents and talk to them instead. All these interactions with adults have been positive for me. My confidence with people keeps increasing.
Now I am at university, I feel very connected with my peers. I meet so many like-minded people, both university students and lecturers. Connecting with them, I feel closer to fully understanding the physical and theoretical laws of our world.
Besides academics, I have also made a lot of ‘like-minded’ strategic board games friends from the university and from Mensa. Playing brain games with others both stimulates the mind and helps me to relax.
I have also been given numerous opportunities to make new friends which I really enjoy. They are from my local and international speaking and media engagements, the non-profit organizations where I am the executive, the radio station where I broadcast my own show, and most recently, the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children where I am the National Representative.
How do you see your future?
From a very young age, I have had a very clear vision for my future and it is progressing well on track. I am completing my Bachelor of Science (Maths and Physics) degree in October 2018. Since I have a near perfect GPA (Grade Point Average), the University of Auckland has offered a guaranteed scholarship for my postgraduate study (Honours). I will then do a PhD in New Zealand or in the UK (where I was born). My greatest interest is something that is highly abstract – pure maths.
My career path is toward teaching and research. I intend to complete my PhD by the age of 21 and remain in academia to teach and continue my research.
Besides my career plan, I would also like to fulfil social responsibilities:
(1) Global child poverty is an area where I am keen to help. I believe that education is the fundamental solution to break the poverty cycle. In the 21st century digital age, knowledge of mathematics and science is vital. I hope I can contribute to a better world from a scientific perspective.
(2) While we are enjoying the comforts of previous generations’ great inventions, we are also suffering their consequences: climate change and sustainability issues. No doubt we will create and develop new technology and scientific inventions. It is important that we learn from history and minimise the harmful by-products of new discoveries. As human beings, we must safeguard the world’s environment and resources for future generations and for other life on Earth.
You seem to have a great appetite for knowledge?
I am curious about everything and have a great passion in learning. I want toconnect the dots of what I have learned and to resolve the subtle information implicit in numbers and blocks of information. There is still so much for me to learn, and that’s what makes life such an adventure.
Have a look at Tristan’s Learning Hub: http://tristanslearninghub.org
Tristan on radio: https://www.planetaudio.org.nz/youth-voices