Who? Raf Bocklandt (1977)
What? researcher and lecturer in the Bachelor's and Master's programmes in Mathematics.
Studied: Mathematics and Physics
First job: when I was a student, I programmed a computer system for an auction company that could show the current prices.
Favourite place at the UvA: Science Park is nice for a walk. The buildings have an interesting interplay of lines and perspective because they are so streamlined.
Essential: a chalkboard and a piece of chalk, or a pen and paper
'I clearly had an aptitude for mathematics as a child. Although there were not many computers back then, I was fascinated by them. I asked for a computer for my 11th birthday. My parents did not know the first thing about computers, so they asked an engineer friend for advice. I received a second-hand Commodore, a home computer that you could hook up to the television. It could do much less than one of today's mobile phones. You could play a few games on it, but if you wanted to do anything else, you had to program it yourself. As soon as the computer was mine, I taught myself how to do just that. I quickly decided that I wanted to build a digital solar system. You need mathematics for that, in that you have to be able to draw circles and know something about trigonometry. I learned those things by playing around. That was how I developed a fascination for mathematics.'
'I was about 15 when I read a book about the fourth dimension. It felt exotic and I became fascinated by it. Using mathematics, it turned out you could add a fourth dimension to the three dimensions in our normal world. You could explore it too, again using mathematics: what do figures look like in that four-dimensional world? And what kinds of other worlds can we imagine? The possibilities are endless. This prompted me to study Mathematics and Physics in Ghent after graduating from secondary school. Actually, my plan was to study only Mathematics, but the interaction with Physics was so interesting to me that I decided to combine the two in my second year. What I think is so cool about Physics is that it has more to do with reality. Still, Mathematics appeals to me more because it is broader – and more precise. I like to find out exactly why things happen and to reason sharply.'
On this chalkboard covered in scribbles, I see things happening that you cannot even imagine.
'To study Mathematics, you have to have a certain passion for it. Enjoying the calculation aspect of it is not enough. There has to be curiosity about how something works and why it works that way. There is an entire world that exists unbeknownst to non-mathematicians. Think of four, five or even ten-dimensional spaces, or spaces full of holes; these are all things that you can really only discover and explore if you are a mathematician. The downside is that you also have to know mathematics in order to enjoy them. It is similar to being a mountain climber who has seen a distant landscape after reaching the peak of a tall mountain. Although you can describe it to everyone, it is hard for those who have not stood on that peak to understand and to appreciate it. The same goes for mathematicians. Take this chalkboard covered in writing, for instance; whereas you may only see some scribbling, I see things happening that you cannot even imagine. That is actually one of the most beautiful aspects of mathematics: there is an endless jungle of things that you can explore.'
'Towards the end of my studies, I became fascinated by knot theory. Like a shoelace, a knot is a string that is tied in a loop. Many methods have been developed to calculate whether a complex tangle could come undone or is really in a knot. I was intrigued by this and decided to write my thesis on it. Once that was done, I wanted to pursue a PhD on the theory. It was not possible at my university in Ghent, but it was reportedly a topic of research in Antwerp, so I moved there. After I had been accepted in the PhD programme, it turned out that the topic they were working on in Antwerp was broader and more abstract than just knot theory. This is how I ended up in the field of algebra and noncommutative geometry. I feel at home in that field.'
'There is an entire world that exists unbeknownst to non-mathematicians.
'After I obtained my PhD in Antwerp, I spent some time in Rome as a postdoc before returning to Antwerp and subsequently getting a job as a lecturer in Newcastle. My family and I spent four years there. It was a wonderful, interesting time. When my daughters were nearing the age to enrol in primary school, I started looking for jobs in the Netherlands, which led me to the UvA. Out of all of the universities where I have worked or studied, the Mathematics department at the UvA has the friendliest atmosphere. We work well together as a group and colleagues interact a lot with each other. There are many different specialisations in mathematics – pure mathematics, applied mathematics, statistics, algebra, geometry – but there is little conflict amongst them. The Mathematics programme is fairly small-scale, which makes working here fun. We know the students personally. Every year, we host a music evening featuring performances by students and lecturers alike, for example. There is a good atmosphere here, that much is clear.'
'Right now, I have a dream job. I am free to lecture on the things that most excite me to students who are keen to learn. We have good students who hold each other to high standards, who enjoy working together and who are motivated to learn outside of the fixed programme. I see that I am a good match for Dutch students, because they are open and provide a lot of feedback. My teaching style is visual: if I can show something, then I will. I also like to incorporate a philosophical component in my classes. Why do mathematicians do this exactly, and what is the reason? And why is this an interesting position, whereas that one is not? I try to elaborate on questions that are not in the syllabus and I like to include some historical context. In a subject such as Geometry, for example, I talk about the ancient Greeks and the French Revolution, when a lot was changing in the field of geometry. Mathematics is embedded in a historical and social context; it is good to convey that to students, and it is highly appreciated at the UvA.'
There is a huge difference between mathematics in secondary school and mathematics at university.
'There is a massive difference between mathematics in secondary school and mathematics at university; it is one of the programmes where that contrast is greatest. In secondary school, mathematics mainly involves calculating things; at university, it is about proving things. You learn what represents good evidence and to justify the steps you take. You cannot expect first-year students to decide ahead of time which direction they want to take. Therefore, you take a lot of general courses during your first year as a Mathematics student. Students subsequently tend to notice what they prefer, which could be applied mathematics, pure mathematics or geometry. There is more room for electives in the second and third year, and students can focus on the desired direction. At the same time, they continue to take electives in the other directions in order to maintain a broad basis. By the time they are ready to pursue a Master's programme, students know where their strengths and interests lie, and they can make a well-founded choice for a specific Master's programme.'
'There is a lot of room for electives in the Mathematics degree programme at the UvA. Students often take more courses than they actually should. Sometimes, we have to reel them in a bit, when they are too enthusiastic. Most courses have an honours option. If a student is interested in something and is able to handle the material, I can offer them an extra topic that is related to the course. They do a number of exercises, work out the topic and develop a theory on their own. There are work placement options within the programme as well, for example at a company that needs help with a certain problem. Students gain some practical experience in the process. Mathematics is a degree programme that offers a lot of job security. Mathematicians are flexible because they are good at thinking abstractly. You can apply that in a wide variety of environments.'