The sub-metropolis of Tianjin, China is home to a bustling port and a multitude of urban developments and structures. Not unlike Philadelphia, it has a rich history in arts, politics and trade. In fact, Tianjin is located at the same elevation as Philly, making their climates similar and adaptable to anyone migrating between the two cities. It was for these reasons — and the opportunity to live within walking distance of the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra — that Yilin Yang, a young, starry-eyed student from Tianjin, decided to cross the ocean to study mathematics at Drexel University.
As a child, Yang recalls looking up at the night sky and being awestruck by its beauty. “How far away are they?” she wondered about the stars. “What are they like? Are there people there?”
Years later, when she stumbled upon the movie “Contact,” she was brought to tears.
“That movie showed me everything I’d ever dreamed about,” Yang recalls. “It basically says that math is the language of the whole universe. If there are people on other worlds, I can’t communicate using our languages, but maybe I can use math.”
Today, Yang is exploring that universal language at Drexel. As a freshman, she completed a research project in the STAR Scholars (Students Tackling Advanced Research) summer program that landed her among the world’s top minds at the National Collegiate Research Conference at Harvard University last year.
Yang’s presentation, “Constructing Jacobi Matrices from Mixed Data,” was based in the field of theoretical mathematics — a complex and beautiful science, according to Yang, that tackles some of the most compelling questions about the universe, its origin and laws.
Despite Yang’s passion for the field, she says the abstract nature of theoretical math has led many mathematicians to disregard its potential applications. Professors at Harvard even asked Yang if there was any application of her work, or if there was any point to it at all.
After a brief pause, she answered:
“Many people think of math as two parts: one part contains the things we have discovered, like formulas and theorems; the other part holds the things we want to discover but haven’t yet. But there’s a third part, I believe, that theoretical math falls into, that is full of conjectures. Every time a conjecture is proven, I believe we become more equipped to ask and help find answers to the big questions, such as, ‘What is this world?’ and, ‘Are we alone?’ I’ve been asking those questions for a long time, and I want to know the answers.”
While others set their sights on the everyday world around them, Yang is keeping her eyes on the sky, not unlike the great mathematicians of history.
“The book [of the universe] cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed,” Galileo once said. “It is written in the language of mathematics…”
*This article appeared in the 2015 issue of the College of Arts and Sciences' Ask magazine.