Monte Hancock Jr., chief scientist for Celestech Inc., graduated from Liberal High School in 1972. He now is a mathematician who is very highly respected in his field of expertise. Hancock visited LHS students this past week not to impress upon them the importance of math and science, but the significance of finding their passion in life – right now, while they are still young.
Hancock’s first order of business during his Wednesday and Thursday presentations to students was to clear up the misconceptions the world may have of his profession.
“Do we sit around and add really big numbers together?” he asked students. “Is that what mathematicians do? No, they figure out small problems, and some mathematicians only work on small problems. The company that I work for, our business is working on the problems that everybody else has failed on – that is what our business is. No, there aren’t any small problems left by the time they get to my desk. In fact, there is no guarantee when a problem reaches my desk, that it can even be solved.”
Hancock then related such stress to the lives of the students he was addressing.
“Does that sound stressful?” he asked the students sitting in the LHS library. “If your instructor were to give you a problem and say, ‘I would like for you to do this for homework, but I don’t know the answer and I am not sure that anyone on earth does,’ especially if your grade depended on it, that would be kind of bad – but that is what my job is.”
Hancock explained the life of a mathematician is drastically different than the life of a mathematics student.
“So, what I am trying to do is what most mathematicians are trying to do and that is to look at that things that we know about a problem and usually that is not very well stated – there are pieces missing and maybe there is stuff that is there that isn’t helpful,” he said. “You know, most of the time when you get a problem at the end of a chapter to do some exercises, they give you exactly the information that you need to plug into some formula that is in the chapter, right? In the textbook world, you always have just the right stuff – nothing more, nothing less. In the real world, often times you don’t have enough stuff and often times in addition to not having enough, there will be a bunch of junk in there that you don’t really need, but you don’t know you don’t need it.
“Somebody,” he continued as he pointed to himself,”Has to figure out which of these pieces matter and if I pull all of these pieces together what do I not have that I need? And how can I turn that into something useful that answers the question I am being asked? That is really what mathematicians do. Mathematicians are problem solvers who happen to use a particular problem solving method. I refer to mathematics as systematic, symbolic thought. It is thinking with symbols in a systematic, step-by-step way, to solve problems – and that is what mathematics is all about.”
Most of the work Hancock does, he said, is for the intelligence community.
“Mathematicians develop methods to find and characterize patterns,” he said. “That is one of the things we do, it is a way we solve problems. In a sense, I am looking for a signature in a certain kind of behavior and I need to be able to recognize that behavior when it happens. It is kind of like a fingerprint. (Mathematicians) are people that think in a systematic way, usually using symbols and the goal is to solve some kind of problem where there a patterns involved.”
Mathematics wasn’t originally Hancock’s chosen field. Physics, he said, was not well defined enough for his liking.
“I left LHS in 1973 and went to Rice University in Houston,” he told students. “During my first two years, I was a physics major. Then I decided that physics was not precise enough for me – too many approximations, so I switched to math my junior year.”
When Hancock discovered his love was for mathematics, a passion was born. He continued his education by attending graduate school in Syracuse, N.Y.
“I was always interested in math, but math was not always my passion,” he said. “Math is my passion now and it has been for many years.”
Hancock encouraged students to be aware of what is going on around them and not to miss the opportunities available to them in their ever-changing world.
“As a final word here, everyone in here has something that could become their passion, that they can be really good at and put their heart into,” he said. “You need to recognize that you get to make those kinds of choices. But, the clock is ticking. Right now, time is your ally. Time is a friend, it is like there is all the time in the world. But, what you might not realize is that every month that passes, there are doors that are gradually closing – certain opportunities that you will never be able to pick up on because the time has passed.
“A lot of doors have closed for me,” he concluded. “But I picked the ones that I wanted to walk through, and I made the most of it, and that is really what I encourage you guys to do.”