“Nadie te quita lo bailado.”( No one can take from you what you’ve danced .)
For Federico Ardila, this Latin American expression epitomizes his approach to life and mathematics. It’s the driving force behind the working party he DJs in venues across the San Francisco Bay Area, where people dance till morning to the beat of his native Colombia. The dance floor is a place “where you have your freedom and you have your power, and nobody can take that away from you, ” Ardila said.
Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publishing of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by encompassing research the progress and recent developments in maths and the physical and life sciences.
He taught the expression to his students at San Francisco State University, where he is a math professor, after devoting them a punishingly hard exam. San Francisco State has a highly diverse student torso, and Ardila, who only turned 40, is a prominent voice in the maths community about how to make students from underrepresented groups — such as women and people of color–feel that they belong. But on this occasion, as he appeared around at his students’ demoralized faces, he knew “hes having” missed the mark.
“Nadie te quita lo bailado, ” Ardila told his students.
“I think that’s a very powerful message–that nobody can take away from you the joy that you’ve had doing maths, ” he told Quanta Magazine in an interview last month. “And people can give you grades, but that’s not going to take away the freedom that you felt and the fulfillment that you felt.”
The expression also applies to Ardila’s research, though not always in ways he would have chosen. Four years ago in Portland, Oregon, a burglar smashed his vehicle window and made off with a backpack containing, as luck would have it, five years’ worth of work–all of Ardila’s notes from a sweeping new paper he was developing. Proofs, examples, counterexamples and conjectures were all gone.
But the robber couldn’t steal the maths Ardila had “danced” in his mind. Over the past few years, Ardila and his coauthor, Marcelo Aguiar of Cornell University, have painstakingly reconstructed their work merging the geometrical and algebraic sides of combinatorics–the study of discrete arrangements like a social network, a sudoku puzzle, or a phylogenetic tree. They ultimately posted their 113-page newspaper online in September, and in January Ardila will be presenting their work in an invited address at the Joint Maths Meetings, the most difficult annual math conference in the United States.
Quanta spoke with Ardila at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, California, where he is visiting for the fall semester, about the mathematics he has danced and taught. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Your mathematical flair was identified quite early–in fourth grade, you got the highest score in your age group in their own nationals math rival in Colombia.
It was actually my sister, Natalia, who first proved great promise in maths. I was just the little brother. She and my cousin Ana Maria, they both performed really, really well in this national math rival. And I believe the organizers likely said, “OK, these two women are very good, and then here’s the little brother who’s coming along to the welcoming ceremony. Perhaps he’s OK also.”
I feel like from a young age, the latter are attaches great importance to me. I never enjoyed mathematics in school very much, but my own experience through the Math Olympics was much more creative and much more playful.