When Professor Haynes Miller conducts office hours for his undergraduate course in Differential Equations, the room usually resembles a college sit-in, filled with twenty or more students settled across the floor and quietly doing their homework. “Inevitably,” he relates, “a few groups self-organize to start working out problems together on the chalkboard.”
Miller is soft-spoken, and a strong believer in allowing his students to work through challenges unassisted, so he often silently observes their progress from his desk. “Of course, they keep looking back at me for approval, trying to judge how they’re doing,” he chuckles, “One day, one of my students drew a hyperbola on the board after solving a tough equation, which showed the relationship between my face and their mastery of the problem. My expression moves from smiling amusement at their struggles – learning is under way! – to a calm kind of serenity when they finally get the answer.”
The dry, academic wit behind Miller’s story conveys some of the depth and warmth that he brings to a domain that is traditionally considered quite chilly. “The Hollywood perception of mathematics is that it’s very cold and austere. But it’s really one of the most human of all sciences. Mathematics just wouldn’t exist without people, and most of its progress has only occurred through human collaboration. Take chemistry and biology—you could reasonably say that they would exist whether humans studied them or not. But mathematics, because it’s purely conceptual, depends entirely on the thought of human beings.”
Such a philosophical defense of mathematics makes perfect sense coming from the son of an English professor who’s currently wending his way through Shakespeare’s histories (he’s on Henry IV, Pt. 2) and is an avid birdwatcher (the elusive Connecticut Warbler is on the top of his list). His love for teaching has won him the respect of both colleagues and students: Today, Miller is the Associate Department Head of MIT’s Department of Mathematics, and he has received the prestigious appointment of MacVicar Faculty Fellow for his “exemplary and sustained contributions to teaching.” Read more.