Humans of Harker: On the verge of discovery

Jack Hsieh delves into the unknown through open research in mathematics


Jessica Tang

“I want to create something that hasn’t been created before. Math is the way I find best to do it, partly because it’s enjoyable to do, but also partly because that distillation of pure logic is one that’s very powerful and very fundamental,” Jack Hsieh (12) said.

Three. Two. One. Happy New Year! While others celebrate the occasion around him, Jack Hsieh (12) types away, enveloped in his mathematics research. After two years of tireless effort, he stands on the verge of a breakthrough in his quest to solve a fundamental problem in decision theory. With each new nuance and detail he uncovers, he gains an increased appreciation for his work.

Jack first stumbled upon the inspiration for his research when a teacher made a passing comment about an open question in mathematics. Immediately, he latched on, looking for ways to delve deeper into the uncharted field. While he has faced setback after setback in his exploration, Jack recognizes the obstacles as an innate part of open research. In such times of difficulty, Jack thinks of the intricacies that drew him to the subject initially.

“It’s interest that drives me,” Jack said. “Research is fun to do. It’s fun when you have that idea. It’s also something I desperately want to know because in my mind, it’s such a simple problem. But research is not really just about finding a proof; it’s about understanding the [underlying] mathematics and mechanics.”

Such math research systems are notoriously elusive to decipher, and the lack of resources surrounding open questions in math only adds to the challenge. Jack’s independent research often poses difficult questions with no preexisting foundation to draw upon. However, his interest in the topic motivates him to surmount such difficulties and take time to experiment with new ideas. That slow trickle of progress might feel frustrating to some, but Jack finds fulfillment in small successes, learning from each one.

“I don’t necessarily think math is a series of Eureka moments,” Jack said. “There are definitely very powerful works and developments, but I also think that it’s a gradual process, because you don’t start with a full understanding of the structure that you’re looking at.”

While Jack’s math journey has been lengthy, his genuine curiosity for the subject has made the research process a joy.

“My favorite part of the research process is when I have a new idea and a decent sense of where I’m going with it,” Jack said. “It’s that exhilarating feeling that you’re on the verge of approaching some discovery, some truth that you didn’t know before or that no one else has known before.”

That excitement, that satisfaction of seeing one’s efforts come to fruition has shaped Jack’s perspective about his research, propelling him forward with a relentless drive. This mindset manifests itself throughout Jack’s daily life, imbuing meaning into everything he does. Close friend Vincent Zhang (12) admires this mentality, particularly the inquisitive nature with which Jack approaches the world.

“The questions that Jack asks are sometimes absurd, but there’s so much room to talk about it,” Vincent said. “That’s why we’re good friends, because we both really enjoy talking about that kind of thing in depth.”

While cultivating his own interests, Jack also enjoys sharing the insights he discovers with others. Having met Jack in ninth grade, close friend Matthew Lau (12) recalls Jack’s immediate friendliness and approachability. In their friendship, Jack frequently discusses interesting topics with Matthew, offering unique viewpoints and often-overlooked angles. 

“The way he talks or converses provides a helpful approach when he’ll try to teach you something,” Matthew said. “He doesn’t have an ego, even though he’s really smart. He’ll use information that he’s learned from other places like history or books when discussing any topic.”

While he now often discusses his various interests with others, when Jack came to Harker in his freshman year, he was more reserved. Close friend Emma Biswas (12) admires his growth, evident in his frequent conversations with others and willingness to let his personality shine through.

“I’ve noticed how he’s become more outspoken over the years,” Emma said. “He tells more jokes to people. I’ve really enjoyed seeing him become more confident in himself because, as his friend, I’ve always seen how amazing he is.”

Jack’s personal growth is matched by his strides in his pursuit of knowledge through research. Driven both by curiosity and a desire to effect meaningful change in the world, Jack harnesses his love for mathematics as a potent tool to empower his research.

“Research is the idea of creating new knowledge,” Jack said. “Anything in the realm of research means that you are contributing some new knowledge that’s rigorously derived and creatively generated. The idea of creating these tools in a mathematical framework that’s never been done before and that other people can also use to understand mathematical structures and extend your work — that is something that really appeals to me.”

Though the path ahead remains uncertain, Jack maintains an optimistic outlook for the future. From the catalytic moment that sparked his research journey to his current project, the insights and discoveries he has gained have proven invaluable. As Jack continues to forge ahead, he is committed to blazing new trails in his field, pushing the boundaries of knowledge even further.

“I want to create something that hasn’t been created before,” Jack said. “Math is the way I find best to do it, partly because it’s enjoyable to do, but also partly because that distillation of pure logic is one that’s very powerful and very fundamental.”