Global win for University of Auckland science student

Mathematics and statistics Honours student Hongjia Henry Chen is the global winner in the Global Undergraduate awards for Mathematics and Physics and receives the Clarkson Medal, often referred to as the “Junior Nobel Prize”.

Henry Chen

While the pandemic means there will be no in-person presentation in Ireland as the organisers had planned, Henry is thrilled to be named among the world’s top undergraduates.

More than 2400 submissions across 292 tertiary institutions where nominated this year.

“I am thrilled and honoured to receive this award, especially as it is a global one where there is very tough competition,” he says.

Currently working in Auckland as a Forecasting Analyst at TESLA Asia Pacific, Henry completed a Bachelor of Science from the University of Auckland in 2019 majoring in Statistics and Applied Mathematics. In 2020 he completed an Honours degree with a focus on ‘mathematical billiards’.

Mathematical billiards is much like a game of real-world billiards - the ball rolls in a straight line on the table striking the cushions according to the law of reflection. Mathematicians are interested in moves that result in the ball returning back to its initial position, called periodic orbits.

Henry’s thesis focused on periodic orbits of quadrilateral billiard tables, the square, rectangle, and parallelogram. By combining techniques from geometry, dynamical systems, and bifurcation theory, he and his colleagues provided alternative proofs of classical results for square billiards with additional insights for rectangles and made new connections with number theory.

“Funnily enough, in real life, I am actually terrible at billiards and studying mathematical billiards did not improve my ability at all!” he says.

His work was aimed at solving a 200-year-old maths problem and he thinks the team certainly made progress.

“Our continuation methodology extends readily to any general table shape which could help solve one of the most difficult problems in dynamics: do all polygon tables allow periodic orbits to exist?”

At age 22 Henry is just at the beginning of his career but is interested in the energy industry and the onset of increasing renewable energy generation and the challenges presented by climate change.

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