The Fascination of Math: "There is Absolute Certainty in Math"

At school, mathematics is a nightmare for many students. Wrongly so, says Simon Breneis. The 20-year-old should know: he already holds a Master's degree in mathematics.

Master of Mathematik: Simon Breneis.
Master of Mathematik: Simon Breneis.

Simon Breneis is your fairly average 20-year-old; he lives with his girlfriend in Linz, enjoys sports and is currently completing his alternative civil service. Oh, and he has already holds a graduate degree in mathematics. We spoke with Simon Breneis about how it all works, where his fascination for math comes from, and how difficult his studies really were.

Mr. Breneis, you earned a Master's degree in mathematics at the tender age of 20. How does that work? Are you considered a highly gifted student?

Simon Breneis: I once took a test to determine if I was gifted. If I remember correctly, it turned out that I was highly gifted in some areas. I don't remember it that well though as the test was in elementary school. I don't pay much attention to that kind of thing anyway as when it comes to math, you need a lot of time and it can be nerve-wracking too. Above all, you have to be very interested in mathematics and willing to focus on it, even when you actually want to do something else.

So how difficult is the degree program in mathematics?

Simon Breneis: It depends. If you are really into math and willing to study math outside the classroom, then it will be no problem to finish your studies with good grades and possibly under the minimum time period given to finish a degree program. If you study math but you are not really that interested in it – or you are doing the program because that’s what others feel you should be doing - then it will be very difficult. In any case, it helps to know that studying math at school and studying math at the university is very different. Fortunately, academic supervision at the JKU was outstanding and honestly, that helped a lot.

Many school students lose the joy of studying math at school. What is your advice to them?

Simon Breneis: Mathematics can be exciting if you understand it, but at the same time it can be frustrating when you just don’t get it - I know both sides only too well. Mathematics is also a subject that builds on itself; if you don't fully understand a topic, it can be difficult or impossible to move forward and understand subsequent topics. Therefore, it is important to try and really understand mathematics and solve as many problems as possible on your own. In addition, you cannot learn mathematics by memorization, you can only understand it, and that requires a lot of concentration and patience.

What do you find most fascinating about mathematics?

Simon Breneis: Mathematics makes it possible to compactly formulate complex facts with fascinating clarity and precision. Moreover, if a mathematically set has been proven, you have absolute certainty that it is true - a certainty that no other science can offer.

You aim to start a doctorate program in the fall. Which one exactly? And what will happen then?

Simon Breneis: I will be part of the International Research Training Group "Stochastic Analysis in Interaction" at the TU Berlin, together with a semester abroad at Oxford University. Later I want to work in conducting mathematical research at a university.