By Shay Tobin, Macquarie University

Throughout my life my mother has pointed out the curious and unique aesthetics of Australian trees. This may seem strange at first but my mother is an artist and teacher which may seem stranger still. It was this style of attention which developed my curiosity, a love for the oddity of nature and how seemingly simple things in the world can have complex mysteries to them. I remember first trying to draw a landscape, green trees with brown trunks, blue sky and a round sun sitting slightly to the side, a staple image on any parent’s fridge. As a mother would do, she gave me praise for the nice picture but then pointed out that this isn’t what trees looked like and referred me to a nearby gum. It had peeling orange and grey bark, some of which was reflecting the blue of the sky, winding branches which were impossible to track and most notably, it looked totally unlike the tree I drew. It was an important lesson, not only to improve my drawing but to also be critical of where my thoughts and interpretations of the world are in conflict with its actual representations (these were not specifically the words I formed at the time).

Mathematics and science through schooling were subjects I enjoyed but like every subject, my passion and interest was teacher-dependent. I was lucky to have devoted science teachers who would bear my questions after class, this pandered to my growing love for physics. The few less interested maths teachers on the other hand would tear down any curious thoughts, even set punishments for being distracted by the curious M.C. Escher posters on the wall. However this would lead me to having more drawings in my maths books than maths. Unfortunately these teachers were abundant in my senior years of high school and I quit maths.

This forced me down the art path and I found myself studying design at university still curious about the world. My interest was piqued initially as it incorporated my love for art while learning the tools for technical application but when the professional world of marketing and advertising became the focus I started writing maths in my drawing book.

A few years and artistic endeavours later I had almost forgotten my passion for physics until the detection of gravitational waves was announced by LIGO. The notion of humanity gaining a new way to observe physical reality fascinated me so greatly, however my inability to tap into having greater understanding of these concepts became exceptionally apparent. I was lucky to have a particularly mathematically literate friend who lent me his general relativity textbook. It was wondrous, until I hit the 8th page. It was then I began to make the decision to study physics, but mathematics was necessary to do this.

I started from scratch in a humble maths bridging course, beginning with 2+2=4 up to introductory calculus and it was love at first sight, there was something so pleasing that simple ideas with careful reasoning lead to grand consequences. Mathematics continues to not only satisfy the knowledge-seeking/puzzle-solving side of my mind but has begun to indulge the creative/artistic parts as well and denotes the start of what is currently a tiny subset in the study of life, the universe and everything.


Shay Tobin was a recipient of a 2018/19 AMSI Vacation Research Scholarship.

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