Matthew Phinney resolves complex problems—in math, music, and international aid—with an integrated approach.
For Matthew Phinney ‘10, math and music are two sides of the same captivating coin. Both require a demanding combination of rigorous technical discipline and creative artistry, and both—in their own way—can be stirringly “beautiful.” At Trinity, Phinney double-majored in math and music, to create a truly integrated study of both theoretical math and the classical pipe organ.
Success as a musician, says the Massachusetts native, starts with the “very methodical, disciplined approach that you have in practicing. Once you’ve done the ‘scientific’ work, then you can ‘let go,’ in a sense, and come at it from the creative, artistic, emotional perspective. And that’s what you want to bring out in a performance.”
The same is true for math, says Phinney, “Once you get to a certain level, you see that all of these ‘dry’ ideas—algebra, trigonometry, calculus—which are built on very simple, straightforward assumptions about the world around us, open up into these worlds of the mind.”
Thanks to his integrated approach, Phinney’s achievements at Trinity gained him several coveted awards. As a junior, Phinney won the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship for math and science, edging out 2,000 applicants nationwide. As for his proficiency on the pipe organ, College Organist John Rose, who has taught organ performance at Trinity for 33 years, calls Phinney “one of the finest students I’ve ever worked with.”
Phinney has performed organ recitals across New England and studied organ at Oxford during his junior year abroad. In April, he performed his senior recital at the Trinity Chapel in front of hundreds of friends, professors, family members, and community supporters, The highlight of the program was a five-movement Louis Vierne symphony.
“It’s technically a very challenging piece, but also musically it covers many different areas of emotional content and impact,” says Rose. “It was the coming together of a mature musician communicating a very complex piece of music.”
Phinney was already doing original research in math as a first-year student, when he was chosen to participate in Trinity’s Interdisciplinary Science Program.
“It’s rare for a college first-year to have an opportunity to do research and even rarer for that research to be in mathematics, but it’s something that’s possible at Trinity,” says Phinney, explaining that independent research is typically done only at large universities and reserved for graduate students with years of prerequisite knowledge.
But Professor David Mauro saw Phinney’s potential early and knew how to draw it out. In his own research, Mauro has worked extensively with graph theory. His assignment for Phinney was to prove a minor theorem related to the Petersen graph, something that had never been done. “You couldn’t look it up in the back of the book if you get stuck,” jokes Phinney.
“I think that Professor Mauro knew the methods that he would have used to solve it, but in guiding me, he would never tell me explicitly what to do. He would just point me in different directions,” says Phinney, who spent countless hours in the math stacks of the library reading up on very difficult theorems. “But that’s what I had to do to gain the confidence and do the work myself.” The resulting proof, borne of weeks of frustration, helped win Phinney the First Prize in First Year Mathematics, a funded award selected by Trinity math professors.
Ultimately, what Phinney’s experiences with math and music at Trinity have taught him is that it takes more than a one-sided approach to solve complex problems. Driven by a lifelong interest in other cultures, Phinney put his multifaceted approach to work at Trinity during two international service trips. Funded by a Davis Projects for Peace grant, Phinney and two classmates traveled to Nepal in 2007 to install solar-powered lanterns in an impoverished village. Then Phinney spent the summer of 2009 with Oxford Development Abroad in rural Uganda, helping to construct a 10,000-liter water tank.
For both projects, Phinney saw that math and engineering alone weren’t enough to improve people’s lives. What good is a high-tech water filtration system, Phinney asks, if the village children lack basic hygiene? It was time to tap his other talents.
“I used music to give our scientific message a playfulness that appealed to the children,” says Phinney, who taught them an adapted nursery rhyme to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”:
Wash, wash, wash your hands, after the latrine.
Always using soap and water, keep them nice and clean!
Next year, Phinney is returning to Oxford to pursue a master’s in mathematical modeling and scientific computing, a cutting-edge field with applications in finance, health care, and population modeling. While at Oxford, he will continue his organ studies at the world-famous Cathedral of Christ Church College.