Everyone seems to at least know of John Mangual, especially former residents of Mathey College and current members of Terrace. He has a way of striking up unique conversations, pointing out unusual details of situations, and smiling with a friendly glow. What makes John Mangual a celebrity at Princeton is his enthusiasm about everything he does, from break-dancing to poetry.
But along with fame comes the aura of mystery. Who is the real John Mangual? Who is this knot-theory crazed artist who carries around a bundle of five perfectly-sharpened pencils and a pair of scissors in the pocket of his khakis?
At a sloppy joes and cornbread dinner meeting I, on behalf of the Nassau Weekly, decided to untangle the knots of mystery surrounding one of the math department’s most famous undergraduates.
When I sat down at one of the wooden tables at Terrace with John Mangual, I found the 20-year-old hunched over a napkin drawing what looked like knobs and axels of a machine, which he then encircled with loops and triangles.
“They’re quantum mechanically-inspired doodles,” he told me, smiling at his scientific representations.
From a mathematics major who taught himself calculus at age 12, perhaps quantum modeling on a napkin is not so surprising. His all-encompassing love of mathematical forms and structures has taken him to unexpected places on campus.
Later, he flipped the napkin over and doodled a hieroglyphic design on a Greek column, a testament to his versatility and ever-active mind.
Mangual grew up in the Bronx, which he said made him a more open person. Witnessing homelessness, drug problems, and various socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds in the Bronx, he got early exposure to problems that shaped his worldview.
He attended the prestigious magnet high school Stuyvesant, where he was one of 12 freshmen from the Bronx. Living far from most of the kids made it hard to socialize with his classmates outside of school.
Mathematics has always a part of his life. “I used to be the kid that everyone would crowd around on the block and ask multiplication tables,” he proudly recalled. “I was the local whiz.”
Since age 12 Mangual has studied higher mathematics, ever since he told his mother to get him a calculus book. He taught himself calculus from a storybook-themed textbook called Calculus: The Easy Way, and learned advanced physics from a television program.
This resulted in a gap between Mangual’s knowledge and the level of coursework he could take, so he met with a college professor on occasion to keep up with his interests.
“I got a C on a calc final at age 12—not too bad!” he exclaimed with a grin.
Other students were impressed or frightened, but largely admired him.
“I felt like a little bit of a freak, but I had already become hooked,” he explained.
In high school he attended the prestigious PROMYS program at Boston University, which brings top math students together for a 6-week session of advanced coursework and problem sessions. Among his mathematics accomplishments are a perfect score in the 2001 New York Mathematics League competition.
Stuyvesant friend and current Princeton sophomore Cyriak John said Mangual was one of the first people he talked to at Stuyvesant, and even then Mangual said he wanted to go to Princeton or Oxford.
“I remember meeting him early on made got me really psyched to be at Stuy, since he was really intellectual but at the same time down-to-earth and really made me feel at ease,” John said of Mangual.
Mangual said Princeton really appealed him during his visit to campus. His Stuyvesant friend Rebecca Sealfon, now a senior EEB major, had told him to call a number for an alumni-guided tour, neglecting to tell him the tour would be from her parents. Nonetheless, he thought the campus was beautiful, from Prospect Gardens to the giant curved slabs of red metal next to Fine Hall.
Now a Princeton junior, Mangual has, among other things, co-founded a poetry club that meets weekly to explore different forms of poetic writing. The group’s mailing list has over 115 e-mail addresses. Co-led by freshman Yelena Kushnirova, interested students participate in poetry-writing exercises from magnetic poetry to ghazals.
Mangual himself prefers writing structured poetry, such as sestinas.
“[Formal poetry] goes with being a math major,” he said. “People find it restrictive, but I find it a guide.”
Mangual also loves classical music for its regularity and structure. “I’m inherently interested in it,” he said. He has tried his hand at writing music through a course at Princeton, and hopes to pursue music composition more in the future.
In addition to poetry, Mangual includes foreign languages in his interests outside of mathematics. He has taken Czech, Sanskrit I and Old English, and still reviews his Sanskrit book now and then. He also learned Spanish formally in high school, and comes from a Hispanic family. “My grandmother is proud of my proper, formal Spanish,” he said.
As for Princeton social life, Mangual emphasized with the wave of the hand that he is “totally not a Street person.” He enjoys his club Terrace but finds the concept of Bicker repugnant. His idea of a good party is “dancing, and a lot of it.”
What will this mathematician do in the future? He says he’s open to suggestions. Math as a career doesn’t seem viable, but he does hope to study mathematics in graduate school.
“I love form and structure,” he said while doodling geometric patterns. Nonetheless, the most important thing for him right now is “trying to figure out what else there is besides math.”
Before concluding our interview Mangual added that he had to tell the Nass about Reese Executive Witherfork, his imaginary friend.
His eyes widening, he described Reese as an invisible internet-lover–“She’ll touch your arm and say, ‘I love the Internet.”
The two have been friends for two years, ever since that fateful day freshman year at Halo Pub when he asked her “Do you like vanilla ice cream?” She touched his arm and said, “I love the Internet.”
“I was so scandalized, but she and I are good friends,” he said.
An original signed napkin covered in pencilled quantum mechanics doodles and invented hieroglyphics on a Greek column may one day be worth a mighty sum, so keep an eye out for it on eBay when Mangual finds the specific families of knots satisfying the property c(K_1#K_2) = c(K_1)+c(K_2), where c=c(K) is the crossing number and # means knot composition.