Math turns 100

Depending on how you want to count it, the mathematics department last month celebrated its 100th year or 250 years of math at Penn.

Back in 1749, when 24 trustees were constituted as governors of the institution that would eventually become Penn, the School of Mathematics didn’t yet have a distinct personality. It included disciplines we now recognize as physics, astronomy and philosophy.

In 1899, as both the discipline and the University evolved, a separate mathematics department emerged at Penn and the first chairman was named.

As part of the department’s Oct. 30 centennial celebration, Freeman Dyson, a distinguished scientist and mathematician, gave the plenary address, “Gravity Is Cool: or, Why Our Universe Is Hospitable to Life.”

Dyson, emeritus professor of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and also an award-winning author, seemed to be making a one-man bid to return mathematics to its roots by reconnecting it with other areas of study. In a series of talks over two days, the British-born Dyson spoke of mathematics in relation to chemistry, biology, ecology, physics and astronomy.

His plenary lecture actually had little to do with mathematics. As he said before his talk, he wasn’t up-to-date on advances in pure mathematics so if he attempted to talk about math, he would bore mathematicians and be incomprehensible to everyone else.

Instead, “Gravity Is Cool” traced the formation of planets, the evolution of life on Earth and what the next stage of evolution might be. In answer to this last question, Dyson came to the startling conclusion, “Four hundred million years ago, life came from water to land. The second jump will be from land to space.”

Dyson’s talks were among several events the math department scheduled for its celebration. A panel discussion with applied mathematician Cathleen Synge Morawetz, physician Bert Vogelstein (C’70), Penn State math department Chair George E. Andrews and Dyson took place during the morning session on October 30.

The afternoon session featured remarks by President Judith Rodin and the presentation of University Medals for Distinguished Achievement to Dyson and Morawetz and Department of Mathematics Centennial Medals to Andrews, Dyson, Morawetz and Vogelstein. A banquet at the Inn at Penn followed the afternoon session.


Originally published on November 11, 1999