William Velez: Mathematics Changed My Life

Speaker: William Velez, University of Arizona
Title: Mathematics Changed My Life
Location: Community Room, 3rd Floor, Undergraduate Library
Date: Tuesday, February 26, 2 p.m.

It almost killed me at first. In my first semester in college, I was a chemical engineering major and enrolled in calculus. I could not understand my calculus class and dropped it, falling back to college algebra and trig. That first semester I earned nine units of Ds (It is hard to believe but I do have a Ph.D. in mathematics and hold the post of university distinguished professor).

I made a momentous decision in my second semester in college. I dropped engineering but re-took calculus. I did OK. In my fourth semester, I decided I was going to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics or physics. I was hooked, I was fascinated. It changed my life. The fact that I made that decision to continue on in mathematics provided me with the tools to address a complex array of problems. Understanding mathematics has been fun, applying it to solve problems dealing with military communication systems has been exciting, introducing students to world-shaking mathematical ideas continues to be exhilarating. This is the message that I try to convey to students.

My first-semester experience in mathematics is all too common for first-year students. My second-semester experience is all too rare. Yet mathematics is now more important to our citizenry than ever before. Mathematical thinking, and the tools that mathematicians have developed, now permeate the fabric of modern life. Purchasing groceries (error-detecting codes), withdrawing money from an ATM (cryptography) or looking at the weather maps on the evening news (massive mathematical models describing the behavior of the air and moisture) are all part of a sophisticated mathematical infrastructure.

If our society is to survive and prosper, we have to produce a mathematically literate society. I have decided to dedicate the final years of my academic life to convince our students that mathematics is relevant, that it is fascinating, and that students arriving on campus should increase the mathematical content of their course work. It is important that parents, K-12 teachers and university mathematicians understand how critical mathematics is for our students and for our communities.

In this talk, I will describe some of the problems in number theory that have fascinated me and how that very theoretical preparation, and my own view that mathematics is applicable, led a number theorist to play the role of applied mathematician. I will also relate how this background prepared me for my current position, where I try to convince everyone to become a math major.

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