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MIT prof. teaches applied math

By Caitlin O'Connor '14

April 3, 2014

Ever wonder what your friend suggestions on Facebook, your Netflix queue and that stuff you learned in math class have in common? On March 13 and 14, Professor Gilbert Strang, the MathWorks Professor of Mathematics at MIT, visited the Hill to give several lectures  on the importance of applied math to the Hamilton community. While on the Hill, he spoke in several different formats, teaching a section of an upper level math course and giving an all-campus lecture in the Science Center.  The topics covered ranged from classic engineering problems to modern issues facing the tech industry, but all  circled back to fundamental role of mathematics.

Strang is the inaugural Robert S. Morris Class of 1976 Visiting Fellow at Hamilton. This fellowship program was created to bring preeminent scholars in the field of mathematics or science to the College. Throughout his career, Strang has received rewards and recognitions, including serving as President of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (1999-2000) to the Chauvenet Prize from the Mathematical Association of America, which is only given to the “most distinguished of mathematical expositors.” He has also always had a lifelong love for teaching, continuing to teach undergrads at MIT and releasing many of his lectures as OpenCourseWare on YouTube.  When asked why Strang was chosen, mathematics department chair Professor Kantrowitz responded, “Professor Strang clearly fits the description: he has had, and continues to have, an extraordinarily successful, productive, prolific career as both a researcher and as a teacher.”

In addition to his recent lectures, Strang also visited campus in the fall and gave two talks on linear algebra and its real-world applications, such as the Netflix ranking system. On both visits, he ate lunch with a small group of students to get a better feel of the Hamilton student body and life on the Hill. He even put aside time to have a discussion with one senior on his thesis. “He was very encouraging and listened to me patiently,” said Sunrose Shrestha ’14, a physics major.

One of the most remarkable parts of Strang’s talks was his accessibility and humor. Despite his brilliance, he was able to make his talks understandable to those with even only a very basic understanding math, as well as often garner a few laughs. The talks all, “started off with simple concepts, but in the end, if you stepped back, you could see that they all added up to a big beautiful picture,”said Shresthra. “In every talk I attended, I had an ‘Ahh, I see it now’ moment.”

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