Sciences

The Sum of a Life in Mathematics

Prof. Tom Wieting retires.

September 1, 2016

“To think about mathematics with Prof. Tom Wieting [mathematics 1965-2016] is to journey into a realm of crystalline, unabashedly serious, and inevitably mysterious beauty,” says John Lind ’06. “He does not hound, pamper, showboat, or bore, but rather encourages you to develop your own methods for apprehending truth. I learned from him that a mathematician can be a stylish and graceful sort of being, and can carry a brilliant sense of humor delivered between the lines with a straight face.”

 After 51 years, Reed’s sonorously voiced senior mathematician has retired. Tom Wieting was a student at Washington and Lee University, contemplating a future in the legal profession, when his advisor noted his mathematics test scores and said, “You should be taking calculus.” Wieting signed on for calculus, in due course changed majors, and went on to Harvard University for graduate work.

“The transition was difficult for me at first,” he says. “I was surrounded by very able people, most of whom were better prepared than I. But the context was truly inspiring.” Frustrated by insufficient progress on his thesis project in harmonic analysis, he decided to take a break and shift focus. He accepted a two year appointment at Reed; six years later he accepted tenure. He then returned to Harvard to finish his doctorate on a project in ergodic theory.

 After receiving his PhD, Wieting considered appointments elsewhere but decided to return to Reed, because the College provided the context he sought, a place to study broadly without borders.

“I’ve always preferred the wide perspective ,” he says. “And I think it has served my students well, as I have been able to design special courses and advise on widely varied thesis projects, following their interests.”

The central focus of his intellectual life at Reed has been a search to understand the nature of light. (The search began in the mind of a young boy who wondered how shadows form.) Beyond the world that we perceive through our senses, lies a world that we can only observe through instruments such as microscopes and telescopes.

“We are a genius species in developing refinements of perception,” says Wieting, “in terms of our ever deeper understanding of light. But these refinements do not carry us to the ground levels of reality, to the basics of particle physics and cosmology. What recourse do we have? We have a source of metaphors in mathematics — that’s how I like to see it. Mathematics is a language which yields, from the vacuum of our imagination, metaphors of great beauty, complementary to the instrumental, often useful, even explanatory. Currently, the metaphors are imperfect. But someday.”

 For Wieting, mathematics is the purest form of understanding, and its powers of description and explanation are what give it life and light.

 Expressing his gratitude to the college for providing the seed and soil for his life, Wieting quotes an Irish folk song: 

A gardener was standing by. 

I asked him to choose for me. 

He chose for me a violet, a lily, and a rose, and gave them all to me. 

And he gave them all to me.

Tags: Awards & Achievements, Professors