Inspiring Professors (continued)

“Ultimately, I like to solve problems—mathematics is enriched by its connections to the world.”
Photo by Leah Nash / Christopher Onstott

David Perkinson [mathematics 1990–] Griffin Chair

By Romel Hernandez

The F.L. Griffin Professorship in Mathematics was established to recognize an excellent teacher and mathematician who serves the college with distinction. It is named for Reed’s very first professor of mathematics, Prof. Frank Loxley Griffin, who came to campus in 1911, inspired generations of students, and served as president 1954–56.

In a nutshell: Growing up in suburban St. Louis, the future professor was rooting through some boxes in his family’s basement one day when he stumbled across an old textbook on calculus  his father had kept from his college days. “I didn’t understand it, but I felt like I had found something magical,” he says.

Perkinson fell in love with mathematics. He earned a BA in math from Grinnell and went on to study algebraic geometry at the University of Chicago, where he earned his PhD. “Being a math professor,” he says, “seemed like the ultimate thing you could do.” He joined Reed’s faculty in 1990 because it was the kind of college he would have loved to attend. “Reed would be my dream school,” he said. “I love teaching, and this is a perfect place to teach.” Music is also an important part of his life: he plays guitar and violin, and for several years was a member of the Zimbabwean marimba band Thunkadelic with family and friends.

Sandman: Prof. Perkinson sees beauty in a pile of sand—an Abelian sandpile, to be more precise. Which isn’t an actual pile of sand, but a mathematical model for the dispersion of energy. Abelian sandpiles exhibit what is known as “self-organized criticality,” using accumulating sand to represent how these dynamical systems are structured. To get an idea of the subject, imagine bits of energy or information cascading in avalanches throughout a network. The sandpiles are dazzling to the eye, hinting at the sophisticated mathematics lying underneath. 

The Abelian sandpile model is connected to other branches of mathematics, particularly algebraic geometry, his specialty. Sandpile theory can also be applied to understanding complex systems in the natural world. He is currently finishing a book, Divisors and Sandpiles, with his former thesis student, Scott Corry ’01, who is now a math professor at Lawrence University.

Out of Africa: Perkinson’s dedication to teaching and sense of adventure have taken him to Africa as a visiting lecturer for the African Institute for Mathematical Science (AIMS). The organization promotes math education and research in Africa, recruiting top professors for a Masters program designed to prepare talented students for further graduate studies. He has taught in Ghana, Cameroon, and South Africa.

“You meet these young, super-motivated people with the same love of mathematics,” he says. “AIMS is helping to open doors for them.”

Perkinson enjoys conveying a sense of beauty and wonder to his students, be they at Reed or in Africa. “Teaching is the same process,” he says. “I get to explain something I love, something beautiful.”

Making Connections: Each year, a new group of students with diverse mathematical interests passes through Perkinson’s courses. A major focus for him is to help them find engaging problems from the world of modern mathematics.

“I’ve had brilliant students who are better mathematicians than me,” he notes. “I’ve also had students for whom mathematics was difficult, and I’ve enjoyed working with those students as well. But most of all, I’m proud of connecting my students with current research in mathematics.”