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Juggling Numbers: UC San Diego
Professor Honored for Work in Applied Mathematics and Computational Science

May 4, 2009

By Doug Ramsey

Watch a video of Calit2 chief scientist Ron Graham talking about juggling theoretical and applied math, and President Obama's pledge to put science "front and center" in his Administration.

Ronald Graham, a mathematician and computer scientist at the University of California, San Diego, has been selected as a member of the inaugural class of Fellows of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM).

Graham is the Chief Scientist of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), a partnership of UC San Diego and UC Irvine. He also holds the Irwin and Joan Jacobs Endowed Chair in Computer and Information Science at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering, which he joined in 1999.

A past president of the two largest associations of mathematicians – the American Mathematical Society (AMS) and the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) – Graham won one of the first SIAM prizes, and his background is consistent with SIAM’s focus on applied mathematics. However, he says it is often very difficult to differentiate between what is applied and what is theoretical.

“It happens so often that something that seems to be very pure and not related to any practical problem, turns out to be very practical,” said Graham, who, as a lifelong gymnast, juggler and past president of the International Jugglers’ Association, has had no trouble juggling both types of mathematics. “So even though what you’re working on may seem very far out and not related to anything you can think of, sooner or later, and probably sooner, someone is going to say, ‘By the way, that’s just the tool we need’ to do some amazing thing.”

Ron Graham was featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not for being a top scientist at Bell Labs and also a proficient gymnast and juggler.

At the 2009 SIAM Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado next July, 182 mathematicians will be inducted into the inaugural class of SIAM Fellows. In addition to Ron Graham, UC San Diego professor emeritus of mathematics Murray Rosenblatt will also be inducted as a Fellow.

“The announcement of the first class of SIAM Fellows is an important milestone for the applied mathematics and computational science community,” said SIAM President Douglas N. Arnold. “Reflecting the diversity of the SIAM membership, these men and women come from five continents, and work in academia, industry, and government laboratories. Advancing the frontiers of research in branches of mathematics as distinct as number theory and partial differential equations, these professionals have applied their work to endeavors ranging from mining to medicine. They have designed algorithms to make computing possible and written textbooks to train the next generation of mathematicians. Their contributions are truly outstanding.”

The California-born Graham earned his Ph.D. in mathematics in 1962 from UC Berkeley, and promptly joined AT&T. He was director of information sciences at Bell Labs from 1962 to 1995, and chief scientist of AT&T Labs from 1996 to 1999.

Graham has traveled effortlessly throughout his career in academic and industry circles. During his career at Bell Labs, he also held visiting professorships at Caltech, Princeton, Rutgers, Stanford, UCLA and UC Davis. While at AT&T, he focused his efforts on the AMS and MAA, since many other Bell Labs mathematicians tended to be involved with SIAM.

“Quite a few of my colleagues were pretty heavily involved in SIAM, so I felt it was useful to try to reach out to some of the other organizations to try and bring mathematics more together, which is difficult,” said Graham. “Mathematicians are pretty individual characters and everyone has his or her own ideas, and it’s the source of a lot of interesting developments in mathematics, but also it’s a weakness in a sense, compared to chemistry for example. Chemists tend to be pretty unified; there is just one American Chemical Society. So mathematicians are a diverse community, but that keeps it more interesting.”

Graham perched atop a bluff overlooking Black’s Beach in La Jolla, California.

During his long career at AT&T, Graham's work on ‘hard problems’ in mathematics led him to focus on the complexity of routing millions of telephone calls. And his work on routing was influential in the early architecture of the Internet. Graham pioneered worst-case analysis in scheduling theory, online algorithms, quasi-randomness, and Ramsey theory – a branch of pure math that states that complete disorder is impossible. He is also a leading authority on the late Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös, with whom he co-authored nearly 30 papers.

Graham holds five honorary doctorates, and has served as Treasurer of the National Academy of Sciences. He is a Fellow of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Graham has won numerous awards in the field of mathematics, including the Polya Prize in Combinatorics, the Euler Medal of the Institute of Combinatorics and its Applications, and the Steele Prize for Lifetime Achievement, awarded in 2003 by the AMS.

The number-cruncher also made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for using (in 1977) the largest number ever used in a serious mathematical proof, now known as ‘Graham’s number.’ (The number is so large that there is no standard notation for it.) Graham was also featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not for being a prolific researcher who at the same time was a highly skilled gymnast, trampolinist and juggler.

In late March, Graham was on hand when President Barack Obama addressed the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. “It was a very moving, very stimulating, very exciting commitment that he is making to put science front and center,” observed Graham. “He was preaching to the converted at the National Academy of Sciences, but he was very forceful, and people are very enthused and very optimistic that good things will happen.”

The SIAM Fellowship is conferred on members distinguished for their outstanding contributions to the fields of applied math and computational science. Starting in 2010, the anticipated number of fellowships conferred annually will be approximately 0.3 percent of the number of regular SIAM members.

The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) is an international community of over 12,000 individual members, including applied and computational mathematicians, computer scientists, and other scientists and engineers. The Society advances the fields of applied mathematics and computational science by publishing a series of premier journals and a variety of books, sponsoring a wide selection of conferences, and through various other programs.

Media Contacts:
Doug Ramsey, Calit2, 858-822-5825, dramsey@ucsd.edu
Jessica Stephenson, SIAM, stephenson@siam.org

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