The astronaut and the mathematician

President Stephen Toope and his wife Paula Rosen hosted a lovely reception last night at their house in honor of Julie Payette and Louis Nirenberg, this year’s recipients of UBC’s honorary degrees. With her familiar gracious and humorous style, the Chancellor, Sarah Morgan-Silvester, introduced the guests of honor and spoke about their achievements.

Everyone at the reception could easily relate to the accomplishments of Julie Payette, probably the most prominent Canadian astronaut, who had been twice on the space shuttle for a total of 25 days in space. NSERC’s former president Tom Brzustowski, always sang her praises to me and to whoever wanted to listen, as she served on NSERC’s council for several years. He was also behind the Julie Payette Research Scholarships awarded every year by NSERC. She has been a role model for Canadian women in science and engineering, including my own daughter.

Less obvious to explain is what it means to be the world’s expert in “Partial Differential Equations” (PDE). You could feel the audience reassured only after the chancellor mentioned that Louis Nirenberg has been elected to most of the world’s major national academies of science, and that he had received the US National Medal of Science from President Clinton, and the Crafoord prize from the King of Sweden.

At least 0ne other person, however –besides myself of course– was quite impressed by the expertise of Nirenberg in PDEs. It was Julie Payette who knew too well the role of PDEs in getting her and her fellow astronauts to space and to orbit.

As I was telling her that a Russian astronomer –who also appreciated PDEs– had named an asteroid he had discovered in 1980 after Louis (The 11976 Nirenberg), my friend, mentor and role model looked at Julie and quipped:  Yes, you should come visit sometime…

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4 Responses to The astronaut and the mathematician

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  4. andgranville says:

    Sounds like she is quite different from my former MP, Canada’s first astronaut Marc Garneau, who has little empathy for what is going on around him and surprisingly little understanding of how science is actually done. I am surprised that Trudeau keeps him around, but I guess politics makes strange bedfellows.

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