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Honorary doctorate for esteemed mathematician
Author: Media & Communication, Faculty of Science
Published: 08/04/2019

​Prof Lloyd Nicholas Trefethen, a mathematical scientist from Oxford University, was awarded an honorary doctorate from Stellenbosch University during the last graduation ceremony on Friday 5 April 2019. The award was made, inter alia, for his support over 30 years to develop the field of numerical mathematics in South Africa.

In his acceptance speech Prof Trefethen said mathematics forms the foundation of the enterprise of science and engineering and affects society in a pervasive and unexpected way: “Mathematics is a study free from space and time. Mathematics is done today, and was done 1 000 years ago, even 2 000 years ago. It is done everywhere in the world. The discoveries of each era are built on those in the previous era. Always moving forward."

Here follows his commendation, read at the ceremony:

With an astonishing body of work, esteemed mathematical scientist Professor Lloyd N. Trefethen has advanced the global popularisation of mathematics. For over 30 years, he has also keenly supported numerical mathematics in South Africa, contributing to a scarce skill the country desperately needs.

Having obtained his first degree in Applied Mathematics summa cum laude from Harvard College, and his master's degree and doctorate from Stanford, Trefethen spent two years at the well-known Courant Institute at New York University as a postdoctoral fellow of the United States National Science Foundation. Following positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Cornell University, he accepted a professorship at Oxford University, United Kingdom, where he continues to break new ground as head of the Numerical Analysis Group.

The contributions of this unofficial global guardian of numerical mathematics encompass over 100 research papers, eight books and multiple practical innovations. These include a 1993 paper on hydrodynamic stability published in the journal Science, which has garnered more than 1 500 citations, and his Numerical Linear Algebra, which has become the standard postgraduate text in the field since it appeared in 1997.  Moreover, numerous scholars have benefited from the convenience and computational power offered by his ambitious Chebfun project, an open-source add-on to the state-of-the-art commercial computational package MATLAB.

Unlike many of his peers, Trefethen also regularly ventures beyond the confines of his field into areas such as physics and health science, where he challenges the conventional wisdom with novel insight. One example is his mathematical analysis of the Faraday cage, the phenomenon that shields microwaves from exiting the gridded window of a microwave oven, while allowing light waves to do so.  Perhaps the most dramatic example is his redefinition of the body mass index as a measure of obesity in humans, which made international headlines.

Generously sharing his expertise, he has established an enduring relationship with South Africa, supporting budding mathematical scientists countrywide. Apart from welcoming our scholars abroad, Trefethen has also become a regular visitor to our shores. From a strenuous national two-week lecture tour, to a number of visits to Stellenbosch as an active participant in the symposium of the South African Society for Numerical and Applied Mathematics (SANUM), he is known for making a special effort to engage with our academics and students alike.

Honours bestowed on Trefethen include his election as a fellow of the Royal Society, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics as well as the American Mathematical Society. Prestigious awards such as the 2013 Naylor prize of the London Mathematical Society and the 2017 George Pólya prize for exposition in mathematical writing speak volumes about his stature.

The University is honoured to confer on him the degree Doctor of Science (DSc), honoris causa, for his remarkable scholarship and his astonishing body of work advancing the global popularisation of mathematics; for challenging conventional wisdom with novel insight; and for generously sharing his expertise over 30 years to help cultivate a new generation of mathematical scientists on the African continent.

The Faculty of Science awarded a total of 307 postgraduate degrees for the 2018 academic year. This includes 156 BScHons, 81 MSc and a new record of 50 PhD degrees.

The University awarded 3 128 degrees and diplomas at its six April graduation ceremonies at the Coetzenburg Centre in Stellenbosch from Tuesday, 2 April to Friday, 5 April 2019. This includes 953 master's degrees and 158 doctoral degrees

On the photo, from left to right, Prof André Weideman (Applied Mathematics Division), Prof Louise Warnich (Dean: Faculty of Science), Prof Lloyd N Trefethen (Oxford University) and Prof Ingrid Rewitzky (Head: Department of Mathematical Sciences). Photo: Stefan Els