SIAM News Blog

Prize Spotlight: Nick Trefethen

Nick Trefethen
Nick Trefethen of Oxford University was awarded the George Pólya Prize for Mathematical Exposition at the SIAM Annual Meeting held in Pittsburgh, PA, in July 2017. This was the second award of a prize created in 2013 to bring emphasis to Pólya’s legacy of communicating mathematics effectively. The prize is awarded every two years to an outstanding expositor of the mathematical sciences for a specific work or for the cumulative impact of multiple expository works.

The George Pólya Prize for Mathematical Exposition recognizes Trefethen for the exceptionally well-expressed accumulated insights found in his books, papers, essays, and talks. Like Pólya’s, Trefethenʼs point of departure is complex analysis, but Trefethen also relies on a more recent mastery of numerical methods and computational software. His enthusiastic approach to his subject, his leadership, and his delight at the enlightenment achieved are unique and inspirational, motivating others to learn and do applied mathematics through the practical combination of deep analysis and algorithmic dexterity.

Trefethen is Professor of Numerical Analysis and head of the Numerical Analysis Group at Oxford University. He was educated at Harvard and Stanford and held positions at New York University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Cornell University before moving to Oxford University in 1997. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and member of the US National Academy of Engineering. He served as President of SIAM in 2011-2012.

As an author Trefethen is known for his books including Numerical Linear Algebra with David Bau III (1997), Spectral Methods in MATLAB (2000), Spectra and Pseudospectra with Mark Embree (2005), and Approximation Theory and Approximation Practice (2013). He organized the SIAM 100-Dollar, 100-Digit Challenge in 2002, and is the inventor of Chebfun.

Q: Why are you excited about winning the prize?

A: I am thrilled to be honored in this way. George Pólya has been a hero of mine since I first encountered the Problems and Theorems books he wrote with Gábor Szegő, and when I was a graduate student at Stanford, I attended some of his lectures. He was 90 years old. Writing about numerical mathematics means so much to me -- it is marvelous for this to be appreciated.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about the research that won you the prize?

A: I have worked on many problems related to numerical computation. I can't do research without running computer codes and generating computer plots, and the codes and the plots are a key part of how I try to communicate the results. Another feature of my work, and my writing, is that I love analogies -- like the comparison of the distance between adjacent floating point numbers (10^(-16)) and adjacent molecules in a solid (much coarser, more like 10^(-8) times human scale).

Q: What does your research mean to the public?

A: I fear the general public sees rather little of my research, apart from my fling a few years ago with devising a new Body Mass Index formula. The mathematical and scientific public, however, means a great deal to me. I hope that I have helped show readers in mathematics, science, and engineering something of the power and beauty of numerical algorithms. 

Q: What does being a SIAM member mean to you?

A: Throughout my career, SIAM has been my academic home. Most of my publications are in SIAM journals, and I've attended a SIAM meeting almost every year since 1979.

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