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Distinguished alumnus worthy recipient

- By Erna van Wyk

The University of the Witwatersrand today (2 July 2014) conferred an honorary doctorate on Professor Peter Sarnak for his distinguished contribution to the field of mathematics during the graduation ceremony of the Faculty of Science in the Wits Great Hall.

Sarnak, a Wits alumnus and the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University, was also praised for his contribution to the development of mathematics in South Africa. He is one of the world’s leading mathematical scientists working in the fields of combinatorics and number theory, and the 2014 recipient of the Wolf Prize in Mathematics.

While in South Africa, Sarnak will deliver a public lecture on Thursday, 3 July 2014, titled: Aspects of Number Theory. Click here for the invitation and more details.

Addressing Science graduates, Sarnak said society needs mathematicians to “tackle a range of problems” and he urge graduands keep on learning every day.

“As you end this period of being examined and assessed, you will have to take on a new identity. You won’t officially be a student any more but don’t abandon your student identity completely. Instead, rework it. Maintain the lens of a student and with it, humility and curiosity. Question dogma, maintain courage to tackle the unknown and above all, remain open to learning,” he said.

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The Wits School of Computational and Applied Mathematics (CAM) nominated Sarnak for an honorary degree. His contribution to mathematics in South Africa includes presenting plenary lectures at joint congresses of the American Mathematical Society and the South African Mathematical Society held in South Africa in 1997 and 2011, to stimulate research amongst young mathematical scientists.

He was a member of a panel set up by the South African Department of Science and Technology, and the National Research Foundation to review the state of the mathematical sciences in South Africa.

The panel’s report recommended the establishment of a Centre of Excellence in the Mathematical Sciences to focus on the development of high level research programmes for postgraduate students. As a result of this report, the NRF-DST Centre of Excellence in Mathematical and Statistical Sciences (MaSS) was established at Wits in April this year.

Sarnak holds a BSc Honours in Pure Mathematics from Wits, and a PhD from Stanford University. In 1991 he was appointed Professor at Princeton University, a position he currently still holds.