In Conversation with SIAM's New President

March 1, 2005


The future president, circa 1952, ponders the founding of SIAM.

Martin Golubitsky, Cullen Distinguished Professor at the University of Houston, became president of SIAM on January 1. The following is a very slightly adapted version of the article Hinke Osinga wrote after interviewing him in January for DSWeb Magazine. (The brief curriculum vitae is omitted here. For readers of SIAM News, it's worth pointing out that Golubitsky and SIAM share a birthplace: Philadelphia. As to 1952, the year SIAM was founded, Marty remembers it as the year Robin Roberts won 28 games for the Philadelphia Phillies.)

Marty's mathematical work mainly focusses on singularity theory and dynamical systems with symmetry. "When possible, I like to solve an ODE without ever looking at the ODE. The question is: Does the structure of the equation tell you anything about the structure of the solutions?" For example, in the context of singularity theory, the number of parameters gives information about the structure of the solutions. However, lots of the classical models in applications that he studied with David Schaeffer have symmetry, and the structure of solutions is not the standard one expected from singularity theory. Here any particular solution that is not itself symmetric will lead to new solutions---its symmetric images. The effect of symmetry on solutions to differential equations has fascinated Marty for many years.

Since 1984 Marty has collaborated with Ian Stewart. Marty knew Ian from his books and wanted to meet him because of their similar backgrounds in Lie algebra theory and their shared interest in catastrophe theory. "Ian was visiting the University of Connecticut and as I happened to be travelling between New York and Boston, I decided to look him up." Unfortunately, Ian was not in his office. "I just asked around and found out his home address. So, I went there and knocked on the door. . . ." And the rest is history.

More recently, Ian and Marty have been studying coupled systems, or networks, that are not symmetric. It turns out that here too the solution structure may be different from what is expected using singularity theory. The structures are due to the network architecture and transcend structures due to symmetry. "The solution structures are often very surprising, and the research is still at a very early theoretical stage." While Marty prefers to combine theory with applications, "applications give life to the theory"; there are times when the theory precedes the applications.

How to Become SIAM President

Marty's association with SIAM started in the 1980s when Don Saari asked him to be on the editorial board of SIAM Journal on Mathematical Analysis. Saari's aim was to get more dynamical systems theory published in the journal. Marty Golubitsky accepted the offer and decided that it was probably also a good idea to, finally, become a member of SIAM. He has been a member since and also joined the SIAM Activity Group on Dynamical Systems (SIAG/DS) when it was formed in 1989.

More active involvement with SIAM came in 1990, when he was elected to the SIAM Council (1990-1995). "I believe that there is a place for professional organizations like SIAM," he says, and it was natural to start at SIAM, since it had been good for SIAG/DS and dynamical systems as a whole. In 1999 Marty became chair of SIAG/DS. "Being SIAG chair had its educational side. I found out more about the ways that SIAM could help SIAG/DS and the ways that SIAG/DS could help SIAM." Indeed, Marty believes that all SIAM activity groups (SIAM has 15 now) are extraordinary organizations. "This idea of smaller focus groups is a great opportunity, both from an intellectual as well as a professional point of view." In fact, early on, there was some tension between SIAM and SIAG/DS. One could say that SIAG/DS was a rather rebellious activity group that did not want to be controlled by SIAM. "This was really due to the lack of communication between people and SIAG/DS is now one of the three most active activity groups. Its Snowbird meetings are always excellent."

Marty's two years as chair of SIAG/DS (1999-2000) have not gone unnoticed. "Several things in SIAG/DS needed attention: First of all, we needed to have prizes. It is very important to have prizes and mathematicians tend not to take this seriously enough." It is, therefore, not surprising that the Moser Lecture Prize and the Crawford Prize were both initiated under his reign.

The second major initiative was the creation of a journal for SIAG/DS. Three events happened almost simultaneously. First, there was much discussion within the SIAG/DS community about whether SIAM should or should not create a journal in applied dynamical systems. While on the Editorial Boards Committee of the AMS (1994-1997), Marty had already been involved with the idea of doing journals in electronic form. "It just had to be an electronic journal; how else can you have free color and animations!" Second, with technology improving, Mac Hyman (then SIAM VP for publications and now past president of SIAM) and Mary Rose Muccie (journals publisher of SIAM) wanted to try something electronic and wanted to start with the proposed new journal for SIAG/DS. Third, John Guckenheimer (SIAM president, 1997-1998) had the idea of combining the electronic journal with a Web portal. Marty remembers how they walked around downtown Washington at the SIAM CS&E meeting in September 2000 and John described his ideas of providing a Web portal for the applied dynamical systems community. "This joint proposal of an online journal associated with DSWeb was approved by the SIAM Board and Council. It really was all John's idea, and we then divided up the responsibilities. It was only later that I found out that within SIAM I had been named the founding editor of the SIAM Journal on Applied Dynamical Systems (SIADS)."

SIAM has the skills within its membership to produce impressive professional material that can motivate students," says SIAM president Marty Golubitsky; "as a community we should make this a priority."

Based on his SIAM experiences with the Council, SIAG/DS, and SIADS, Marty was asked to run for SIAM VP at large in 2001. The nomination for president came after a series of coincident activities:

In December 1999, Margaret Wright asked Marty to join her in co-organising the SIAM 50th Anniversary Meeting in Philadelphia, 2002. "Margaret and I were on the SIAM Council at the same time and we have been friends ever since."

During 2000-2003 he was on the AMS council; combined with his experiences as VP at large, this meant a wealth of knowledge about how such big organizations are run.

He was now an experienced editor-in-chief of SIADS.

"On top of all that, Barbara [Barbara Lee Keyfitz, who is married to Marty and who, in addition to her current position as director of The Fields Institute, is president of the Association for Women in Mathematics] was SIAM vice president for programs, which was her education for becoming director of The Fields Institute, so it runs in the family."

What the SIAM President Will Do

Marty grins a bit at my question of what he is going to do as president. "That is exactly what Jim Crowley (the executive director of SIAM) asked me at the Joint Math Meetings in Phoenix in January 2004!"

He begins by explaining what SIAM actually does. Most of us know that SIAM runs a conference and publication programme. Furthermore, SIAM is the overseeing (and controlling!) body of the SIAGs and actively pursues links with industry. However, SIAM also puts a lot of effort into professional issues, in particular with the U.S. government in Washington. "SIAM is very proud of its established Washington lobby presence and makes sure that (applied) mathematics is well represented." Furthermore, SIAM can play a role at an international level, because roughly a third of its members are not citizens of the U.S. This also explains SIAM's efforts to organise conferences outside the U.S. For example, the SIAM meeting on Optimization in Stockholm, Sweden, this May looks like it will be a big success. "The past three SIAM presidents were very much involved with establishing a permanent Washington presence. I support this activity and will do what I can to help, but I also feel that the Washington presence is established now and that there are other more experienced people on the SIAM science policy committee who can direct this activity."

Instead, Marty wants to focus more on the excitement of mathematics. SIAM has always taken education issues very seriously (there is a SIAM vice president for education and a SIAM education committee), but recently there has been more emphasis on getting young people interested and excited about mathematics and computational science. In particular, Marty envisions a Web site very much like DSWeb, with lots of exciting mathematics that is highly visual and interactive, but also conveys the importance of mathematics and computational science in many applications. "Take for example the genome project; the classification of the human genome took only a fraction of the expected time. This was due to increasingly sophisticated mathematical algorithms, but exactly what kind of mathematics was used and how did it make such a difference?"

This Web site would be dedicated to students who are at least at sophomore level (they must have had calculus). "Certainly in the U.S., but also in other countries, there is a marked decline in the number of students who study mathematics and computational science. Many students choose subjects like biosciences, economics, or business studies instead. They find such studies more interesting and exciting and do not realize that even with such career plans, they would greatly benefit from a degree in mathematics. The Web site would convey the enthusiasm and fun of mathematics using practical applications to show how useful and important it is." The idea is to make several, "I don't know, 20, 100, lots," so-called vignettes that all consider a particular topic in applied mathematics. These vignettes are highly visual and interactive and could really be about anything. "The idea behind it is: Where is the math?" Katherine Socha (St. Mary's College, in Maryland) has agreed to lead this project.

[At this point, Marty and I are interrupted by another participant of the PASI 2005 meeting where I am interviewing him. The participant points out what a fantastic idea this is and that he can see many uses for such a wealth of information.] "See, that is the typical response I get from people who I tell about this!" Marty continues enthusiastically claiming that it is vital to communicate mathematics. "SIAM has the skills within its membership to produce impressive professional material that can motivate students, and as a community we should make this a priority."

The Web site is clearly still under development, but will eventually materialize as a place where students can go and get a feeling of "I can see myself doing this" and maybe get ideas for an undergraduate project. "This will be a major resource for students, and faculty, and . . . members of Congress in Washington."---Santiago de Chile, January 2005


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