Spring convocation: Mathematician accepts spring convocation's final honorary degree

(Edmonton) The continued pursuit of knowledge in fields of study that many in society find unfathomable was the subject of a commencement speech by Efim Zelmanov, the esteemed mathematician, June 15 at the University of Alberta, when he was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree.

Zelmanov told graduating students about the struggles and eventual rewards that can come from a career devoted to pure research. “The art of mathematics is the most elite of all the arts,” said Zelmanov. “Mathematical masterpieces can be understood and enjoyed by very few people,” and that the journey Zelmanov and others have taken to the farthest reaches of algebra have helped develop real world applications that society now takes for granted.

As a mathematics student in the former Soviet Union during the 1970s, Zelmanov faced repression from a government that didn’t understand the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

“When I was a student in Novosibirsk about 40 years ago we were taught that only ‘decadent’ algebraists and number theorists can be interested in such abstract and ‘useless’ objects as finite fields,” said Zelmanov.

Upon leaving the Soviet Union Zelmanov found support and accolades in his new home, the United States. But Zelmanov says the struggle to find support for mathematics as an art form continues. He says that, in his adopted home, science foundations, industry and the U.S. military recognize the value of expanding the frontiers of higher mathematics.

Zelmanov’s message to the graduates was to remain committed to their work.

 “…during the last half century the most abstract, seemingly detached from reality, mathematical concepts have miraculously turned into the most applied,” said Zelmanov. “Each time you login to your email account or get money from an ATM machine or watch a DVD, you indirectly use nontrivial abstract algebra and Galois's finite fields.”

To read a full transcript of Zelmanov’s convocation address, click here.

To watch the entire June 15 convocation ceremony, click here.