Jeffrey Wheeler, PhD, Mathematician
- PhD in Mathematics, University of Memphis
- Mathematics Faculty, University of Pittsburgh
- Reviewer for the American Mathematics Society
- Serves as high school outreach
I grew up in Wheeling, WV and was fortunate enough to have parents that were willing to sacrifice to send me to a private school. In high school at Linsly, I was one of ten members on the Math Team. We did well in state competitions and my senior year seven of the state’s ten representatives to the national competition were from Linsly, one of them a junior, and none of them me.
I then went to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and after three lectures decided I wasn’t cut out for architecture. I’m pretty sure I was a Physics major next, but I don’t remember. What I do remember is that during the second semester my sophomore year I noticed that I only needed four math classes over my last two years to get a math degree, so I declared a math major, took lots of history, philosophy, and religion courses, and earned a minor in social work. Though I wanted to save the world, the only job I could find after graduating was teaching developmental math courses at a local technical college. I loved my work, but the school would not hire me without a graduate degree, so I got myself accepted into a religion PhD program one year and didn’t go, then a history PhD program the next year, and didn’t go, then for good measure another history PhD program the following year, but still didn’t go. Finally, I got into Miami’s graduate math program and this time went, but mostly did that so I could take history classes and go to history talks. They were great, but didn’t help me in my math classes, and the Math Department was paying my bills.
I left Miami math because it didn’t have a PhD program to go to the University of Tennesse, Knoxville, then left UT to go to Memphis because my wife got a job at FedEx. At UT, I was in hoping to do a dissertation in algebraic number theory, but ended up leaving writing a master’s thesis in the subject on the abc Conjecture. At Memphis, the one algebraic number theorist in the department agreed to take me as his first student, but then told me we were doing Combinatorics and not Number Theory. That was at the time disappointing because I had taken many algebra and number theory courses, but only one Combinatorics course (It now seems strange that as a fledgling number theorist I was disappointed being asked to consider a subject area primarily concerned with counting… ok, coloring is also involved, but I wasn’t sophisticated enough at that time to see it).
C.S. Lewis wrote it so very well; so I quote the master.
“Look at the universe we live in. By far the greatest part of it consists of empty space, completely dark and unimaginably cold. The bodies which move in this space are so few and so small in comparison with the space itself that even if every one of them were known to be crowded as full as it could hold with perfectly happy creatures, it would still be difficult to believe that life and happiness were more than a by-product to the power that made the universe.”
This absence of meaning troubled me greatly as a youth and though Mathematics does not provide answers to such problems, Mathematics is a spiritual-type of experience for me and in my eyes is a concrete example of a higher power. Mathematics does not obey the scientific method; nor do we search for mathematical truths in nature. She exists outside the physical world but yet the physical world is subject to her authority.
This meta-meaning to Mathematics is not what motivated me to be her disciple, but yet I believe that in dancing with this fairest of maidens I subconsciously received psychological satisfaction to my troubling adolescent existential concerns. What drew me to Mathematics – and continues to draw me – is her beauty. Using Liouville’s Theorem from Complex Analysis to prove the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra (which, as the joke goes, is neither fundamental nor algebraic); Euler’s Formula and the particular case eiπ+ 1 = 0; the brilliance and technique of Galois; the simplicity of the statement of Fermat’s Last Theorem compared with the incredible effort it took to prove it; that Linear Programming over a bounded feasible region is infinitely simpler to solve over the real numbers (infinitely many possibilities) than when we restrict our answers to the integers (only finitely many possibilities); … this list can go on.
Doing Mathematics is sometimes like mining coal: it’s dirty and it’s rough. But then the light comes on and you find yourself standing in the most beautiful of art galleries.