MAY 25, 2001

Mr Chancellor, Madam President, Faculty and Senate of UBC:

Thank you for this great honour.

Graduates, Ladies and Gentlemen:

We are all here to share the graduates’ pleasure in receiving their degrees, and to rejoice with them that they are now qualified mathematicians. Graduates, we congratulate you. I hope you are all enjoying your success, and that each of you will go on from here to a challenging job, and a lifelong interest in advancing your branch of math.

I’m sure people will have pointed out to you (or, possibly, you have pointed it out to them) that "Mathematics is the Queen of the Sciences", just as Gauss proclaimed. Of all possible subjects of study, it is the one which commands the most awe and veneration. But before you get too carried away with this thought, remember that math is also the servant of science, except for parts of some sciences such as paleontology that haven’t become mathematical yet. They will. All scientists depend on a mixture of experiments and observations to do their work. The next stage, theoretical development, entails logical, mathematical argument. More than a hundred years ago, Lord Kelvin (he of the absolute temperature scale) put it thus:

"When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science."

In brief, most scientific data don’t become scientific until they have been put into numerical form. I believe Kelvin should have gone farther than that: to my mind, he should have added that scientific notions cannot become part of science until they’ve been expressed as mathematical equations (or occasionally, as inequalities). Until this happens, notions aren’t hypotheses – they’re just hunches.

I believe the majority of non-scientists are unaware of this, of the dependence of science on math. This may explain why so many people say, complacently, "Of course, I’m lousy at math but … " and then go on to imply that their mental powers are perfect apart from this trivial defect. Well, it isn’t trivial – a person who blocks out math is a mental couch potato. You, by mastering the queen of the sciences, become truly "fit" in the world of the mind. Whether you are a pure mathematician, or an applied mathematician, or a theoretical statistician, or a computer scientist, you are each of you a mental athlete. The possessor, and user, of a rigorously logical mind deserves public recognition and admiration just as much as a champion athlete or a well-known movie star – but you wouldn’t think so to read the newspapers.

So I hope you’ll raise the profile of Science and Math throughout your working lives, and have fun doing so. Best wishes and good luck to you all.