One of Semiahmoo Secondary’s most famous grads – world-renowned mathematician Robert Langlands (Class of ’53) – was celebrated at the unveiling of a mural at the school Friday before a select group of school staff, family members, other Semiahmoo grads of the 1950s and distinguished visitors.
The mural, located at the entrance to the South Surrey high school’s math wing, is a combination of text and a life-sized enlargement of a photo of the former Princeton and Yale professor, standing before chalk diagrams on a classroom blackboard. Created by graphic designer Ria Kawaguchi, it features highlights of Langlands career and a timeline of his accomplishments.
Unveiling the mural was Semiahmoo mathematics teacher Brian Clunas, who told the small gathering that he had been motivated to seek funding for a mural after reading an article about Langlands in the Peace Arch News last year.
Langlands credits his time at Semiahmoo Secondary with changing his path in life. While he had intended to leave high school “as soon as I could,” a teacher encouraged him to go to university, Langlands told PAN in a 2018 interview.
“For various reasons… I took his remarks seriously.”
Langlands first caught the world’s attention in 1967, at age 31, when he suggested that two previously unlinked fields of mathematics were indeed connected – insights he outlined in a 17-page letter to French mathematician André Weil.
He has been at the Institute for Advanced Study’s School for Mathematics (which is in Princeton, N.J., but not part of Princeton University) since 1972, and is best known as the founder of the Langlands program, a large series of conjectures and results linking several theories, which won him the Abel Prize – the mathematical equivalent of a Nobel Prize – in 2018.
Last fall, he was made a companion of the Order of Canada; one of the country’s highest civilian honours, recognizing “national pre-eminence or international service or achievement.”
Among those attending Friday’s ceremony were Langlands’ sister Mary McArthur and niece Robyn Albert; his close friend, UBC professor emeritus Bill Casselman; Semiahmoo principal James Johnston; Dr. Melania Alvarez of the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Services at UBC (an outreach group that helped provide funding for the mural); and UBC mathematics professor, and president of the Natural Sciences Engineering Research Council, Alejandro Adem.
While Langlands was not present, McArthur told people at the ceremony that her brother and his wife are in the midst of a move back to Canada from the U.S. – where he has long been resident – and will live in Ontario, to be closer to his youngest daughter.
“What he said to me was ‘the U.S. is getting to be an ugly place and I don’t find myself thinking of mathematics too much anymore,’” McArthur said.
Casselman, who has known Langlands since they met at Princeton in 1966, said that while he and Langlands might resist oft-made comparisons of the mathematician to Albert Einstein, Langlands is “certainly in the top dozen of mathematicians in the 20th century.”
“There are probably 1,000 mathematicians that are working on his theories,” said Casselman, who, since 2015, has been helping Langlands publish much of his work on the internet.
– with files from Tracy Holmes