Robert Langlands – back row, centre – in a 1952/53 photo of the Semiahmoo High School Student Council. (Photo courtesy White Rock Museum & Archives)

B.C.-born professor celebrated as mathematical ‘visionary’

Robert Langlands, described as ‘towering figure’ of modern math, has roots in White Rock

Robert Langlands, according to his sister, had a rather “ordinary and uneventful” childhood in White Rock, where his family ran Langlands Millwork & Builders’ Supplies.

Other than his knack for math, that is.

It was these “God-given talents” that a high school teacher encouraged him to pursue more than six decades ago, Mary Fran McArthur recalled this week, following news her brother had been named the Abel Prize Laureate for 2018, a distinction bestowed for “outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics.”

“He has used those talents well. The Abel Award is the culmination of many years work and of many prestigious awards which he has received,” McArthur told Peace Arch News Wednesday, in a statement she prepared alongside former Semiahmoo Secondary classmate Ed Fader.

“I have to say that although I have read many description of his work, I have no idea of what he really does. Obviously, the mathematical community does.”

The world became acutely aware of Langlands’ proclivity for mathematics in 1967, when he suggested connections between two distinctly different fields: harmonic analysis and number theory.

Last week, more than 50 years later, the Princeton University Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) professor was described as “introducing a theory that created a completely new way of thinking about mathematics.”

The Abel Prize has been described as the Nobel Prize for mathematics. Named after Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel, it comes with a cash award of six million Norwegian kroner, equivalent to nearly $1 million.

Langlands, 81, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. (An official at his office at the IAS – which it can be noted is the same office once occupied by Albert Einstein – told PAN Langlands “comes in as he pleases.”)

However, in the video of the award announcement posted March 20 to the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters website, Langlands tells broadcaster Alex Bellos he was surprised by news of the award, which he only learned about shortly before the announcement was made.

“I didn’t have an immediate reaction,” he said. “What I wanted to do was think it over.”

Asked how surprised he has been by the growth of his initial conjectures into a “program of such depth and scope,” Langlands said he has been concerned about the “tendency to take the easy road.”

“I think there are strange and real questions right at the core, that have been there… since the time of Gauss, and that have been advanced, but i guess because they’re so rich… in relation to other matters, have often been left aside, perhaps because people just didn’t know how to think about them,” he said.

Ole M. Sejersted, president of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, described the Langlands program as “visionary.”

In a congratulatory statement posted online, Kenneth A Ribet, president of the American Mathematical Society, said Langlands is “one of the most distinguished mathematicians alive today and a towering figure in the history of modern mathematics.”

“His insights, which grew out of penetrating technical work early in his career, have transformed and enriched both number theory and representation theory. The deep relations between the two subjects that he predicted and probed have guided the work of countless mathematicians over the last 50 years,” Ribet states.

Fader, 80, told PAN he and other former classmates of Langlands’ are proud of his accomplishments.

“He’s done quite well,” Fader said Wednesday. “Some of my classmates (think) we should have a Bob Langlands Day in White Rock, just for him.”

Langlands told Bellos he plans to share the prize money with various institutions and groups he already supports, “that… are in some way useful to the world.”

“And (US)$800,000 will help.”

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Robert Langlands speaks to officials following word he has been named the Abel Prize Laureate for 2018. (Youtube screenshot)

Robert Langlands speaks to officials following word he has been named the Abel Prize Laureate for 2018. (Youtube screenshot)

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