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A Different Equation

Thursday, October 5, 2017
Murchison Term Professor Saber Elaydi

Trinity professor honored for lifetime of dedication to discrete mathematics

by Susie P. Gonzalez

Recognizing that mathematics is a difficult subject, Trinity University Murchison Term Professor Saber Elaydi starts every class with a joke.

He assigns a student in each course the task of making sure he doesn’t forget to tell the joke. Sometimes it’s about calculus, but it’s often about something else. Jokes that are poorly received fall out of rotation. He knows, because he keeps a folder of jokes in his computer and has a joke book in his office.

As he delves into the day’s lessons on topics such as calculus and difference equations, the mood among students swings from levity to laser-focused. Elaydi explains, “Math is all hard work and persistence.”

For his hard work and persistence, Elaydi has been named winner of the 2017 Bernd Aulbach Prize awarded by the International Society of Difference Equations. The prize recognizes a lifetime of dedication and significant contributions in the areas of difference equations or discrete dynamical systems.

Elaydi knew Aulbach; they were contemporaries who founded the International Society of Difference Equations in 2001. Aulbach was its first president and Elaydi was its first vice president, taking over as president when Aulbach died in 2005. Elaydi served as president until 2009.

They founded the society as a natural next step after Elaydi’s work to launch an international movement for difference equations and discrete dynamical systems. He organized an international conference held in 1994 at Trinity and founded the Journal of Difference Equations and Applications, of which he currently serves as editor-in-chief. He also is editor of the book series Advances in Discrete Mathematics and Applications.

Photo of Professor Saber Elaydi during a presentation

Elaydi views his interest in difference equations and discrete chaos—“I’m the chaos guy”—as a nod to pure mathematics. But he notes that early in his career, he was influenced by “A Mathematician’s Apology,” a 1940 essay by a British mathematician attempting to explain the purpose of the discipline.

While a firm believer in the precision of mathematics, Elaydi says the essay by G.H. Hardy prompted him to think about interdisciplinarity as a way to apply mathematics to other STEM fields and thus extend its relevance.

As a result, he founded Trinity’s Integrated Research in Biomathematics program in 2010 by securing a $900,000 National Science Foundation grant that involved Trinity biologists and math and engineering science professors. A new field emerged with research published in the Journal of Biological Dynamics, of which he is co-editor-in-chief.

At present, he leads three math teams at Trinity, including one focused on mathematical biology and another in collaboration with neuroscientists to look at the theoretical aspects of Alzheimer’s disease. His dream, Elaydi says, is to establish another new field—mathematical neuroscience, with contributions from physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics—to study Alzheimer’s.

Elaydi says he was drawn to mathematics because of its purity, its strength in accuracy, its function as the unchanging basics of other science pursuits. “Math is math forever,” he says. And that’s no joke.

Susie P. Gonzalez, senior manager of public relations, can be reached at susie.gonzalez [at] trinity.edu or on Twitter @susiegonz.