Mathematician seeks solutions in symmetry

Mitch Zimmer // Western University

Western professor Jan Minac, a newly named fellow of the Canadian Mathematical Society, says good mathematical theory is like fine art – and just as valuable.

Known for his enthusiastic teaching style – including his penchant for dancing for joy when a student solves a thorny problem – Mathematics professor Jan Mináč has been named a fellow of the Canadian Mathematical Society. The honour recognizes his long-time contribution to teaching and research in the field.

To Mináč, the award is also a calling card to help him introduce the academic world to the interconnectedness that can exist among people, ideas and research disciplines.

“This interdisciplinary work is incredibly exciting,” he said. “I love connection and collaboration.”

Mináč is a leading world expert in Galois theory, an algebraic concept that explores the links between field theory and group theory and examines fundamental notions of symmetry in nature, in mathematically precise and subtle terms.

And Mináč believes it can have application in working out mysteries in neuroscience, artificial intelligence, chemistry, physics, computer science, psychology and a host of other studies – areas where Galois theory may reveal patterns that might not otherwise be evident.

“This mathematical theory is subtle, elegant and beautiful. It is like art. In art, symmetry is very important. In music, something is missing if it’s not symmetrical. What we’re looking for is hidden symmetry, something that’s not immediately obvious.”

Galois theory is named for Évariste Galois, a political firebrand and French math prodigy who confounded his contemporaries with his understanding of algebraic equations. Galois died after a duel in 1831, at the age of 20, but mathematicians today are still working out the breadth and implications of his work.

“He was years and years ahead of his time.”

For Mináč, Galois theory is not just mathematical inspiration but “a tantalizing and fantastic opportunity” for use as a tool for applied sciences.

“We could, for example, use it to study learning processes, how memory is made. We could use it for medical sciences, to explain or try to prevent dementia.”

Mináč feels “extremely humbled and privileged” to be named at fellow of the Canadian Mathematical Society, an award that will be celebrated in December during the group’s annual meeting.

In 2013, the Canadian Mathematical Society also awarded Mináč an Excellence in Teaching Award for the novel ways he connects math to history, drama, science and nature.

He has been known to hit home his teaching points by converting his classroom to a theatre and adapting scenes from Sherlock Holmes or Hamlet. And he will sometimes leap onto his desk to emphasize a point or celebrate a student’s understanding a concept with a jump for joy.

“I try to build confidence in students,” he said.

Mináč was also awarded a University Students Council (USC) Teaching Award in 2010.