Mathematics at Bristol: History
Mathematics at Bristol has a long and distinguished history in such fields as fluid dynamics, applied topological methods, number theory, mathematical logic, hydrodynamic stability, mathematical genetics and Bayesian inference. Notable names include Nobel Laureate Paul Dirac, and Sir William Vallance Douglas Hodge, the mathematician behind the Hodge Conjecture, one of the Clay Institute as-yet-unsolved Millennium Prize problems.
The first lecturer in mathematics and engineering was Henry Selby Hele-Shaw. Apprenticed to a Bristol engineering firm at the age of 17, Hele-Shaw took evening classes at University College Bristol, which became Bristol University in 1909, and was offered the lectureship. In 1882, he became Professor of Engineering but left in 1885 for a post in Liverpool. His legacy is the Hele-Shaw cell for streamline flow methods, and he also invented an automatic variable-pitch propeller. Following Hele-Shaw's departure, the Mathematics department would go on to play a significant role in the study of Fluid Dynamics.
A world-famous graduate in applied mathematics in 1923 was Paul Dirac, a Bristolian by birth. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933 “for the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory”.
Several years later, in 1926, William Vallance Douglas Hodge, a distinguished geometer working in the field of applied topological methods, took up a teaching position at Bristol, where he began work on the interface between the Italian school of algebraic geometry and topological methods. Hodge was the author, together with Daniel Pedoe, of a text on Methods of Algebraic Geometry first published in 1954 and re-issued as late as 1994.
Hodge, Vice-President of the Royal Society from 1959 to 1965, was knighted in 1959, and in 1974 was awarded the Royal Society's highest honour, the Copley Medal. Hodge, who moved to Cambridge in 1930, was Master of Pembroke College from 1958 until 1970. He is best known for the Hodge Conjecture, a major unsolved problem in algebraic geometry which relates the algebraic topology of a non-singular complex algebraic variety and the sub-varieties of that variety. The Hodge Conjecture is one of the Clay Institute Millennium Prize problems, with a $1 million prize for whoever solves it!
Hans Heilbronn, who had fled Germany in 1933 for Britain, arrived in Bristol in 1946, after a brief period of internment as an enemy alien followed by service in the British Army. Heilbronn was holder of Henry Overton Wills Chair in Mathematics from 1949 until he left the University in 1964. His achievements were in Number Theory and included fundamentally important contributions to the solution of the class number problem, one of Gauss' best known conjectures. Heilbronn created a leading group in Number Theory that included, amongst, others, Christopher Hooley. The new institute for mathematical research at Bristol, a partnership between the University and GCHQ, is named after Heilbronn.
Also arriving in 1946 was John Shepherdson, a very young appointee as assistant lecturer in the field of mathematical logic whose potential Heilbronn recognised. Shepherdson made highly significant contributions to mathematical logic, in particular to the resolution of Georg Cantor's continuum hypothesis, and to the theory of computation and in 1990 he was made a Fellow of the British Academy.
In 1949 Leslie Howarth was appointed Professor of Applied Mathematics. Howarth had already written a paper, with Theodore von Karman, on what has come to be called the Karman-Howarth relation in turbulence and remains one of the few enduring papers on this notoriously difficult topic. Winner of the 1951 Adams Prize, in 1953 Howarth published Modern Developments in Fluid Dynamics: high speed flow for the Aeronautical Research Council under his editorship. Howarth also wrote the article Laminar Boundary Layersfor volume VIII of the Handbuch der Physik (1959), which was an influential, lucid and comprehensive review of boundary-layer theory until the impact made by singular-perturbation theory in the 1960's.
One of Howarth’s first actions on arriving in Bristol was to appoint his former student, Keith Stewartson, from Cambridge. During the nine years Stewartson spent at Bristol, he made important contributions to high-speed boundary layers and the dynamics of rotating fluids identifying, for example, “Stewartson layers”, in 1957. In 1958 he was lured away by a chair at the University of Durham
In 1960, Howarth appointed Philip Drazin and Derek Moore to lectureships. Drazin was an expert in hydrodynamic stability with a particular interest in meteorological problems. His text, Hydrodynamic Stability, (written with Bill Reid in 1981) quickly became a classic of the subject and Drazin was appointed Henry Overton Wills Professor of Mathematics in 1991. Moore, who moved to Imperial College in 1967, had a diverse range of research interests, making many outstanding contributions in vortex dynamics.
Howell Peregrine was appointed in 1964 with interests in nonlinear aspects of water waves. He progressed to a Chair and became the longest continuous-serving Editor of The Journal of Fluid Mechanics. In 1977, Keith Moffatt was appointed to the Chair of Applied Mathematics, bringing expertise in magnetohydrodynamics and turbulence theory. He returned to Cambridge as a Chair of Mathematical Physics in 1980. David Evans, an expert in linear water wave theory was appointed towards the end of the 1960s and would also progress to a Chair.
In 1985, Sir John Kingman, whose primary academic achievements were in probability theory and mathematical genetics, was appointed Vice Chancellor of the University. Kingman developed the mathematical theory of the coalescent which models the gene profiles of individuals in a population, and is used, for example, in estimating the time of the most recent common ancestor of a heterogeneous population, when it splits into separate groups. Kingman was honoured in 2007 by being named as a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences.
Bristol has had a long history of collaboration between Mathematics and the Biological Sciences. A group led by John McNamara - promoted to Chair in 1995 - has pioneered fundamental approaches, methods and modelling tools for the functional analysis of animal behaviour. Peter Green, appointed Professor of Statistics in 1989, has made significant contributions to the fields of Bayesian inference, Markov chain Monte Carlo and spatial & image analysis. Bernard Silverman, appointed to a Chair in 1993, was a founder of functional data analysis - data that arise as curves - and made significant contributions to the theory of smoothing, especially wavelets, and also to a number of applied areas. Silverman left Bristol in 2003 to become Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford.
In the mid 1990's, a group in Mathematical Physics was formed, led by Jonathan Keating, who was promoted to a Chair in 1997. This group has made fundamentally important contributions to our understanding of Quantum Chaos, Semiclassical Asymptotics and Random Matrix Theory. It is particularly renowned for developing the applications of Random Matrix Theory to Number Theory, for example, to understanding the statistical properties of the Riemann zeta-function.