On Thursday last week (December 17, 2015), I gave a short statement of accomplishments in honor of Michael Hastings being awarded “The Distinguished Senior” for the College of Engineering, Forestry, and Natural Sciences at Northern Arizona University. I’ve gotten to know Michael quite well over the past couple of years as he was a student in two of my classes (Foundations of Mathematics and Abstract Algebra) and was also one of my undergraduate research students on two different year-long projects. (You can read more about the projects Michael was involved in here and here.) Michael is extremely deserving on this award and I was thrilled to be able to say a few words on his behalf.

Despite knowing for several weeks that I was going to have to stand up and say a few words about Michael in front of parents and faculty at the CEFNS Pre-commencement Ceremony, I put off coming up with what I was going to say until the night before. It wasn’t just procrastination and being busy that caused me to wait so long. I was so freaking nervous about doing it that my defense mechanism was to ignore it as long as possible. To most people, it might seem strange that I was so apprehensive since I spend so much time public speaking via teaching and talks at conferences and workshops. However, things like wedding toasts and short speeches at pre-commencement ceremonies cause me great anxiety.

When I sat down the night before the ceremony to draft what I might say, I spent equal time typing and deleting. After a more than an hour, I pretty much had nothing. For a little while I had some ideas that involved Pokémon, but then decided my “great idea” was probably a bit silly and would likely be lost on most of the audience. I decided to put it off one more day and cram the next day.

Some time in the morning, I stumbled on the blog post titled Good Mathematician vs Great Mathematician on Math with Bad Drawings, which sparked some much needed inspiration. Once I got cranking, the rest flowed pretty easily. (Thanks to Roy St.Laurent for some early feedback.) I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. There’s a bit of an abrupt transition in the middle. I had a longer version (which I didn’t save for some reason) that flowed a bit better, but I needed to keep it around 2 minutes long (and ran out of time to make improvements after nixing a few lines).

Below is what I prepared to say about Michael. I ad libbed a little bit, but for the most part followed the script. My opening is a slight modification of what appeared in Good Mathematician vs Great Mathematician. I’d also like to give a hat tip to Brian Katz as I borrowed from his call for papers for the PRIMUS Special Issue on Teaching Inquiry.

A good mathematician (or physicist, or geologist, or writer, etc.) wants to know “how”.
But a great one wants to know “why".

A good mathematician "answers questions".
But a great one "questions answers".

A good mathematician can "get out of a tricky corner".
But a great one can “get into a tricky corner".

Michael is one of the great ones.

The world is changing faster and faster. We must prepare students to ask and explore questions in contexts that do not yet exist. We need individuals capable of tackling problems they have never encountered and to ask questions no one has yet thought of. This is a challenge for which physicists and mathematicians are particularly well-suited.

Proving new theorems, discovering new connections in abstract fields is the modern day equivalent to slaying dragons. To many that study such disciplines, they feel they are uncovering the poetry of the universe.

This is a valid pursuit in and of itself. It’s one of the things that makes us human. We wonder, we explore.

As an added bonus, it is often true that playing archeologist with the abstract provides opportunities for human advancement.

For most of us, two skills necessary for success are a strong work ethic and the ability to persevere despite setbacks. Michael possesses both of these in abundance; yet his intellectual talent and problem solving skills are what distinguish him.

Not only is Michael brilliant, he is extremely motivated to learn. He has a relentless thirst for knowledge that is refreshing and rarely encountered. He has an unending enthusiasm for learning and is constantly striving to understand both the big picture and the smallest details.

While a student at NAU, Michael has double-majored in physics and mathematics. But not just double-majored, he is among the best in both programs. In response to his involvement on campus, he was recently selected as one of NAU's "Gold Axe” recipients.

Michael has conducted two different year-long research projects in mathematics. The first project focused on factorizing Temperley—Lieb diagrams, which has applications in physics. The second project involved prime vertex labelings of discrete graphs, which has potential applications in computer science. His work has resulted in a total of 3 publications.

But! By far, Michael’s greatest gift is his loud and extremely obnoxious laugh!

I am grateful that I was able to share in Michael’s experience at NAU and I will miss having him around. Congratulations Michael!

Phew! I’m glad that’s over. But I’m also glad that I had the opportunity to honor Michael.


Dana C. Ernst

Mathematics & Teaching

  Northern Arizona University
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