Numero Uno

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by sofie kirk

Nantel Bergeron, a newly minted Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, one of the University’s highest academic honours, counts out loud the two things calculated to bring him down. The first is when people insist math is a science and the second is when people say they hate math. One at a time.

“When people say they hate math, that just makes me so sad,” says Bergeron, frowning to make the point.

“That’s like saying I hate talking or I hate thinking,” the 55-year-old scholar continues, warming up to his other bête noir, “because while some people insist that math is a science, it is not, at least not to me. It is a language. We use it to describe relationships and any changes that might affect relationship in such a way as to deepen our understanding of our world.”

The Quebec-born mathematician has (quite literal) proof to back up his claim, among them a groundbreaking Hopf algebra theorem explaining the ubiquity of quasi-symmetric functions in mathematics and theoretical physics, where they play a role in quantum computation.

In lay terms, the theorem allows for the study of structures to be broken down into a countable number of variables that can be rationally mapped out for analysis. Bergeron co-authored it in 2006 and it has since made him internationally famous in math circles as an algebraic genius. (Although he is too modest to say so.)

“I see the proof as a pair of glasses,” says Bergeron, helpfully. “It allows for quasi-symmetric functions to be perceived as a measurement of several kinds of combinatorial theorem. People can use that to get information about the object they want to study.”

And by information he means deep knowledge, the kind not easily discernible. It’s what made him want to do math in the first place. “I wanted to be a physicist at first,” says Bergeron, “but my instructors were always just showing, they were not explaining and I wanted to go deeper, so I went into math to understand at that level. I didn’t want to assume anything.”

Mind made up, Bergeron went on to obtain his master’s in mathematics at the Université du Québec à Montréal in 1987, and his PhD from the University of California, San Diego in 1990. Princeton hired him almost immediately upon graduating to teach math in its department, followed by Harvard where Bergeron stayed three years. York University came calling in 1996, recruiting him as an assistant professor for its Keele Campus.

Once at York, Bergeron quickly rose through the ranks, becoming the Canada Chair in Mathematics in 2001, a position he held for 10 years; a full professor in 2002; and, since 2016, the York Research Chair in Applied Algebra. The author of more than 80 research papers and recipient of several awards, Bergeron has supervised 19 PhD students and 23 postdoctoral students from around the world who have come to York University specifically because of him.

“I think one of my greatest contributions is the people I have attracted to the University,” Bergeron says, “people who have gone on to do good work and across Canada – out West and in the Atlantic provinces. They’ve gone on to reproduce the synergy we have here at York. They have spread the passion for math.”

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