ASU professor delivers Einstein Public Lecture in Mathematics

Abba Gumel, Foundation Professor of mathematics in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences at Arizona State University, delivered virtually the American Mathematical Society’s 2021 Einstein Public Lecture in Mathematics on March 20, during the AMS Spring Eastern Sectional Meeting.

The AMS Einstein Public Lecture in Mathematics began in 2005, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein's "annus mirabilis" when he published four fundamental papers that changed the course of 20th-century physics. During his “year of miracles,” Einstein wrote a series of papers that transformed the way we see the universe, including his theory of special relativity and the famous equation E=mc².

“It is an immense honor for Professor Abba Gumel to be chosen to deliver such a prestigious lecture," said Donatella Danielli, professor and school director. “Our school congratulates Abba on this recognition of his excellent work, which provides insight into the transmission dynamics and control of infectious diseases, and highlights the significant role mathematics plays in helping to solve the world’s most challenging problems.”

“Associating anyone's name with Albert Einstein is always a great and humbling honor,” Gumel said. “Being chosen for this lecture means a lot to me, and also to the many students from high school, undergraduate and graduate levels, postdoctoral researchers and collaborators from around the world that I have had the privilege of working with over the course of my career. It is also an immense honor to our school and university.”

With the coronavirus pandemic accounting for over 2.8 million deaths worldwide, Gumel’s lecture, “Mathematics of Infectious Diseases,” could not have been more relevant. The lecture focused on the use of mathematical approaches to provide realistic insight into the transmission dynamics and control of emerging and reemerging diseases of major public health significance.

The talk covered the history of the use of mathematics in epidemiology, dating back to the pioneering works of Daniel Bernoulli, who modeled the effectiveness of immunization strategies against smallpox in the 1760s.

Smallpox is one of the only two vaccine-preventable diseases that has been eradicated. Gumel discussed how Sir Ronald Ross explained the complete life cycle of the parasite that causes malaria and was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1902. The talk also included William Kermack and Anderson McKendrick, two biochemists and epidemiologists who laid the foundation for the mathematical theory of epidemics in the 1920s. The lecture showcased the many contributions to the concerted global effort to eradicate malaria by 2040, as well as the current effort to eliminate COVID-19 in the U.S.

Gumel dedicated the lecture in memory of Professor Lee Lorch (1915–2014), who, in addition to being a brilliant mathematician, was an icon of human rights, equity, justice and equal educational opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities. His decadeslong struggle for civil rights and educational opportunities cost him four academic appointments in the U.S. and other personal costs, necessitating his self-exile to Canada. 

Gumel’s own academic adviser was a former student of Lorch. While doing postdoctoral work at the Fields Institute in Toronto, Gumel was often introduced by Lorch as his "academic grandchild."

“He was a major influence in my life,” Gumel said. “We were very close, both professionally and personally. It was an immense honor to have known such a giant icon of civil rights and empowerment of women and people of color.”

Gumel received his PhD in mathematics from Brunel University, England, in 1994, and was professor of mathematics at the University of Manitoba, Canada, from 1999 to 2014. He is a fellow of the ASU-Santa Fe Institute for Biosocial Complex Systems, African Academy of Science and Nigerian Academy of Science.

The first Einstein Lecture was delivered in fall 2005 by Sir Michael Atiyah, winner of both a Fields Medal and an Abel Prize. The lecture was aimed at the general public and was extremely successful. That tradition of very broad appeal has continued and a history of previous lectures, as well as Gumel’s 2021 lecture, can be found on the AMS website.

Rhonda Olson