Borweins a sibling success

Apr 03, 2002, vol. 24, no 7.
By Sharon Proctor and David Rodger



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Since their arrival here in 1993, SFU mathematicians Jonathan and Peter Borwein have helped set up world-renowned mathematics institutes, centres and research groups while raising millions of dollars for mathematics-related research.

The brothers' latest coup is a $4.7 million grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). It will go toward the construction of a $12 million interdisciplinary research facility in the mathematical and computational sciences (IRMACS), to be located adjacent to the applied sciences building.

There's no secret to raising funds, says Peter, who is associate director of SFU's centre for experimental and constructive mathematics (CECM), and IRMACS' project leader. It's simply hard work. "Fortunately, many people in the science and government bureaucracies understand the importance of mathematics. They may not know the details, but they know that science and technology can't exist without it."

"We go after research funding," notes Jonathan, "convinced that we have something that's worth doing, that we've brought the right people together and that we have a tremendous professional advantage. And people in other disciplines support us by saying they need computing expertise and want an interdisciplinary plug-in." Jonathan is Shrum professor of science and holds the Canada research chair in information technology at SFU. He is also the director of CECM.

The brothers point out that science and technology advances depend on mathematical advances. "Consider the MRI scanner," says Peter. "Engineers build it, but you need software to run it. And you need mathematical algorithms to develop software. IRMaCS will enable students and researchers in various disciplines to find mathematical and computational resources and share their expertise."

"There's an increased mathematical connectivity between scientists today," he adds. "True, the Internet links researchers. Collaboration, however, still works best when people are near each other. IRMaCS will bring people together."

Says Jonathan, "IRMACS plays right into a magnificent SFU strength - a concentration of world-class research and teaching expertise in theoretical computer science, computational pure math, and computational applied math. It will be the only facility of its kind in Canada."

The duo have accomplished so much that it's hard to believe they never set out to become mathematicians. "I took math in first-year university as part of a full arts program," notes Jonathan. "When I went to register in honours history for my second year, I realized that if I got a history degree, I'd give up any future in math. But if I got a math degree, I could always read about Napoleon."

Their father, David Borwein, is a professor emeritus of mathematics; their mother Bessie Borwein, a professor emeritus of anatomy, both at the University of Western Ontario in London.

"Our father was a great role model," says Peter. "He loved his work, and it showed. Still, I had no strong interest in studying math until second-year university."

Although they eventually came to work together at SFU, the brothers never actually discussed mathematics with each other until they were in their 30s. In fact, when they were students, they were usually at different high schools and universities. "If you compare being siblings in the workplace with being husband and wife, it's not the same," explains Peter. "We don't share bank accounts. We don't go home together and we have our own social and recreational activities."

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