E T Whittaker awarded the Gunning Victoria Jubilee Prize
Edinburgh's position in the field of Mathematical science was referred to yesterday when the Gunning Victoria Jubilee Prize of the Royal Society of Edinburgh was presented to Professor E T Whittaker, F.R.S., of the Chair of Mathematics in Edinburgh University. The prize was presented by the president of the Society, Principal Sir Alfred Ewing, K.C.B., prior to the last ordinary meeting of the session, held in the Society's House, 24 George Street. It was awarded for the period 1924-28, in recognition of Professor Whittaker's "Contributions to Mathematical science and of his promotion of Mathematical research in Scotland."
Principal Sir Alfred Ewing said that the scientific work of Professor E T Whittaker had been well known throughout the Mathematical world since the beginning of the present century. The underlying theme which ran throughout it was the concurrent advancement, of pure and applied mathematics, drawing the suggestion for theory from the latter, and the exact treatment from the former. During the last thirty years there had been a constant stream of original papers from that versatile author, who had found time not only to master in the fullest sense an extraordinarily wide extent of the vast field of present-day mathematical knowledge, but also to say something new and important upon each of the many branches he had made his own. To the great benefit of students he had put together from time to time, in the more permanent form of a book, his systematic thoughts upon a particular subject, whether analysis or dynamics or optics or the calculus of observations, a phase of his activities which was the expression of his profound interest in teaching, and which, on the personal side, had made him an inspiring force both as a teacher and as a leader of mathematical research.
It was no mean achievement to single out from the existing body of pure mathematics the effective spring and heart of some particular problem in the realm of physics or the more practical work of the actuary. It was a greater achievement to create the necessary apparatus of pure mathematics; and that was what Professor Whittaker had done on several conspicuous occasions. An early and brilliant example was his general solution of Laplace's equation, which might be considered the fundamental partial differential equation of the older physics. Later and maturer work had given them his confluent hypergeometric functions, the cardinal function of the interpolation theory, and the Mathieu functions. Of the last a Continental writer had described him as "le père de la théorie moderne" - a phrase which surprised them, because they had not ceased to regard Professor Whittaker as a young man. (Laughter.)
Versatility linked with profundity give the rare combination of qualities they recognised in Professor Whittaker. The changing demands of new mathematical and physical theory had always found him ready to meet them and to answer their significant questions. His recent contributions to much-needed developments in the application of the relativity calculus were the latest instance in point. Professor Whittaker, in his reply, said that he was particularly pleased by the reference in the form of award to the efforts which the Council attributed to him for the promotion of mathematical research in Scotland. That had been for the last seventeen years his chief work, and to receive recognition from the body which represented science in Scotland was a crown to that work which he would always look on as the supreme indication of anything he had done.
The matter of research in Scotland at the present time was in a condition of great health and activity, and there were, at any rate, two pieces of evidence he might mention. One of them was that both in their own Proceedings and in the Proceedings of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, there had been, in recent years, a very marked tendency on the part of non-Scottish mathematicians to send in papers with a view to publication. That was rather an indication that publication in those journals was regarded as an honour and privilege, and to such an extent had that phenomenon presented itself that embarrassment was at times being caused to both bodies. There had also been a very considerable demand, on the part of the libraries of Europe and south of the Tweed and of America, for the publications of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society. That, he thought, was evidence of a very striking kind that the Mathematical papers published in Scotland were valued by mathematicians outside Scotland, all the world over.
JOC/EFR November 2007
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