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Celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month: Five Hispanic and Latino Mathematicians

Pay tribute to great Latino and Hispanic mathematicians in history

National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15) celebrates the contributions of the more than 17 percent of the U.S. population that is of Hispanic/ Latino heritage. Here are our five picks for Hispanic and Latino mathematicians throughout history who are worthy of a special nod:

1. Alberto Pedro Calderón (1920-1998)

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Calderón, widely considered one of the 20th century’s most important mathematicians,  was born in Mendoza, Argentina and studied at the University of Chicago and the University of Buenos Aires. While in Chicago, he studied under Antoni Zygmund, a Polish mathematician who was an expert analyst. They went on to collaborate for more than 30 years!

Calderón and Zygmund developed the theory of singular integral operators, which was the basis for one of the most influential movements in mathematics: the Chicago School of (hard) Analysis. This school of thought emphasizes the applications of Fourier analysis to the study of partial differential equations (PDEs). PDEs are used in science and engineering to measure and describe a variety of phenomena such as sound, heat, electrostatics, and quantum mechanics.

Calderón’s original work, with and without his mentor, greatly influenced mathematical analysis and ranged over a wide variety of topics including: PDEs, interpolation theory, Cauchy integrals on Lipschitz curves, ergodic theory, and inverse problems in electrical prospection. Some of the practical applications for Calderón’s include: signal processing, geophysics, and tomography.

2. Ruy Luís Gomes (1905-1984)

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This brilliant Portuguese mathematician is known as one of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century and was persecuted by the government of his homeland for his outspoken ideas and independent thinking. Nonetheless, he was committed to teaching and research, making many significant mathematical contributions and serving as a role model for a generation of intelligent, creative mathematicians.

Gomes passionately believed that teachers should be more than the transmitters of theory and act as active research agents, inspiring students to come up with their own new theories and conclusions. He was an innovator in connecting Portuguese mathematicians with mathematicians and other scientists around the globe. He believed in a global mathematics community, promoted through seminars, conferences, short courses, study and research centers and scientific societies. At the time, this idea of global cooperation was radical, and the government of Portugal did not approve. The efforts of Gomes, his associates, and his students led to the creation of two influential magazines dedicated to mathematics: “Portugaliae Mathematica,” mainly composed of research articles, and “Gazeta Matemática.” Both of these magazines are still published today by the Portuguese Mathematical Society.

3. Pedro Nunes (1502-1578)

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This Portuguese mathematician is considered to be one of the most skilled and creative mathematicians of his time. He is best known for his contributions in the field of nautical navigation, as well as cartography, during a time when Portugal was discovering new trade paths and new worlds across the Atlantic Ocean. Nunes proposed the idea of a loxodrome, an arc crossing all meridians of longitude across the globe at the same angle, or a path with constant bearing as measured relative to true north. This system of measurement allowed navigating the path of shortest distance between two points. Nunes was also the inventor of several measuring devices, including the nonius, named after his Latin surname.

4. Victor Neumann-Lara (1933-2004)

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This Mexican mathematician, raised in Mexico City, was a pioneer in the field of graph theory. He studied Mathematics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, a highly regarded research institution, and then went on to teach at UNAM and other schools around the world. Neumann-Lara was a sought-after professor known for his innovative and inspiring teaching methods. He often used colored chalk and animated, graphic explanations to engage students. Neumann-Lara’s work in mathematics also covers general topology, game theory and combinatorics. In 1982 he introduced the notion of dichromatic number of a directed graph, or a digraph, in which the edges have a direction associated with them. This innovative idea is still being used to develop new mathematical theories today.

5. Júlio César de Mello e Souza (1895-1974)

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Júlio César de Mello e Souza was a Brazilian writer, educator, and mathematics professor known for his entertaining books explaining mathematics, most of them published under the pen names of Malba Tahan and Breno de Alencar Bianco. Many of his most popular books incorporate mathematical word problems and puzzles into whimsical stories inspired by the Arabian Nights. His most famous work, The Man Who Counted, recounts the adventures of Beremiz Samir, who uses extraordinary mathematical superpowers to battle dangerous enemies and win fame and fortune.

Many educators credit Júlio César de Mello e Souza with being an innovator, far ahead of his time, for his use of stories and games to engage students in learning math skills. The Malba Tahan Institute was founded in 2004 by the Brazilian government to preserve this talented writer and mathematician’s legacy. The State Legislature of Rio de Janeiro declared his birthday, May 6, a national holiday: the Mathematician’s Day.