Brilliant mathematician, emblematic professor – Reed Magazine


Reed mourns the loss of Professor Thomas Wieting, who taught mathematics for over 50 years.

By Randall S. Barton
September 15, 2021

From the infinitely large to the infinitely small, Professor Tom Wieting has traveled the field of mathematics with unquenchable curiosity, inspiring generations of Reed’s students with his extraordinary ability to find connections with physics, chemistry, art and even theology.

Professor Wieting died on July 19, 2021 in Portland.

Eloquently thought-out, admired for his impeccable lessons and known for his dry humor, Wieting was a brilliant teacher who cared deeply for his students. For over 50 years he has taught an astonishing range of courses and written dozens of essays on a dazzling array of subjects including complex numbers, real numbers, mathematical physics, Frobenius theory, Turing machines. , the history of astronomy, space travel. , Galileo’s essays, perspective drawing and geometry by MC Escher. He has published a book on chromatic plane ornaments and has mentored at least 69 doctoral students, many of whom pursued careers in mathematics, physics, or technology.

His Renaissance approach led to a strong connection with the physics department, 110 humanities education and the MALS program, where his course on the Copernican Revolution and the Galileo Trials was a perennial favorite.

Born in 1938, he grew up in suburbs of Chicago and Owensboro, Kentucky, in a dedicated family whose father ran the local YMCA and whose mother was a church organist. As a young boy, he wondered how shadows were formed, sparking an interest in the light that would reach its apotheosis in Reed.

In 1956, his interest in politics led him to be elected to the Kentucky State Democratic convention, where he was the youngest delegate. He went to Washington and Lee University, where his focus shifted from politics to math when his freshman counselor – taking note of his test scores – said, “You should do math. ” By following this advice, Wieting signed up for the course and found her true calling.

He graduated from Harvard, where he was surrounded by sophisticated mathematicians. While he found the context inspiring, he became frustrated with his thesis project on harmonic analysis. Taking a break to change direction, he accepted a two-year position with Reed and six years later he was established. He then returned to Harvard to complete his doctorate on an ergodic theory project. Wieting considered dating elsewhere, but Reed provided the context he was looking for – studying broadly without borders – so he decided to return.

“I have always preferred the broad perspective,” he explained, “and I think it served my students well, as I was able to design special courses and advise on a wide variety of thesis projects, including according to their interests.

“To think of math with Tom Wieting is to travel to a realm of crystalline beauty, unabashed seriousness and inevitably mysterious,” said John Lind ’06. “He doesn’t stalk, pamper, showboat, or annoy, but rather encourages you to develop your own methods of apprehending the truth. I learned from him that a mathematician can be an elegant and graceful being, and can wear a brilliant sense of humor between the lines with a straight face.

Wieting was renowned for his extraordinarily lucid lectures, always without notes. “If I’m not ready to speak without notes, it means I’m not properly prepared,” he once said. “Plus, the pressure to act clarifies my thoughts and appeals to the frustrated actor in me.” His style made such a deep impression that some of his students formed a group of Tom Wieting and set one of his lectures to music.

“I’m not studying math just to solve a combinatorial problem that sounds interesting,” Wieting said. “It is a study of the purest form of understanding, and the power of description through mathematical metaphors is what brings it to life. It is a way, a language to understand the world. The central focus of my intellectual life at Reed is that I have sought to understand the light in metaphors of mathematics. He often described the beauty of mathematics as “silent music”.

In an elegant voice, Wieting sang tenor for many years at Reed’s Collegium Musicum. His presence throughout the campus was frequently preceded by his singing. He recited the song by Edgar Allan Poe The crow of memory at the annual Reed Talent Competition. He was an avid whitewater rafting enthusiast and sailed many of the great rivers of the American West including the Deschutes, Rogue, Snake, and Missouri. He has introduced many students, faculty and staff to the thrill of living water through the Gray Fund and private trips.

Wieting was predeceased by his ex-wife Beth Wieting MALS ’71, who taught college piano for several years in the 1970s. He is survived by his longtime partner, Barbara Amen, who retired last year from her role as Director of MALS and Special Programs ; his son Aaron Wieting; and her daughter Alexandra Amen.

One of his favorite quotes comes from Chaucer Canterbury Tales: “Gladley wolde he lerne and gladley teche.”

Please direct your contributions on his behalf to the Professor Thomas Wieting Scholarship Fund in Mathematics and Physics. Contact the Reed Development Office at [email protected] or 503-777-7576 for more information.

Tags: Obituaries, Teachers, Reed’s story

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