The topic of mathematics may mystify many, but for New College of Florida President Donal O’Shea, the mention of the subject makes him downright misty. We spoke to the academic about numbers and other loves in his life. 

PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

Mathematics  It’s beautiful. It’s just so dreamy. I can’t think of a better word for it. Mathematics on the one hand is really rigorous. In mathematics you have precise definitions. But once you get past that precision and you agree on the rules, you can really dream in a big way. I can think of theorems that I can prove to you. So I know they’re true. But I can’t believe that I still find it hard to rationally believe they’re true. It’s full of wonder.

A.J. Coleman    My thesis advisor in grad school was really important. I went to Queens University in Kingston on Lake Ontario. I basically went there to study with him. I had gotten interested in a couple of different areas of mathematics, but one was group representations. This guy was well known in the field, so I started a correspondence with him. He was Canadian, very proudly. And he was extremely interested in politics. He ran for the Canadian Parliament, almost won.

Catastrophe Theory   It was created by René Thom, a French mathematician who had won the Fields Medal. This was all the rage before chaos theory. You used it to model all kinds of rapid changes—disease outbreak, earthquakes, supernova, the explosion of gossip, turnover. In some ways it was applied sort of willy-nilly, but the math was what was really intriguing. I did my master’s thesis on applying catastrophe theory to phase transition, like when water boils or ice melts or something turns into crystals.

Mount Holyoke   It was a women’s college. The chief reason I took the job was there were a number of other colleges nearby. It wasn’t a research institution, but I really liked the people. I spent most of the next 30 years at that school. That was a kind of transformative place for me, because I had never been in a woman’s institution. You never realized how gendered this world is, and how much more complicated women’s careers are. I realized that all at once.

Dean Duty  My parents were immigrants. So we had no choice about getting educated, but they could care less about money and I could care less about finances. But when my kids got a little older, I realized that I had to pay for college for them. I was vacationing when the dean’s position opened up and people asked me to stand for it. I refused, but they mentioned a couple of other people that would have been really disastrous. The new president at the college encouraged me to try it. I had two kids in college, so I took the job.

Bill Thurston  I knew about New College because it produced a number of mathematicians who were wonderful. One who was truly famous was Bill Thurston. He thought about things in an entirely different way. And he completely revolutionized three- and four-dimensional topology and geometry. He gave a lot of gratitude to New College, and he talked about it a lot.

Public Education  Mount Holyoke’s tuition is much more expensive than here. It was bothering me. New College seemed interesting because it was public and is very affordable. I underestimated the challenges of running a public institution in Florida. But this place was and still is very interesting. It’s a high quality public liberal arts institution in a state where many people think liberal is not such a good thing, and where arts are not always a very good thing. And it’s supported by the state.

Mary O’Shea  We’re celebrating our 40th anniversary. We met while I was a graduate student in Kingston. She’s my best friend by a long shot. She’s very creative and interested in the arts, not at all disciplined, and I tend to lean more towards the more cautious end of things. She credits herself as saying whatever she
thinks and that’s partly true.

The Mathematical Community There are many more medical doctors than there are mathematicians—orders of magnitude more. But because of that, if you are working in a particular area of mathematics, there might be 200 or 300 people doing that in the world, and you know them all. It’s a very diverse community because it’s driven by a love of the subject. We end up keeping tabs on each other.

Paris I grew up in Canada, so when I hear French it feels like home. I go a lot of places
for mathematics, and I used to go to France a lot. It’s one of the great mathematical centers of the world. And I like the food. And if you walk around in China, it’s obvious you are not from there. You can pull it off in Paris.