The language of mathematics

Iian Smythe, assistant professor, Department of Mathematics and Statistics

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Dr. Iian Smythe grew up in Winnipeg and earned a bachelor of mathematics from the University of Manitoba with a minor in philosophy.

“Then I moved to the United States and did a master’s and PhD in mathematics at Cornell University,” Smythe says. “It was very intimidating before it started. There was certainly a level of imposter syndrome, of not thinking I was cut out to be there or that I just got lucky.”

“But when I got there, and I met my fellow incoming class of graduate students, and I started taking classes, I actually felt very prepared ... I was doing basically as well as everyone else,” he says.

Before coming to work at the University of Winnipeg (U of W), Smythe worked as a postdoc for five years: he spent three years at Rutgers University in New Jersey and two years at the University of Michigan. He learned more about teaching during this time.

“I wanted to tell the students everything. I wanted to give them everything I knew ... And that’s really too much. What I’ve learned over time talking to students and seeing what they absorb and what they didn’t absorb is you have to pare away the inessential things,” Smythe says. “I actually say a lot less in class than I used to.”

Watching his students learn, he says, “is a real miracle.”

Now, Smythe works at the U of W as an assistant professor with the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. “I work in mathematical logic.”

“Mathematical logic is all about language and how language is used in mathematics. The big takeaway of the whole field, or the driving impetus of the field, is that the language we use in mathematics, all the symbols we write, the structure of that, in turn, tells us a lot about the mathematics we do, and especially and most interestingly about the mathematics we can’t do. Much of the field is defined by looking at the limits of what’s possible.”

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

“Probably the most cliché answer: flight ... In an airplane, I always take the window seat.”

What do you do in your spare time?

“Music takes up a lot of my spare time. I don’t play anymore, but I listen to a lot of music. I go to shows as much as I can ... and I collect records.”

Where do you see yourself in five years?

“I left Winnipeg when I was 22, and I moved back at 33. And I really hope that in five years I’m more a part of Winnipeg than I was when I left.”

Published in Volume 77, Number 20 of The Uniter (March 2, 2023)

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