Last Thursday we held the convocation for the 2017 University of Calgary graduates in Kinesiology and Science. During this ceremony, we also conferred an honorary degree on William Pulleyblank, an alumnus with stellar accomplishments in theoretical computer science.
I noted that Professor Robert Woodrow helped prepare the nomination package for Dr. Pulleyblank. Robert first met William many years ago as an undergraduate student in the Department of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science. His encounters with William made a lasting impression.
I asked Robert Woodrow if he would share his thoughts about why he helped nominate William Pulleyblank for an honorary degree. This is what Robert had to say about this remarkable mathematician and computer scientist:
On Thursday, June 8 an honorary doctorate was awarded to William Pulleyblank, an alumnus (BA 1968, MSc 1969) of the University of Calgary. I participated in that convocation ceremony as a member of the platform party and was pleased to see my friend Bill so honoured.
My educational path intersected with Bill’s in the late 1960s when I started as a freshman at our university in 1967 and then joined the Department of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science in 1968. Bill was working on his master’s degree in the department at that time and was already somewhat of a legend amongst the honours math students, having made an impressive showing on the Putnam Mathematical Competition, one of the world’s most prestigious university-level mathematics competitions.
Bill was also well known amongst us for teaching the professors – an interesting story from the early days in the department. One day the Dean of Science had invited the Head of Computer Science, Dr. Richard Guy, Bill, me and some other colleagues for a breakfast meeting and tour. As we were walking back to the math department after breakfast, the topic of Bill teaching Fortran to a group of professors and researchers came up. We recalled that Dr. Guy had earlier stated that learning Fortran couldn’t be that hard. Richard then boldly claimed that he could write a computer program that would run correctly on his first try. Being the much younger expert, Bill offered to buy a round of coffee for all 20 members of our group if Dr. Guy could do just that. Richard took up the challenge and promptly wrote a program that did indeed run on its first attempt.
Bill made reference to this bet in last week’s convocation address. Laughing, Richard Guy added that all the programs he’s written in his life (and by the way, Richard turned 100 years old last year) have run the first time—because he only wrote that one!
Bill was also employed as a Research Assistant to Richard Guy using ‘computer methods’ to generate examples in number theory and combinatorics, an area that is now called ‘experimental mathematics’. Many of us remember Richard’s two calculating computers which were programmed by students and noisily chugged away spitting out results every few weeks.
Bill then went off to the University of Waterloo to do a PhD in mathematical optimization with Jack Edmonds, one of the pioneers in the field. Since I had graduated and went off to do a PhD of my own, I was not in Calgary when Bill was re-hired by the Department in 1974. It was at this time that Computer Science became a department on its own. When I did come on faculty in 1980, Bill was already established as a prominent leader in this new Department. I fondly recall that he was always willing to engage in discussions about the directions our fields should take — suffice it to say there were some interesting exchanges.
In 1982, the University of Waterloo enticed Bill back. Then in 1990 he took a research position at IBM for the opportunity to apply his work in Computer Science and Mathematical Optimization to the real world.
Despite these career moves to the forefront of his field, Bill’s association with the University of Calgary did not end. He and his wife still have family in our city. He also enjoys returning often to exchange ideas with several colleagues and particularly with Dr. Richard Guy, for whom he had worked as a student. Bill has always been interested in providing solutions to difficult problems with a practical application that is rooted in good mathematics using the computer as a tool to make the job possible – in hindsight a natural evolution from his early years with Dr. Guy. It is not hard to imagine a line from this early work with Richard to his leadership of the IBM teams that applied super computers to solve major mathematical problems in what is now known as Analytics, or Big Data. This vision was clearly central in two examples about ‘forecasting the future’ that he cited in his convocation address to the graduating class.
When Bill retired from IBM, he accepted a distinguished civilian chair at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY. Not only does this position give him a chance to continue his work, but also to return to his love of influencing future generations of researchers. The day after the University of Calgary convocation ceremony, he gave a public talk on recent research work on the optimal structuring of sports leagues into conferences and divisions in order to create schedules that minimize travel costs for the leagues’ teams.
Dr. Gordon Sick, a freshman classmate of mine from 1967, contacted former dean Ken Barker, Richard Guy and me a couple of years ago and asked whether we thought nominating Bill Pulleyblank for an honorary degree from the University of Calgary would be a good idea. We all agreed this was a ‘no brainer’ and helped Gordon put the nomination package together and forward it to our university senate for consideration.
Several months ago, I was visiting an emeritus professor colleague at West Point to help celebrate a major birthday. Bill and his wife Diane had been invited to the same celebration. Over dinner, Bill mentioned that he had a phone call booked the next day with the president or chancellor or someone from the University of Calgary. I asked if the person might be Robert Thirsk. When he answered yes, I immediately suspected what the call would be about. Knowing the top-secret nature of the honorary degree approval process, I could only wish that he’d find it an interesting conversation.