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Durham University

Durham University News


Sculpture honouring work of world renowned Durham maths professor unveiled

(9 March 2012)

Dr Gillian Boughton with the Willmore sculpture

The work of a former Durham University mathematician whose ideas are studied across the world has been commemorated with the unveiling of a new sculpture.

Professor Tom Willmore, a former Head of the Department of Mathematical Sciences and Dean of Sciences at the University, is internationally renowned among mathematicians for his work in the field of differential geometry.

As a result Willmore Surfaces and the Willmore Conjecture have become well known mathematical concepts.

Professor Willmore, whose long connection with Durham began with a lectureship in 1946, died in 2005, aged 85, and a postgraduate scholarship fund was set up in his name.

His widow, Dr Gillian Boughton, students, and mathematician Professor Franz Pedit unveiled a sculpture of a Willmore Surface outside the Calman Learning Centre, Durham University Science Site, on Wednesday, March 14.

The granite sculpture, designed by County Durham-based artist Peter Sales and produced by local firm North East Granite, depicts a four-lobed Willmore torus - a symmetric Willmore Surface.

A portrait of Professor Willmore, which was commissioned in the late 1990s and was thought until recently to have been lost, has also gone on display inside the Calman Learning Centre.

Dr Boughton, Vice-Principal of St Mary's College, Durham University, said: "Tom was a remarkable man and I am extremely proud that his work is still studied across the world while the scholarship fund set up in his name is helping to develop the mathematicians of the future.

"Tom had a gift for engaging people in mathematics and this remarkable sculpture is a fitting tribute to his achievements.

"Personally, I am also deeply happy to loan Tom's portrait which is a beautiful and remarkable likeness and a wonderful reminder of his contribution to the history of Durham University."

The Willmore torus sculpture is part of a series of public artworks planned as part of the wider refurbishment of the University's Science Site and development of the new Palatine Centre, Law School and Library extension on Stockton Road.

The unveiling of the sculpture followed a public lecture by Professor Pedit (University of Massachusetts Amherst and University of Tuebingen), in the Calman Learning Centre, entitled "The Willmore Conjecture - the first fifty years". 

Professor Pedit explained, in broad terms, some of the mathematical ideas underlying the sculpture's shape and its discovery.

Durham is one of the leading Mathematical Sciences departments in the UK and was ranked in the Top 10 for mathematics in the country according to The Complete University Guide 2012.

Professor Paul Mansfield, Head of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Durham University, said: "Tom Willmore's work demonstrates both the underlying unity of mathematics and the fact that deep mathematical insights are often inspired by nature.

"The surfaces named after him arise from a problem in elasticity and yet they have applications in such diverse fields as Einstein's theory of general relativity and cell biology.

"Studying them led Tom to an important conjecture in geometry which continues to inspire research to this day, both in the thriving pure mathematics group here in Durham, which he did so much to establish, and throughout the world."

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