2001 Stelson Lecture - Robert Osserman
Robert Osserman wrote his PhD thesis on the subject of Riemann surfaces under the direction of Lars V. Ahlfors at Harvard University. He continued to work on geometric function theory and later on differential geometry, combining the two in a new global theory of minimal surfaces. Bob has also worked on the isoperimetric inequality and related geometric questions. After obtaining his PhD, he joined the faculty of Stanford University and has been there ever since, with periods of leave to serve as Head of the Mathematics Branch at the Office of Naval Research, Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Paris and Guggenheim Fellow at the University of Warwick.
In 1987, he was named Mellon Professor for Interdisciplinary Studies, and in 1990 he joined MSRI as half-time Deputy Director.
He is currently Professor Emeritus at Stanford, and in 1995 he took on the new position of Special Projects Director at MSRI. He has been increasingly involved with outreach activities to the general public, starting with the Fermat Fest in 1993 and the subsequent production of a videotape with accompanying booklet. In 1999 he engaged in a public conversation with playwright Tom Stoppard on Mathematics in Arcadia, which is also available on videotape, and a second public event, a Dialog on Galileo: Science, Mathematics, History and Drama in association with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and their production of the play “Galileo” by Bertolt Brecht.
In recent years he developed and taught a new course at Stanford- jointly with a physicist and engineer, designed to present mathematics, science, and technology to a non-technical audience. A portion of the course was elaborated in a best-selling book, entitled “Poetry of the Universe - A Mathematical Exploration of the Cosmos” intended to provide the general public with an introduction to cosmology - focusing on a number of mathematical ideas that have played a key role.
The Shape of the Universe
Mathematics plays a major role in formulating and modeling real-world problems--but models are never right the first time. So mathematics also enters in speeding up complicated calculations, optimizing whatever the current model may be, figuring out its defects, and then producing a more realistic model.