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Professor wins prestigious global mathematics prize

ROLLO DAVIDSON PRIZE: Balint Virag was honoured for his expertise in probability. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Mary Ann Gratton

Mathematics professor Balint Virag of U of T Scarborough has been named the recipient of the prestigious Rollo Davidson Prize, awarded each year for research in the field of probability by the University of Cambridge.

The award recognizes outstanding research by a young probabilist. Virag shares this year’s award with his colleague and co-author, Professor Brian Rider of the University of Colorado at Boulder. The prize is determined at Cambridge by a selection committee comprised of probabilists.

“It was completely unexpected – it seemed to fall from the sky into my lap,” said Virag. “Candidates don’t know that they are being considered, so I was very happy to hear this news. The previous winners are my mathematical heroes, so it’s a thrill to join this lineup and be in such great company.”

The prize was established in honour of the late Rollo Davidson, an accomplished British mathematician of remarkable potential who was a Fellow of Churchill College at the University of Cambridge. The young life of the promising scholar and adventurer was cut short by a mountain climbing accident on the Piz Bernina range in the Swiss Alps.

Virag also enjoys hiking and the great outdoors, although he is not a mountain climber. “I find that mathematicians tend to enjoy activities that aren’t too flashy, so you won’t see us zipping around the speedway in race cars. Recreational hiking is popular among mathematicians, and I think it’s because we enjoy finding mathematical patterns in nature, along with observing elements of randomness.”

A father of three, Virag has been with the University of Toronto since 2003, and is appointed to the Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences at U of T Scarborough, as well as to the graduate departments of Mathematics and Statistics on the St. George campus.

Originally from Budapest, Hungary, Virag moved the United States in 1992, where he earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard University, his graduate degree at Berkeley, and a postdoctoral degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2003 he was named a Canada Research Chair in Probability. His wife, Curie Virag, is also a U of T professor. She teaches in both the departments of History and East Asian Studies on the St. George campus.

Balint Virag’s area of expertise is in the area of mathematical probability. Probability is described as the likelihood or chance that something is the case or will happen, and probability theory is used extensively in areas such as statistics, mathematics, science and philosophy to draw conclusions about the likelihood of potential events and the underlying mechanics of complex systems.

Both Rider and Virag were recognized for their contributions to Random Matrix Theory, which is an area of probability theory and statistics dealing with matrices that have random entries. Many important properties of physical systems and nature can be represented mathematically as matrix problems.

He focuses on probability and geometry. “I like to say that probability is anything you can lose money on, whereas geometry is anything you can put into your mouth.” Virag does not buy lottery tickets, but he does enjoy observing and following something called “opinion markets” or “prediction markets,” although he does not actually play these markets. “They’re a bit like the stock market, where you can bet on things like whether Barack Obama will win the next presidential election in the U.S.”

Mathematics has been Virag’s passion for years. When he was growing up in Hungary, his father gave him a magazine that published math problems and invited readers to send in solutions. At the age of 12, he started grappling with the problems and regularly mailed in his attempts to solve them. “These exercises helped me a great deal in developing my math skills,” he said. Credit should also be given to a former high school teacher, Laszlo Suranyi, whom Virag describes as a “great mentor.”

“I’ve always liked puzzles and riddles,” he said. “It’s very satisfying to find concepts and theories that become clear and concise to you. It’s the quest to solve these puzzles that I enjoy. It’s like hunting for buried treasure.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough