
Professor Balant Virag of UTSC has won the CoxeterJames Prize from the Canadian Mathematical Society. 
by Mary Ann Gratton
The Canadian Mathematical Society (CMS) has named mathematics
professor Balint Virag of the University of Toronto
Scarborough the recipient of this year’s CoxeterJames
Prize.
The national prize recognizes an outstanding research contribution by
a young mathematician, and will be presented at a ceremony during the
annual CMS meeting, to be held this year in Fredericton, New
Brunswick. As the prize recipient, Virag will be invited to deliver a
lecture at the event, held June 4 to 6.
“I was very happy, but they asked me to keep it a secret until
the official announcement, so I could not jump around in the hallway
or openly celebrate it in any way,” Virag laughs. “What
makes me happiest is that I am in very good company, since many of the
past recipients are great mathematicians whose work I
admire.”
Virag is a Canada Research Chair in Probability, and his area of
expertise lies in the field of mathematical probability – the
likelihood or chance that something will happen. Probability theory is
used extensively in statistics, mathematics, science and philosophy to
draw conclusions about the likelihood of potential events and the
underlying mechanics of complex systems.
Virag has also been recognized for his contributions to Random Matrix
Theory, 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. In 2008, Virag was named the recipient of the
prestigious Rollo Davidson Prize, a global award presented to a
probabilist from the University of Cambridge.
The CoxeterJames Prize is named after Donald Coxeter,
the seventh CMS president, considered one of the great
geometers of the 20th Century, and Ralph Duncan James,
the fifth CMS president, who diligently promoted the
development of mathematics.
“We studied a lot of planar geometry in high school, and it is
one of the most beautiful parts of mathematics,” Virag says.
“Coxeter was perhaps the last giant in this area, and I’ve
had his book since I was 15 years old. Planar geometry is still a
great inspiration for my current research.”
“Balint Virag is a prime example of a young mathematician who is
making a real impact on mathematics,’ noted David
Brydges, chair of the CMS research committee. “Even as
a graduate student, he produced important work in probability theory
in the domain of random walks. Today he is part of an active and
notable probability and statistics research group at the University of
Toronto.”
Originally from Hungary, he earned his BA in mathematics from Harvard
in 1996 and his PhD from Berkeley, focusing on random walks on graphs
of exponential growth. He has been with UTSC since 2003, and is also
appointed to the graduate departments of Mathematics and Statistics on
the St. George campus.
Virag says his favorite part of UTSC is “the students –
they are very hard working and conscientious. I always feel that the
effort I put into teaching does not go wasted.”
Professor Vassos Hadzilacos, chair of the computer
and mathematical sciences department at UTSC, notes that the
CoxeterJames Prize has been awarded nine times to mathematicians with
a current or past U of T affiliation since its inception in 1978.
“That’s remarkable,” says Hadzilacos. “Even
more remarkable, however, is the fact that three of these are UTSC
mathematicians.” Virag joins professors Lisa Jeffrey and Paul
Selick – recipients of the 2002 and 1985 CoxeterJames Prize,
respectively. “I’m delighted to congratulate Professor
Virag for this award, which is one more feather in his cap, and
transitively, another one for our department as well.”