History of the School

The early Cold War was a good time to found a School of Mathematics. People were very appreciative of anything that could be done to speed up calculations for nuclear reactions, or to give our young scientists an edge. With few other universities being founded, it was also an ideal time to pick up some of the refugee scientists displaced by the events of the War and earlier. The energy of the Vice-Chancellor, Philip Baxter, in securing some of the best of these itinerant geniuses formed the basis of UNSW’s early takeoff and eventual rise to overtake the reputation of Another Metropolitan University.

In Mathematics, the newcomers included John Blatt and George Szekeres. Blatt, an Austrian and originally a theoretical nuclear physicist, had a forceful personality that appealed to Baxter and was appointed foundation Professor of Applied Mathematics (1959-84). His energy soon made UNSW a leader in such applied fields as optimal control and mathematical computing. He also attracted to UNSW the leading Hungarian pure mathematician, George Szekeres, an expert in the expanding field of combinatorics. George, who passed away in 2005, was awarded an AM in the 2002 honours list. Those early efforts proved a sound foundation for the School’s later strengths such as functional analysis and algebra (in Pure Mathematics) and numerical analysis and optimization (in Applied).

Statistics has been a crucial part of the School from the beginning. The late Jim B. Douglas recalled being on deck in 1949 to teach advanced students. He was appointed Associate Professor of Mathematical Statistics in 1959. The first courses in Statistics taught within UNSW were Post-Diploma - one even operated in 1948, the University's first year of teaching. A major sequence with specialisation in Statistics in the B.A. and B.Sc. was introduced in 1956, with the first Honours graduate in 1963. The Master of Statistics degree was introduced in 1969. Supervision for research degrees was available quite early, the first M.Sc. being awarded in 1956, the first M.A. in 1969, and the first Ph.D. in 1964. The first D.Sc. in Statistics was awarded in 1977.

From the beginning, as well as much effort being devoted to the development and teaching of statistical theory, there was substantial emphasis on the application of Statistics. Consequently, throughout its history there has been extensive utilisation of the latest computing facilities in teaching and research. Consultative work with industry, business, the public service and with research projects in other University units has always played an important role in helping focus the research activities within Statistics, and also in providing stimulation and direction to teaching.

Unusually among Schools of Mathematics and Statistics, UNSW has vigorously pursued one very applied specialty, meteorology and oceanography. Work in the Climate Change Research Centre - which evolved out of the School - aims to get the “big picture” of the interaction between oceans and the atmosphere, which drives such global phenomena as El Niño.

Other centres connected to the School are the the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Mathematics and Statistics of Complex Systems (MASCOS) and the Australian Centre for Commercial Mathematics (ACCM). Professor Ian Sloan is MASCOS' Deputy Director, and the Centre has research interests in risk modelling, critical phenomena, dynamical systems and complex networks. The ACCM was established in 2011, and it aims to conduct projects with industry in order to solve complex problems utilising advanced mathematics and statistics. 

The School has also been active in interactions with high school education, with members taking a leading part in HSC exams and in defending syllabuses against “dumbing down”. The magazine Parabola has been providing enrichment material for talented high school students since 1964. Baxter said at the launch, “There is a world-wide shortage of both [scientists and mathematicians], particularly of mathematicians, which, if it is not met by the present generation of students, will continue to retard the rate of technological advance for many years to come.” That is still true, as many more sciences have gained mathematical sophistication – bioinformatics being only the latest example.

In 1998, the School moved to the Red Centre (above), an attractive and airy building in the middle of lower campus. These days, number crunching is all about clicking on the coloured icons instead of sweating over punched cards (but still, the need to understand what the algorithms are doing is as strong as ever). The School in fact was a leader in introducing symbolic calculation packages to teaching – Maple, the package mostly used, is capable of getting a substantial HSC mark on its own, and does a good job of taking away some of the drudgery of integrating and solving equations.

The School was heavily involved in ICIAM 2003, the 5th International Congress on Industrial and Applied Mathematics, which was the biggest mathematical meeting ever held in Australia. UNSW mathematician Ian Sloan was the international president of ICIAM, the sponsoring organisation, from 2003-2007. The School also hosted the inaugural Pacific Rim Mathematical Association (PRIMA) Congress in 2009.

More recently, some of our staff members have been using YouTube as a learning resource in order to facilitate students’ understanding of mathematics. Visit Our Academics on YouTube to see them in action.

The past is out there ...

Obituaries