Beyond Imagination - a celebration of Professor William Tutte's 100th birthday

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The recognition was long overdue. In fact, it was a century in the making.

Tutte lecture

Professor William (Bill) Tutte’s seemingly impossible intellectual feat of cracking the Nazi’s code using nothing but brain power, hastening the end of World War II by about two years and saving millions of lives, and his subsequent role as a founding member of the University’s Combinatorics and Optimization department within the Faculty of Mathematics, made Tutte one of the Faculty’s most legendary, albeit, immensely humble, founders. In the afternoon of Friday, May 12, as friends, colleagues, local government, alumni, students, staff, and the public looked on, Tutte was honoured through the naming of the road connecting all three Math buildings to “William Tutte Way”.

“We found it fitting that we used the occasion of Tutte’s one hundredth birthday to provide the recognition he so richly deserves—not just for his extraordinary, life-saving achievements during WWII, but also the instrumental role he played in establishing the identity and reputation of the Faculty of Mathematics,” said Stephen Watt, Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics.

Speakers from the Department of Combintorics and Optimization, the David Cheriton School of Computer Science, and even the University of Waterloo’s inaugural alumnus, Ron Mullin paid tribute to the modest mathematician recognized the world over for his academic achievements.

Remote video URL

In addition to the unveiling ceremony, the day opened with a talk by professor Dan Younger entitled Bill Tutte and the Breaking of the Lorenz code at Bletchley Park. The unveiling ceremony hosted by Dean Stephen M. Watt was followed by a screening of the 2011 documentary Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes and panel discussion. Math students organized a scavenger hunt in honour of Tutte, a noted games enthusiast, and faculty members were invited to the Tutte's 100th Distinguished Lecture Series talkLine Search in Polymatroids by Michel GoemansMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

It was a day of celebration and reflection. It was also a day to look to the future that Tutte’s work had made possible.

Tutte road naming ceremony guests

“It is my great hope that the students who make their way along William Tutte Way will have the same opportunities to change the course of history, for the betterment of us all. Just as Tutte did,” said Watt.

In his address, Watt reminded the crowd that universities are much more than collections of roads and buildings, books and equipment. They are places of inspiration and ideas, discoveries and breakthroughs. A place where curiosities are ignited and possibilities are unlocked. This was especially true for Tutte, who from the tender age of ten was determined to not let the opportunities and prospects afforded through education pass him by, no matter the barrier.

Though an exceptionally gifted student, Tutte was been born into modest means. He received a life-changing scholarship at ten, the first in a series that he would receive throughout his academic journey. As such, in Tutte’s honour, Watt announced that the Faculty of Mathematics aims to launch an undergraduate scholarship that will be awarded to the top student each year in combinatorics.

“Selection for the William Tutte Undergraduate Award in Combinatorics will be taken very seriously, and the award will not be given out in years where there is not an exceptional candidate,” said Watt. “The aim of the award is to relieve financial pressure for its recipient, allowing them the time for intense focus—to engage fully in their education.”

Tutte road plaque unveiling

It was felt that this award, complemented by the existing graduate scholarship, would ensure that Tutte’s greatest successes do not lie only in the past. That, as the Faculty continues to move forward, to push forward, the young women and men that join Tutte on his incredible journey will blaze great trails of innovation that the world has not seen – yet. 

As such, following in the William Tutte Way.