Department van Wiskundige Wetenskappe

Wiskunde

In memory of Thomas Masiwa

Thomas Masiwa enrolled as a PhD student in the Mathematics Division at Stellenbosch in March 2010. He passed away on the 2nd of April 2012.

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Memories of Thomas, by Gavin Hitchcock 

It was as Editor of Zimaths Magazine that I sensed something quite out of the ordinary about an isolated rural school called Rufaro Secondary School in Mazvingo Province. With no previous University connections or Olympiad tradition this school began featuring remarkably regularly in the Magazine, with Rufaro pupils (working in teams of two or three) winning prizes for Readers’ Problems or the Zimaths Competition, and an obviously inspirational teacher behind them solving a series of difficult problems with insight and panache.

Here are a few of the problems that one “Masiwa T” solved prior to any university qualification and yet (as the Editor wrote before having met him) “showing all the qualities of a true mathematician”:

(1)  I am at O and wish to travel to B. The road CB makes an angle α with OB. If I can travel along the road at r times the speed I can travel along any cross-country route OA to join the road, what is the departure angle θ at O that gives shortest travelling time along OAB?

(2)  Prove that if a prime is expressible as a sum of two squares then this expression is unique.

(3)  Given a set of m+1 positive integers not greater than 2m, there is always at least one integer from the set that is divisible by some other integer from the set. Prove or exhibit a counterexample.

This last combinatorics problem in the Magazine’s “Open Competition” had stumped  UZ  Mathematics Department colleagues, and was (I believe) originally posed by Paul Erdös. Thomas’s solutions were always elegant and expounded with a teacher’s concern for heuristic as well as logical justification. He also contributed some excellent articles for Zimaths: between 2000 and 2004 he wrote at least ten pieces including some linking mathematics with African traditional games and counting methods, and some expounding such non-routine topics as functional equations. While still at Rufaro he had taken over from the legendary Richard Knottenbelt the running of Zimbabwe’s lively (and only surviving) provincial maths society – the Masvingo Mathematics Society, with its own annual competition. At last (his problem-solving prowess exhibited in Zimaths played a part here) he managed to enrol part-time in the Zimbabwe Open University, and then his ambition (and mine!) was fulfilled when we admitted him to the UZ Mathematics Honours programme. His first class degree led naturally to an MPhil, working with Professor Alastair Stewart in group theory. During his years at the UZ the country was undergoing severe crisis, and it took great courage and many sacrifices for Thomas and his wife and two very young children, from whom he was separated for long periods.

Once he had joined us in the Mathematics Department Thomas became indispensable in the setting and marking of  problems in the Zimbabwe Mathematics Olympiad, and he soon became a driving force in the Olympiad programme, which was always a struggle against extreme political and financial odds. He became my right-hand man in running the national Talent Search and training camps, and I had every expectation he would one day be that rare sort of academic leader who, in addition to conducting his own research with distinction, would have a heart for seeking out and nurturing young talent. On a number of occasions he led a Zimbabwe team to Olympiad training camps in South Africa. He was Deputy Leader of the Zimbabwe Team for the Pan African Mathematical Olympiad in Pretoria (2002), and subsequently led teams to PAMOs (whenever we could raise the money to take part)  in Tunis and Dakar. In 2009 he was the team leader for the first and only participation of Zimbabwe in the International Mathematical Olympiad in Bremen in 2009.

It was a great delight to me and to Alastair Stewart when the University of Stellenbosch made it possible for Thomas to embark upon doctoral studies with Andrew Fransman, and we are deeply grateful to Andrew, Ingrid Rewitzky and others for offering Thomas the mentoring and the rich mathematical community experience he deserved and enjoyed for the last two years of his life. I personally feel I have lost a friend, student, colleague, and unmatched co-conspirator in mathematical talent search.

Gavin Hitchcock lectured in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Zimbabwe from 1972 until 2007 and was Editor of Zimaths Magazine from its founding in 1996. He is currently Assistant Director: Training at SACEMA (South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis).

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Thomas enrolled as a Ph. D student in Mathematics at US under my supervision in March 2010. The title of his thesis was: “On extensions of products of totally permutable groups”.

He was an extremely hardworking student and was planning to return to Zimbabwe after successfully completed his doctoral studies at Stellenbosch. During the past two years his progress was remarkable.  He reported on his work in the form of a poster presentation at the Diversity in Mathematics Conference at AIMS (midyear 2010), a conference presentation at the 53rd Annual Congress of SAMS (University of Pretoria, 3-5 November 2010) and a workshop presentation at “A morning in Algebra Conference” at the University of Stellenbosch in March 2011. He also was on a two months Research visit at AIMS between 1 November and 31 December 2011, where he did another presentation on his results.

Thomas was on a three month research visit to the the University of Valencia in Spain between March and May 2012 as part of his Ph.D program. It was during this visit that he became so sick that he consequently had to return to South Africa, where sadly passed away at the Stellenbosch Provincial Hospital.

The sudden death of Thomas Masiwa was really a tragedy and it is so sad that he was unable to fulfil his dreams to complete his Ph.D studies at Stellenbosch and to plough back his expertise in his beloved country Zimbabwe.

Andrew Fransman, PhD supervisor

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Thomas Masiwa was an active postgraduate Mathematics student. He regularly attended the postgraduate seminar and was always trying to engage with the speaker. His postgraduate seminar talk “On the Frattini-like subgroup” on 4th April 2011 was well received and covered the material from his poster presentation at the conference.

Thomas was also an active member of the mathematics undergraduate society Wiskus, attending many of the talks, and delivering a talk himself in April 2010 entitled “Maths for fun – sequences, Fibonacci and the World Cup”.

I will miss his enthusiastic presence in the department and the discussions we used to have in the tea-room.

Bruce Bartlett, postgraduate coordinator in Mathematics division

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Pictures of Thomas


Thomas at the Algebra Day at Stellenbosch on 18 March 2011.


Thomas at the cablecar station on Table Mountain, with Robben Island in the background.


Thomas giving a presentation a during his stay at AIMS.


Thomas giving a presentation a during his stay at AIMS.