Nerds of Mizzou
Celebrating our best, brightest and geekiest faculty
Professor Peter Casazza and his wife, fellow MU mathematician Janet Tremain, conduct mathematical research 14 hours a day, pausing only to eat, sleep and care for their pet bunnies.
Think pocket protectors and brainpower because geek is now officially chic. As a "cool" nerd assumes the presidency, the shifting sands of American pop culture decree that nerdy is in. Gosh! Let the Napoleon Dynamites of the world rejoice.
In celebration of this trend, we introduce the first in a series featuring the Nerds of Mizzou.
Meet world-class mathematician Professor Peter Casazza.
Peter Casazza embraces his inner nerd
Mathematics is an infinite high for Casazza, who proclaims it his obsession. He accepts the nerd designation and proudly co-directs a project encouraging mathematicians to come to terms with their nerdiness.
Casazza is co-editor and contributing author of a proposed book examining how mathematicians and the public view the profession; the Mathematical Association of America endorses the endeavor.
Casazza’s chapter, “A Mathematician’s Survival Guide,” deals with the geek factor. “The word nerd arose so people would have at least some definable category to put us into,” Casazza wrote. “This partly comes with the territory. The very traits that make us good at mathematics work against us in society.”
Those traits would be logic, confidence, a bit of arrogance and a level of obsessive-compulsive behavior.
Every day starts with mental gymnastics for Casazza and his research colleague, wife Janet Tremain, also a mathematician.
Because they speak a strange math language, their work remains a mystery to laymen. “It is almost impossible to tell a non-mathematician what we are doing,” Casazza wrote. “They don’t have the patience or blackboard space to contain the 12 definitions we need to begin the discussion.
“And if we really try to explain ourselves, we just look even more abnormal to someone who cannot comprehend why anyone in this universe — or any parallel universe — could possibly derive excitement from this.”
Mathematicians may see themselves as different, Casazza says, and people around them notice the differences, too.
A case in point: Casazza loves his work so much that he can’t wait to get to it. He started getting up at 5 a.m. so he could complete two hours of research before heading to Mizzou. Then he figured that getting up at 4 a.m. gave him an extra hour. After 36 years of doing mathematics, he now retires for the night at 2 p.m. and gets up at 10 p.m.
“Pretty soon I won’t have to go to bed since I will be getting up at that time,” he says.
No. 1 worldwide
Casazza and Tremain work on a dozen academic papers simultaneously, spreading out their tidy stacks of research on the dining room table. Casazza is considered an international expert on frame theory.
In his specialty, frame theory, Casazza is at the top of his field worldwide. Industrial entities, universities and engineers request his expertise for industrial applications of math frames to improve signal and image processing.
The remarkable breadth of Casazza’s work spans a dozen areas of research. In the past few years, he has had more than 35 co-authors.
Casazza’s peer researchers describe his work as amazing. Says Chris Heil of the Georgia Institute of Technology, “Pete has brought something new to almost every part of frame theory.”
Professor Gitta Kutyniok of Princeton University agrees. “Pete Casazza is the current worldwide leader in frame theory; in fact he is frame theory,” she says. “No event in this field takes place without him as a plenary speaker, and one of his essays on frame theory is the most-cited one in frame theory to date.”
In applications, frames are mathematical objects used for digitalizing information and can help eliminate transmission problems in cell phones, computers and MRIs.
In 2006 Casazza and collaborators, MU Professor Dan Edidin and Radu Balan of Siemens Corporate Research, gained worldwide publicity for insights into a famous frame problem. The Cocktail Party Problem seeks to separate individual voices from a noisy crowd while retaining the distinct vocal characteristics of each. The research has a vast number of potential applications in homeland security, hearing aids and the recording industry.
The genius factor
By age 5, Casazza was doing calculations that his parents couldn’t understand, but he claims his abilities don't make him exceptional.
“I’m not a genius,” Casazza says. “I’m an above-average intelligent person who works harder.”
Most mathematicians work on one paper at a time. Years ago, Casazza decided to write twice as many papers simultaneously as other mathematicians. He’s at 12 now.
Casazza has an office at Mizzou and two offices at home; however, to work on the 12 papers he spreads them out on an enormous table in his dining room, where he can move from one problem to another. He works 14 hours a day, every day without variation. That includes holidays.
Pop culture abyss
“We have zero life. We don’t do anything but math,” Casazza says of the daily routine he and his wife keep. Tremain is a senior researcher in Casazza’s newly established Frame Research Center at MU.
“We work on exactly the same things all the time and so are together most of the time most days,” he says. “For most people, this much time together would probably end in divorce.”
Pop culture has pretty much passed them by. Casazza can’t remember which movie they last saw. The couple doesn’t socialize or watch television. Because they refuse to let their lives be controlled by the telephone, they don’t answer it; they check for messages occasionally.
Casazza’s clothing choices reflect a need to save time. He wears button-less pullover shirts and pull-on track pants. An elastic band behind his head holds Casazza’s eyeglasses in place and saves him from having to reposition the glasses when he moves too quickly. Once when he broke his frames, he wrapped the break in duct tape. It stayed there for months.
The couple adopted Jumbo, the largest member of the bunny brood, when the landlord of one of Casazza's students evicted the pet. The bunnies have two bedrooms, a playroom and their own refrigerator.
But math isn’t this world-class mathematician’s only obsession. He and his wife have another deep interest: bunnies.
Bunny love began when a baby rabbit ran through Casazza’s dog door onto a screened-in porch. The wild visitor stayed for breakfast and returned time after time for handouts. Eventually Tremain replaced it with a domestic version.
The pets kept multiplying. Casazza has at least nine photos of past and present bunnies in his Mizzou office and can produce an envelope of more photos. His current favorite furball, Jumbo — an 18-pound Flemish Giant — came into Casazza’s care at the request of a student whose landlord insisted he subtract the rabbit from the premises.
The bunnies snooze in their two private bedrooms at the Casazza house. They have multi-level pens and a 20-foot by 40-foot exercise room outfitted with equipment for hiding and hopping. A crate of fresh produce from California arrives for Casazza’s bunnies at HyVee every week. The crate — with its own UPC symbol for “The Bunny Guy” — contains 24 heads of Romaine lettuce, 60 bunches of parsley and 25 pounds of carrots.
Casazza’s sense of humor and clear explanations make him a favorite of students. “Teaching is important for me,” he says. “It forces me to interact in society and with the new generation instead of old people.”
Student evaluations of Casazza’s teaching skills are off-the-charts complimentary. He starts each calculus class with a demonstration that shows the underlying principles of the material for the day and collects high praise for his teaching techniques.
“Who would believe that I look forward to coming to my math class each day?” one student wrote. “This is the level of teaching I would expect from Mizzou,” another added. And perhaps the comment that would be any professor’s favorite: “Deserves a raise!”
In 1997 Casazza received a William T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence, a prestigious award that includes a $10,000 prize.
MU Professor Nigel Kalton says Casazza has tremendous drive: “Most mathematicians run out of gas at 45 or 50. He has the energy of a 20-year-old.”
Someone once asked Casazza if he plans to do mathematics his entire life. “I gave the obvious answer, Casazza says: ‘Of course not. I plan on saving the last 10 minutes to reminisce.’”