Steven Strogatz


Spring 2021 Honorary Degree Recipient

Doctor of Laws (honoris causa)

Why is it hard to fall asleep a few hours before your regular bedtime? How do thousands of fireflies flash in unison or a flock of birds swirl in the sky as if synchronized? Can we predict the disappearance of a language or understand how new ideas emerge? These may not seem like math questions, but to Dr. Steven Strogatz, they are questions that can be illuminated and explored by looking at the numbers and equations that lie at their very foundation. An extraordinary mathematician, first-class educator and exceptional communicator, Dr. Strogatz has turned his attention to a wide range of topics, displaying a breadth and originality of research that is unmatched, using math to explore questions that, on the surface, may not look like they involve math at all. 

Knowing what questions to ask is part of what makes Dr. Strogatz unique, and perhaps one of his most famous questions is this: why is it that when we chat with a stranger, we often find that we have a mutual acquaintance? His foundational paper on “six degrees of separation,” also known as the concept of the “small-world network,” is one of the most-cited papers in science. That work sparked the development of a new field of research, network science, which underlies modern information technology and social networks. 

Steven Strogatz’s search for mathematical answers began more than four decades ago. He graduated summa cum laude in mathematics from Princeton in 1980, and went on to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a Marshall Scholar. He completed doctoral work in applied mathematics at Harvard, followed by a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard and Boston University. He began his teaching career at MIT, where he taught in the Department of Mathematics from 1989 to 1994, and then joined the Cornell University faculty, where he is today the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics. 

Dr. Strogatz has made outstanding contributions through both his research and through sharing his enthusiasm for the beauty of math through books, essays, blogs, public lectures, a TED Talk, radio and television appearances, and a podcast. His book The Joy of X had been translated into 17 languages and, more recently, his book Infinite Powers was a New York Times bestseller. 

With a lengthy list of awards recognizing his academic work, Dr. Strogatz is a Fellow of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society and the American Mathematical Society. He has been awarded the highest teaching prizes at MIT and Cornell. And he has been lauded for his public engagement, winning numerous book and writing prizes, including the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science. In a time when society needs first-rate communicators of scientific discoveries and reasoning more than ever, Dr. Strogatz is an exemplar.