Spotlight

Home > Spotlight > Alumni Spotlight > Alumni Spotlight 2009
Wu Wenjun
Zhang Guangdou

Wu Wenjun, mathematician and historian of mathematics, was born in Shanghai on May 12, 1919. Wu Wenjun was enrolled in Department of Mathematics, Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 1936. In his third year, under the influence of Wu Chonglin, who taught algebra and theory of functions of a real variable, Wu showed keen interest in modern mathematics, especially theory of functions of a real variable. Through intense extracurricular self-education and repeated reading of several works, Wu laid solid foundation in mathematics. Wu then delved into the classic works on point-set topology (by F. Hausdorff, W.H. Young, etc), and Poland prestigious journals Fundamenta Mathematica to study combinatorial topology.

In 1940 Wu Wenjun graduated from Shanghai Jiao Tong University. However, the Anti-Japanese War was gripping China at that time; Wu took a position as a mathematics teacher in a secondary school for five years. In 1945, Wu was appointed as an assistant in a Temporary University in Shanghai. In 1946 he met world renowned mathematician Chern Shiing-Shen who was working on setting up an Institute of Mathematics of Academia Sinica. The encounter was decisive of Wu Wenjun's future career in mathematics. He began to be exposed to topology which was in its ascendant. The contact broadened his horizon and changed the direction of his research from the narrow ancient disciplines to the broader contemporary emerging subjects. Under Chern's guidance, Wu Wenjun quickly absorbed the new theories, and soon conducted independent research. When H. Whitney put forward Characteristic Classes, he gave a rather complex proof to the well-known duality theorem. The proof was so complicated, and had never been formally published. Wu Wenjun gave a simple proof with originality. This became an important achievement for the characteristic classes, and now a classic. Chern appreciated Wu's work very much and recommended it to Annals of Mathematics by the Princeton University. It was Wu's talents and hard work that enabled him to obtain such a huge success in the forefront of topology in only a year.

Wu Wenjun took the examination and successfully competed for a scholarship of the Sino-France Exchange Program and he went to France in 1947. Wu was awarded the doctor's degree of France in 1949, and continued to study mathematics in the French Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) afterwards.

In August 1951, Wu Wenjun returned to China and served as professor of Department of Mathematics at Peking University. Wu made great contributions to the field of topology by establishing Wu's Formulae, which was highly acknowledged at home and abroad. In 1957, he was elected as member of China Academy Sciences (CAS). In the late 1970s, with the rapid development of computer technology, he enriched his prolific personal career by opening a new horizon in mathematics mechanization.

As a famous mathematician, Wu Wenjun's research work covered a wide area of mathematics. As a disciplinary precursor, Wu made monumental contributions to the field of topology by introducing Wu's imbedding and characteristic classes and establishing Wu's Formulae, Wu's character category and Wu's qian category, which had been widely accepted by peers and had exerted worldwide influence. In the field of mathematics mechanization, Wu suggested a computerized method to prove geometrical theorems, known as Wu's method in the international community. In line with the conventional approach in traditional Chinese mathematics, a geometric problem is converted into an algebraic problem. Different from the logical approach, Wu's approach realizes highly effective proving of geometric theorems on a portable calculator, displaying an unmatched superiority in computational effectiveness.

In 1990, he was elected as member of the Third World Academy of Sciences. In 1993, Wu Wenjun was conferred with a prize from Chen Jiageng (Tan Kah-kee) Awards for Mathematics & Physics, and in the next year, he became a laureate of the prize for outstanding scientists granted by Hong Kong's Qiushi S&T Foundation. Wu Wenjun received China's Supreme Scientific and Technological Award in 2000.


Reported by Zhen Yinghui