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Phil Hanlon the Scholar

Hanlon1.jpgAn alumnus with detailed knowledge of the field of combinatorics sends in a report on Phil Hanlon’s scholarly career.

I have combed through the presidential CV, looked at a few of Phil Hanlon’s papers, and talked to senior mathematics faculty (none at Dartmouth), including several in branches of mathematics close to Hanlon’s, and one who was a colleague at MIT. Here’s the story:

Phil Hanlon is a very talented mathematician. A career spent at Caltech, MIT and Michigan is proof positive of that. There’s more: a PhD only four years out of undergrad; several high-profile fellowships; and service on the editorial boards of three notable journals, including one of the best in all of mathematics: Transactions of the American Mathematical Society.

Hanlon describes his research interests on his CV as “Algebraic Combinatorics, Discrete Probability, Bioinformatics, Theoretical Computer Science.” From the look of his published papers, it’s mostly algebraic combinatorics. Some definitions:

— Combinatorics: the study of finite (i.e. not infinite) “mathematical structures,” like models of a network (e.g. an electrical circuit, a utility distribution network, railroad network).

— Algebraic combinatorics is the above studied from an “algebraic viewpoint.” I really don’t know how to translate that. In the same way that several chemists might study the same compound but with different approaches, the “algebraic viewpoint” is just one of several possible approaches that a combinatorialist can take to attack a problem.

— Bioinformatics: I don’t work in this area, but Wikipedia’s definition is as good as any: a branch of biological science which deals with the study of methods for storing, retrieving and analyzing biological data, such as nucleic acid (DNA/RNA) and protein sequence, structure, function, pathways and genetic interactions.

— Theoretical computer science: essentially the study of algorithms. Design and analysis of algorithms — how fast they are, how much operating memory they take, what sorts of problems can or cannot be solved by what sorts of algorithms, etc.

Would Phil Hanlon be considered one of the leaders in any field? The answer really depends what “leader” means. You have to understand that math is a bizarre, highly regimented universe. Everyone publishes almost entirely within their own little circle made up of 10 or 20 people in the world who are experts in the same tiny sub-sub-specialty. Papers from such a subgroup are often unintelligible, I mean, literally unintelligible, to anyone else, even other professional mathematicians.

Many of these circles operate for long periods of time with no clear “leader” — no singular standout — despite the fact that many or all of their members might be strong, productive mathematicians (as Hanlon certainly is). If you’re being generous, in a small group you might call almost everyone a leader just for participating, e.g. “hey, he’s one of the five best in a field of 12.” Hanlon could well be a leader in that sense — you’d have to ask someone in his circle (I couldn’t find anyone).

Occasionally in a field, very occasionally, someone comes along and publishes a paper that elicits so much attention that it shakes up the existing structure, spawning new circles, killing old ones, and inspiring people to move between them in large numbers. A leader like that — a Mike Gazzaniga ‘61-type leader — Hanlon is not. That said, there’s a sharp line in mathematics between talented and great. No one I spoke to thought Hanlon was a particular leader even in algebraic combinatorics, let alone all of mathematics. None knew of any seminal contribution he has made. To be fair, that’s an extraordinarily high standard, and one wouldn’t want a mathematical superstar as president anyway — any such person would be uninterested and unqualified.

Hanlon’s overall research output has been high but not exceptional. Looking at his publications list, he published at a steady clip through the mid-2000s, at which point it seems his productivity dropped dramatically. It’s probably not a coincidence that this drop coincided exactly with his appointment as Vice Provost at Michigan.

One person I spoke to remarked that (paraphrasing from memory) “it was clear he was always more interested in administration than mathematics.” From our perspective, if true, that should not be taken as a slight — he’ll be coming to Dartmouth as an administrator, after all. And though his output may have diminished in the last few years, its quality apparently has not: he published papers in 2006 and 2008 in the prestigious Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society.

Finally, for what it’s worth — which, after Kim, Folt, Spalding et alia, is a lot — my correspondents repeatedly called Hanlon “a nice guy,” “a good man,” etc. That, as much as anything, may be what Dartmouth needs right now — an honest, hard worker who directs the spotlight onto faculty and students, where it belongs.


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