Celebrating Leon Poladian

Leon Poladian

21 March 1964 – 13 February 2018

This year, on February 13th we lost Leon to brain cancer. Leon had a long history with NMSS. Leon attended NMSS in 1981 as a student when he was 16, at the end of his year 11 at Fort Street Boys High School and again in 1982. No one will be surprised to hear that he was an outstanding student. Ten years later, Leon was back at NMSS, this time as staff. He had completed a BSc with first class honours in physics and a PhD in theoretical physics at the University of Sydney. He was an incredibly talented mathematician and physicist. Leon was a part of NMSS every year from 1992, except for this year. In all, for 28 of his Januarys (almost 52%) he was in Canberra for NMSS.

As a NMSS staff member, Leon was a tutor several times and 22 times he lectured week-long courses that he had developed, often about chaos theory. Leon also designed and taught courses on game theory and geometric construction. In 2001 and 2002 he lectured one week of the number theory course.

At NMSS Leon twice gave lectures on his career, which included his work on optical fibres and iridescence in butterflies. From 2013-2017 Leon was director. He had planned to be the director of NMSS until long after he retired from university. Leon clearly loved mathematics, he loved sharing it with others, including both students and staff at NMSS. Leon’s teaching was inspiring.

Leon cared about education beyond NMSS. He published at least 16 papers about tertiary mathematics education including “Thinking deeply of simple things: 45 years of the National Mathematics Summer School”, and was involved in several funded projects.

Leon was hugely positive, enthusiastic and energetic about many things, including all aspects of NMSS. Some of his non-mathematical interests appeared in his NMSS biography: “Leon Poladian … has a special interest in foreign languages and linguistics and can be misunderstood in several languages. He is addicted to euro-style board games, created his first iPad game recently and hopes to design a game that will win Spiel des Jahres.”

Each year for the last few years Leon invited Nobel Prize winner and ANU vice chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt to be the NMSS academy of science lecturer. Professor Schmidt finally said yes for January 2018. It would have been wonderful to have Leon there for our first Nobel Prize winning speaker and for the 50 th NMSS, but it was not possible. In fact, there was concern that Leon might not be able to attend NMSS in 2017 as in the weeks up to NMSS he was undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy. He insisted that he would be able to attend and run NMSS and said that any staff member could have something at the last minute that could stop them attending, so why worry just about him? In the few days before NMSS another staff member was forced to drop out, but Leon made it to Canberra, just as he said he would.

In July last year Leon received a AAMT Distinguished Service Award, the first such award since 2008. The citation noted that Leon “has been an important part of the fabric of NMSS for half of its life”. Actually, at that time Leon had attended just over 57% (28 of 49) NMSSs.

Leon loved games of all kinds. As with mathematics, his enthusiasm was particularly contagious at NMSS. “The staff often stayed up into the early hours with some of the most complex board games we had ever encountered – I still don’t understand what the point of the Battle Star Galactica game was, but it was always filled with fun and laughter” (a tutor). Leon developed a game app; he intended to sell it and use the income for NMSS. The aim was to get a martian to its spaceship.

In April 2017, NMSS staff presented Leon with a board-game-inspired plaque. It listed some of his attributes: chaotic (referring to his lectures on chaos), creative, compassionate, inspirational, mentor, fun, devoted and educator. The plaque read “A simple thank you for a deeply thoughtful director”.

Leon worked on NMSS 2018 for much of 2017 with the same care and enthusiasm as usual, knowing that someone else would take over and knowing that he might not get there in 2018. Leon’s work with, and contribution to, NMSS over so many years will not be forgotten.

Leanne Rylands
Western Sydney University

If you have pictures of Leon at NMSS that you would like to share in the above slideshow, please feel free to forward them on to us.