Alfred Gérard Noël, MS, PhD.
When asked about his leisure activities, Professor Noël answers he divides his workload into doing research in mathematics, playing the guitar and studying philosophy in a matter-of-fact precision revealing the conflation of the engineer bent on exactitude and the artist conceiving of and speaking of math as a language, still not quite willing to let the pathos take the lead, at least not at first glance. No wonder he feels comfortable with the clockwork ethos of Germans, the rebellious nature of un enfant terrible, ready and willing to explore new ideas, think outside of the box, convention be damned. After an interview, one walks away with the impression this is a brilliant mind, a complex personality, but yet a man with a big heart, in the ecosystem where conviction and commitment are twins. He has taken time from his busy schedule to lend a helping hand to our brothers and sisters back home. He first volunteered to be on the faculty of ISTEAH (L’Institut des Sciences, des Technologies et des Études Avancées d’Haïti) established by GRAHN-Monde and teach pro bono. He has gone one step further and farther by learning to write Creole, immersing in the nuances of the language after being away from it for a long time and finally by writing an advanced mathematics book aimed at junior or senior level of college in that vernacular. This is not a misprint. A full Professor at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) in Boston in the Department of Mathematics, a former researcher at MIT, just wrote the first-ever mathematical analysis book in Creole, via Presses Internationales GRAHN-Monde.
Born in Les Cayes, Haiti, he finished his secondary school at Collège Anglade and then studied at Le Centre Pilote de Formation Profesionelle with emphasis on Electrotechnique. He came to the USA in 1982 and enrolled at the Control Data Institute in Burlington, MA where he learned computer programming. He then went to Northeastern University to pursue a degree in Computer Sciences. A professor there, an Irishman by the name of Terence Gaffney, took notice of his mathematics aptitude and had him take a series of tests and he did so well that he received an offer to pursue a master’s degree instead. After graduation he worked in the private sector for 7-8 years as a software engineer.
He returned back to school to obtain a PhD in Mathematics at Northeastern (1997) under Donald R. King, an MIT-trained Afro-American professor, as thesis advisor. By then he was already 41 years of age. He did some work on Y2K for one year and then accepted a position at the University of Massachusetts in Boston as Assistant Professor. He spent the 2000-2001 academic year at MIT as an MLK Visiting Assistant Professor. He returned in 2006 to do some groundbreaking theoretical work at MIT on the Atlas of Lie Groups and Representations Project E8 (aimath.org), as a visiting scholar.
This was itself a seminal achievement because only a handful of mathematicians in the world was part of it and it’s a very complicated endeavor. According to the official description of the scope of the work on the website, whereas the Genome Project was 1 gigabyte in breadth, the Project E8 fills 64 gigabytes. Professor Noël’s training in computer sciences came in very handy because he was able to bring a new approach toward solving the problem. He is actively working on submitting an academic publication on this research. Reading the description of the project leaves one bewildered by its depth as well as the awesome erudition required to be part of it. Being part of such advanced research is a remarkable achievement, yet Professor Noël downplays its importance, and is not so willing to accept praise for his participation. Well, we who know better, are of the opinion that in the hermetic world of Theoretical Mathematics, a landscape that by his own admission is not welcoming to minorities, feel that we need to sing his praises because this is indeed a colossal milestone. He also did a stint at Harvard for 6 months doing some advanced research. However, he remains at UMass in Boston and has been a full professor since 2010.
In the rarefied world of academic Mathematics, according to the professor, research into new theories or problems-and of course publication- is prized. Writing a textbook generally adds no value to one’s credentials and if truth be told, takes valuable time away from doing serious research. However, Professor Noël felt the need to do it because in his encounters with students from Haiti, he has noticed their fluency rests primarily with Creole, irrespective of their level of schooling. As a legacy, he has decided to write the textbook. Along the way he also fell in love with the language. His commitment to the motherland is unquestioned and as far back as 1996, he formed the Haitian Scientific Society. He is a member of GRAHN and has been the first Director of the Center of Research in Mathematics at ISTEAH.
His commitment to scientific teaching in the motherland is ironclad. During this autumn, he helped make arrangement to have scientists from the US, France, Italy, Africa under the aegis of CIMPA (Centre International de Mathématiques Pures et Appliquées), (cimpa.info) to come to Haiti for a second time for a two-week seminar on Mathematics but due to the political instability, he had to cancel it. He finds himself frustrated at the low level of computer literacy among students in Haiti as well as the isolation of the country from scientific mainstream and breakthroughs. He feels strongly the education system is in need of a serious overhaul, especially in the arena of scientific propagation of knowledge.
As for the naysayers who keep repeating the canard that Creole is not a language, publication of this textbook ought to have the resounding sound of a thud heard around the diaspora at large to make the opposite argument. It’s a pedagogical tour de force in full display. In the preface, he answers Camus’s lamenting about « l’indivisible système planétaire…je ne connaîtrai jamais. » He answers, « C’est dans cette démarche solitaire, pénétrante, à la fois chaotique, et ordonnée que réside à notre avis, tout le génie créateur de l’artiste mathématicien(ne). » He then chooses David Hilbert, a famous German mathematician’s retirement speech in both German and Creole to explain his vision toward pure mathematics. The last two lines sum it up:
“Alaplas iyorans sòt sa a, an nou kenbe pou deviz nou:
Nou dwe konnen, n ap rive konnen.”
This method can be taken in its extreme as Sturm und Drang made famous by King Christophe, however, since it is meant to be an intro to a language, called Mathematics, for its lovers, into a voyage filled with aspirations, dreams, can one be far off and say it’s the artist’s maiden voyage and stretch the metaphor a bit and call it his bildungsroman?
This decision to write in Creole carries the gravitas of a well-versed, well-rounded mind. What others would describe as a pastime, but he would consider as work, includes writing short stories, poetry in…French as well as reading Spinoza and Nietzsche. He plays a mean guitar in the classical style but considers his level as intermediate. He seems to have an inkling for karma, fate, although he is reluctant to adhere to categories. He is a complex person. He has the hands-on mindset of the engineer and the sensibility of a poet, splaying the latter with a subtle veil with a wisp of chiaroscuro but not hiding from it as he displays his literary works alongside his scientific writings on his academic website (math.umb.edu). Among his works, I chose this poem and one is free to deconstruct it.
Le Théore Empaillé
Par Alfred G. Noël (2016)
Je glisserai sur le viol enflammé qui m’a vu naître
«De la laitance d’une aube incertaine ». Peut-être …
Mais j’ai su, de temps en temps,
Capturer l’évanescente immobilité du temps.
Entre enfin le Président de l’Académie
Dégageant une odeur d’alchimie,
Offrant une bouche édentée,
Habituée aux rudes voluptés,
D’où sort un air méphitique,
Pour déclarer l’ouverture de la Critique
En criant d’une voix mélancolique,
A genoux sur un grand canapé,
« Emmenez le Nègre à l’œuvre diabolique
Et apportez l’épée! »
 Frankétienne, Les affres d’un défi