To everything under the sun, there is an equation

Global lecture series, Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013, arrives at Brown

ICERM and The Simons Foundation

The poster for the Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013 global lecture series, which arrived at Brown on Sept. 24, featuring L. Mahadevan.

PHOTO BY Scott Kingsley

Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan, a mathematician from Harvard University, gave the seventh in a series of global lectures on Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013 at the Salomon Center at Brown University.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/30/13
For all the talk about collaboration within the innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island, there are still many parts of the whole that are not connected, do not know about each other, and don’t communicate well with each other.
The lecture by L. Mahadeven, one of nine such worldwide lectures, has amazing resonance with A Better World by Design conference, held this weekend, but it’s unclear if there was any cross-pollination happening.
It also has potential resonance with the work of EpiVax and iCubed and their use of immuno-informatic tools and algorithms to design vaccines and better understand anti-immune responses through immunogenicity.
This story hopefully provides the opportunity for such conversations and connections to begin.
Imagine, if, as a collaborative initiative, John Maeda and the proponents of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics, or STEAM, created a tour for students of all the innovation ecosystem sites in Providence. Would not ICERM need to be included as part of that tour?
Kudos to the Simons Foundation for sponsoring the global “Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013” lecture series. The Simons Foundation is playing an important role in underwriting collaborative research at the Brown Institute for Brain Science, and more recently, the RI-CART efforts to establish a statewide registry for autism patients.

PROVIDENCE – Do you believe in coincidence? On Sept. 24, the day that the annual MacArthur genius awards were announced, Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan, a mathematician from Harvard University, held court at the Salomon Center at Brown University. Mahadevan received a MacArthur award in 2009.

Mahadevan’s talk, “On Growth and Form: Mathematics, Physics and Biology,” explored his use of mathematics to make sense of the complexity of form and shape of biology, using ideas from physics, here on Planet Earth.

From a pollen tube to a cucumber tendril, from a leaf of a lily to the coiling growth of the human intestines, Mahadevan detailed how he was able to use the art of mathematical language to construct a way to answer simple but vexing questions, such as: How does a leaf change shape as it grows?

Much of his work is driven by simple curiosity – and his desire to find an answer, Mahadevan told ConvergenceRI in an interview before the lecture.

“Curiosity is everything,” he said. “It’s the most important thing. If you’re curious, you will figure out how to find out.”

He likened his curiosity to a young child’s ability to observe the natural wonder of the world and ask questions. “If you look at leaves, when you walk outside in a yard, leaves are not typically flat,” Mahadevan continued. “What gives rise to their shape? And how does a leaf then use that shape to harness sunlight? That’s the ultimate question. We’re not there yet.”

In the New England vernacular, Mahadevan is “wicked smart.” He is currently the England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics, Professor of Physics and Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. He has a Ph.D. from Stanford University.

His talk was the seventh in a worldwide series of nine public lectures underwritten by the Simons Foundation, with the aim of showcasing how mathematical sciences can play a significant role in understanding and solving some of “Planet Earth’s important problems.”

Previously sessions have been held in Montreal, Cape Town, Melbourne, Berlin, San Francisco, and Chapel Hill.

Mahadevan’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics, or ICERM, a National Science Foundation Mathematical Sciences Institute at Brown University.

ICERM is a wondrous hidden garden in downtown Providence, regularly hosting visiting mathematicians from around the globe to ponder things such as the future design and economics of the next generation of ultra-exascale super computers. There is always a steady flow of algorithms growing on its white boards.

Created in 2011, the Institute is located on the 11th floor of 121 S. Main St. (above Hemenway’s Restaurant), in a remodeled space formerly occupied by a law firm. It is one of eight such national research centers – and the only one in New England – funded by the National Science Foundation.

In the interview, Mahadevan bristled a bit when asked about potential practical applications of his research, saying it’s a question he is often asked.

“Does Beethoven have an application? Does Shakespeare have an application?” he asked the reporter.

As the reporter sputtered through a rambling answer about creativity, capturing the human resonance of language and music, Mahadevan held up his hand, interrupting: “I would say the same for mathematics. I don’t think we need to continuously justify an application, say, to engineering. It’s sufficient for exactly the things you said.”

If mathematics is language, he continued, “and it is, it is the language of the sciences, then we want to use that language to create poetry, to write prose, and to describe the world, all of which is relevant.”

Mahadevan’s motivation has been primarily curiosity. “I think it’s human to be curious, if we can understand our world, trying to satisfy that curiosity, that’s enough for me,” he said. “Some of the things I’m going to talk about do have applications. I don’t pursue them. Perhaps other colleagues may pick it up.

Mahadevan also spoke about the importance of collaboration across scientific disciplines to his work. “For me, collaboration is extraordinarily important,” he said. “Everything I’m going to talk about is made possible because of collaborators in biology, in physics and mathematics.”

The work, he continued, is iterative, very much a give-and-take. “I think [collaboration across disciplines] is the way of the future,” Mahadevan said. “I think it’s always been that way.”

In the past, he continued, “These problems were often not that complex that we need multiple people and multiple expertise. The problems I’m going to tell you about today are very hard for one person, or one group, to do everything.”


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