18 Oct 2018

Mathematician wins top science award

From Our Changing World, 9:08 pm on 18 October 2018

New Zealand’s top science award, the 2018 Rutherford Medal, worth $100,000, has gone to Professor Rod Downey, a mathematician at Victoria University of Wellington.

Mathematician Rod Downey.

Mathematician Rod Downey. Photo: Victoria University of Wellington

Prof Downey works on computability, at the interface of maths and computer science, and is particularly interested in algorithms.

“The advent of computers,” he says, “has driven a great interest in the mathematics of how algorithms work, and how fast … and how efficiently can we do things.”

He says an algorithm is like a recipe – it contains a series of small logical steps, and if it works as planned you end up with a cake. He says the goal is to make algorithms as simple and efficient as possible.

It’s not about numbers

Prof Downey says mathematics is about concepts and abstract ideas, rather than numbers.

“You take that abstraction and you seek to understand it,” he says. “When you understand it very well then you can develop better algorithms, or you can develop better models for what you’re trying to do. There’s all kinds of things you can do and that’s what mathematicians do – we think.”

Prof Downey says that basic research, like he does, can have surprising applications.

“I was interested in some fairly abstract things, and they turned out to be useful for, like, cancer research, distribution of products in New South Wales, and understanding Aboriginal ear infections in the Northern Territory, believe it or not.”

A mathematician’s dance

As well as maths and surfing, Prof Downey has a strong interest in Scottish country dancing.

“Many people who do it are actually mathematicians and computer scientists. That’s because the patterns in the dance have a certain appeal to such people.”

Prof Downey has devised and published many new dances, and he says that writing a dance is like proving a theorem.

“Because the kinds of problems I think about are dynamic problems, where I try to imagine what an algorithm will be doing in time,” he says.

“So you have to visualise what’s happening. And when you’re dancing, it’s somewhat similar because you have to visualise where you’ll be and where other people will be.

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