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1 year ago

HLF Review 2016

Participants On a Single

Participants On a Single Piece of Paper Ben Orlin (member of the 4th HLF Blog Team) One of the hardest things about research in technical fields: Explaining what the heck it is that you do. The natural sciences have it easy: they study physical, tangible things. Perhaps those things are weird and exotic (bosons, mRNA, kangaroos, etc.) but hey, at least they’re things. Here’s some poetic algebra for you: each vector space is like a flourishing leaf, and linear maps are the rough bark that runs between them. As a researcher, Tetiana wants to understand the whole tree. From Opeyemi Aborisade, studying cryptography in Senegal: Mathematicians and computer scientists face a taller order. They study concepts, processes, algorithms. The “things” they research aren’t really things at all: they’re creations of rigorous human thought, abstract structures of logical language. Not so easy to explain. So as they sipped on coffee and Coke, waiting for the Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF) opening ceremony to begin, I ambushed seven young researchers and goaded them into explaining their work to me. Characterizing your specific research can be simply too hard, so I gave them a slightly broader invitation: On a single piece of paper, illustrate what your research area is about. Here is what they (very gamely!) contributed: As Opeyemi was illustrating the mathematical essence of internet security, I bugged her by asking why the middle man has six limbs. “Because he’s an attacker!” she explained. From Mariia Fedorova, studying automata in Ukraine: From Tetiana Klychmuk, studying linear algebra in Ukraine: The graph in the upper left is a famous example in the study of automata. To visualize the program carrying out its commands, picture an 56

Participants ant crawling from vertex to vertex on the graph, choosing its next direction based on the instructions it finds there. From Pacome Ambassa, studying information security in South Africa: From Collins Amburo Agyingi, studying topology in South Africa: “That’s the attacker?” I asked. “But he looks so innocent!” Apparently you can’t trust anyone these days. A quintessentially mathematical problem: how can we embed this abstract structure in another abstract structure? When are there lots of ways to do this, and when is there only a single way? And from Haji Ali, studying mobile health systems in South Africa: From Gilbert Bernstein, studying computer graphics in the USA: “Why is the mobile phone the same size as the person?” I asked Haji. He politely laughed it off, rather than pointing to my awful drawings, which make his look like Rembrandt. The furry fellow is an iconic character from the history of computer graphics: the Stanford Bunny, a ceramic rabbit that in 1994 became one of the first objects to be reconstructed three-dimensionally via scanning. 57