Explaining the world through mathematics Jun 06, 2019
Prof. dr. Sorin POP
What if you could translate everything you see around you into mathematical formulas and equations? Then you might be one of the 15 happy members of a group of international scientists at UHasselt, according to our recent visit to the research group Computational Mathematics. Time for an introduction!
A WARM WELCOME
“Mathematics is the key and door to the sciences” – Galileo Galilei.
“Good afternoon! Do you want some coffee? Because I have waited so we could drink one together this afternoon. You can choose a mug from my collection. One from the University of Mexico? Or perhaps one from those of Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Bergen or Leiden?”
It is half past one in the afternoon and we immediately feel more than welcome when professor Sorin Pop welcomes us into his office with a big smile. A perfect start for our interview, especially when a few minutes later we are accompanied by two warm cups of coffee – Mexico and Amsterdam – at his office desk. Before the interview starts, Sorin quickly switches his sitting ball for a desk chair. “The ball is super comfortable and is good for your muscles. However, if you move a lot it can create some funny noises. Something that perhaps is not so useful during an interview.” (laughs)
The research group Computational Mathematics was founded at the UHasselt in 2016 with the appointment of Sorin Pop and Jochen Schütz. “You might not notice it directly, as my canines are a bit less sharp then they used to be, but I am originally from Transylvania”, Sorin laughs. “Don’t worry though, I have already switched to red wine. It’s much easier to buy.” It is there in the heart of Romania, that his love for mathematics originated. “My mom is a mathematician, my father a physicist. My childhood took place in the era of communism. This meant that there were only documentaries about the dictator Ceausescu on TV, which did not really appeal to me. There I was looking for other things to pass my time with. That’s how I came across mathematics. Next to sports, I always had a fascination for numbers. In the end, I was able to turn my passion into my job.”
“For a long time, I worked for the Eindhoven University of Technology, which I combined with a position at the Norwegian University of Bergen. However, a few years ago, I felt it was time for a change in scenery. It was during that time that I came across a new vacancy at the UHasselt. Although I did not know the university that well, I did not hesitate. To this day, I haven’t regretted my decision.”
The white writing board in his office nicely displays what Sorin is working on all day: the development and invention of mathematical formulas and equations. “We can explain the whole world using mathematics. Okay, I might be exaggerating a bit, but there are a lot of events that you cannot investigate with experiments. The spreading of a toxic substance on a large scale for example, or how water flows through the soil. How many layers can it penetrate? And what is the effect on structural stability? These are questions which mathematics can answer.” The latter is the main research question of the group of Sorin Pop. They look at porous materials in the substrate. Something entirely different than his colleague professor Jochen Schütz, who founded the research group together with Sorin.
WANTING TO BECOME MORE THAN A TEACHER
The research of Jochen focusses more on designing mathematical formulas for atmospheres, oceans, wind currents, and weather models. “One of Sorin’s favorite sayings is that together we can model the whole world”, Jochen laughs when the 3 of us meet him a bit later in his office. His desk is covered with an ordered chaos of papers filled with mathematical formulas and, a bit to our surprise, sketches of the Ecotron.
“That’s the beauty of mathematics”, Jochen explains. “It’s very interdisciplinary. We can play a role in many fields of research. One of our collaboration projects is with the climate researchers of Ecotron. They try to mimic the conditions of climate change in their domes and study the consequences. A project that will take many years. However, two of our Ph.D. students are already converting these simulations into algorithms, which allows us to estimate the results quicker.”
But it doesn’t stop there, as the research group also wants to show the uniqueness and usefulness of mathematics to our society. “For example, we are planning to contact companies to, in collaboration with high schools, simulate some of their problems for them. It fits perfectly within the civic mission of our university and mathematics is indispensable in the business sector. This is something we want to demonstrate to companies as well as to students. Mathematics isn’t just abstract theory and studying mathematics doesn’t equal to becoming a teacher. There are so many opportunities and possibilities.”
Sorin smiles saying, “Indeed, Jochen is right. We definitely need to make a bit more publicity. Communicating about your research does pay off. We see how our group is becoming more and more known around the globe. From organizing summer schools and symposia to hosting international visitors, we do it all. For example, I was recently chairperson of a conference in Houston, Texas.”
THE WORLD AND UHASSELT
“How about we go meet the rest of our research group? I hope they are working hard”, Sorin laughs. We haven’t even placed one foot out the door and we already meet the first researcher. “I just arrived at UHasselt a week ago”, Hoang An Tran explains, one of the two Ph.D. students who are working on the Ecotron project. “Originally I am from Vietnam, so it’s a bit of an adaptation but it’s a great environment here and a fun university. I think I will definitely enjoy the coming 4 years of my Ph.D.”
When we enter the office of the research group we witness that science indeed knows no borders. Anh-Khoa Vo, from Vietnam, is working at his computer while across the room Manuela Bastidas Olivares from Colombia and Sohely Sharmin from Bangladesh are having a discussion about their research. When Stephan Lunowa from Germany and Jeremy Chouchoulis from our very own Belgium arrive a moment later, the group is almost complete. “Despite the fact that we all come from different backgrounds, we are connected through mathematics”, Manuela tells us. “It’s a common language we all speak.”
We close our interview with the obligatory group picture, all in front of the blackboard. No problem for our researchers, but not before it is filled with mathematical formulas. Within the blink of an eye, 8 mathematicians are drawing on the board. C-MAT: a happy, worldly group with a great love for numbers.