Simply the best

Mathematics may be an unsung hero of the modern world, but not at Victoria.

From the “modest research environment” Professor Rod Downey found when he arrived in New Zealand 27 years ago, Victoria has developed world-class capability in mathematics.

This includes the mathematical logic group to which Rod belongs, which easily ranks among the top few in the world.

Victoria’s Mathematics programme has enjoyed more than a decade of continuous achievement, winning numerous national and international grants, prizes and invitations to lecture at prestigious events.

In the last year alone, Victoria mathematicians have received four Marsden research grants, a prestigious Rutherford Discovery Fellowship (to Dr Dillon Mayhew), the New Zealand Association of Scientists 2013 Research Medal (to Associate Professor Noam Greenberg) and, most recently, the 2014 Nerode Prize, awarded to Rod as co-author of a paper in multivariate algorithmics and complexity.

In addition, the logic and discrete mathematics group includes Professor Rob Goldblatt, the recipient of the 2012 Jones Medal for lifetime achievement in mathematics, the country’s highest mathematics award, and Professor Geoff Whittle, who is part of a team that recently solved the 40-year-old puzzle known as Rota’s Conjecture.

The success is no accident, says Dr Peter Donelan, Head of the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Operations Research.

“Our strategy has been to hire the best people, those who are outstanding mathematicians regardless of the area they work in. That has led to a really strong capability in pure maths, with a particular strength in logic.”

The group has also focused on attracting and retaining mathematicians at different stages of their career as Denis Hirschfeldt, a former postdoctoral fellow at Victoria and now a professor at the University of Chicago, explains.

“Rod Downey, Noam Greenberg and [Dr] Adam Day are each among the very best computational theorists of their respective generations. Having three researchers of that level in the same group is an extraordinary achievement, equalled only by two or three other institutions in the world.”

The Marsden Fund has also helped, says Peter, providing a source of continuous support for Victoria’s blue-skies mathematical research since its introduction in 1994.

Despite the subject often being seen as abstract and complex, Rod says we live in the age of mathematics.

That is partly because mathematical logic underpins modern computing, providing the ability to solve problems that came to a halt early in the 20th century because, says Rod, “it would have taken a lifetime to do the next level of calculations”.

“Almost every electronic device we use fundamentally employs mathematics to make it work and almost every advance in science, from biology to physics to archaeology, intrinsically uses modern mathematics as a tool.”

Victoria currently has mathematicians working on problems ranging from making cornflakes crispier to modelling tsunami waves.

However, says Peter, “while applications are undoubtedly important and provide rich motivation for many of us in our research, the beauty itself of the subject remains highly prized by mathematicians at Victoria”.

Rod agrees: “Who knows what is going to turn out to be useful in maths? Famously, the great English mathematician Godfrey Hardy claimed with pride that nothing he did would never be useful. The number theory he developed is now central in the security of modern banking, his analysis important in quantum physics and his probability theory fundamental in modern genetics!”

Professor Rod Downey

Dr Peter Donelan