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Interview with Popular Science Author Ian Stewart

Yves de Contades Interviews Ian Stewart FRS
Emeritus Professor of Mathematics
Digital Media Fellow
Mathematician, broadcaster, science writer, science fiction writer

Research Interests: Dynamical systems, bifurcation theory, pattern formation, biomathematics

IX - Where does your love of mathematics come from?

IS - I enjoyed maths at school. I had a wonderful maths teacher who
spent lots of his free time showing a few of us interesting maths outside the syllabus. I also read Martin Gardner's column in Scientific American regularly.

IX - What prompted you to write 17 Equations that changed the world and who is the book aimed at?

IS - Equations generally get a bad press. I wanted to show their human side and explain what they have done and are doing for us. But also I wanted to face up to their formal symbolic nature.

IX - What changes in maths education in the UK would you like to see?

IS - Let the teachers teach! Get rid of most of the bureaucratic box-ticking
and over-prescribed syllabus.

IX - How did your collaboration with Dr Jack Cohen and Terry Pratchett come about?

IS - We all shared an interest in science fiction. Jack phoned me in 1990, to ask some maths/biology questions, and we started meeting regularly.
He persuaded me to come to the Novacon SF convention and Terry was there (as a fan, not giving a talk). Jack knew him from before he was famous. The three of us had lunch together, and it went on from there.

IX - What exciting advances are being made in the application of maths to biology systems?

IS - Maths is starting to illuminate many areas of biology by making it possible to understand how biological processes work. Networks are being used in
neuroscience and genetics. Dynamical systems models are helping us to understand evolutionary processes. A lot of new mathematical techniques are
being used in cancer research: how the disease progresses, how to
recognise cancerous tissue by computer, how to structure therapies to
obtain the best results.

IX - What maths is used in the development of the new techniques in evolutionary circuitry design?

IS - A lot of it is off-the-cuff new techniques, specifically motivated by the
design problem. It's based on a mix of probability theory, complex systems,
and dynamics which enable extremely useful complex circuit designs to arise from simple models.

IX - Will we see more games software in future being used to educate in mathematics like the Foldit game in biology ?

IS - I think this is likely. A huge number of science projects like Galaxy Zoo now involve large numbers of the public. Many such projects can be structured as games. One advantage of making the project into a game is that playing it is its own reward. Adding to science is also rewarding, of course, but in a more cerebral way. So it appeals to fewer people than playing a game.

IX - What exciting advances in maths can we expect now and in the near future?

IS - Big advances in network theory. Many new concepts stimulated by problems in biology. Tighter links between maths and computing. Deeper theoretical understanding of complex systems. The proof of the Poincaré conjecture will open up new ideas in topology. Some long-standing problems like the odd Goldbach conjecture (every odd number  is the sum of three primes) may well be solved

IX - The Black Scholes equation was used to justify the massive expansion of the derivatives trade by confused bankers, can you explain a little about complexity science and the improvements it could bring to economic models?

IS - The BS equation represents one trend that encouraged speculation in derivatives, but many other factors were involved too. Traditional economic models assume perfect information and perfect rationality, neither of which are true. Complex systems models represent, say, a stock market as a large number of individual
agents, who have imperfect information and use a variety of procedures to take decisions. An important area is to design effective control mechanisms for the markets. We have seen that deregulation just leads to disaster - like a car that can go at 500 mph but has no brakes and can't steer. Complex systems can act as safe
test-beds for control methods.

IX - What are you working on next?

IS - The Great Mathematical Problems: a popular science book on the really big problems, solved and unsolved, all collected together in one place.

17 Equations That Changed The World by Professor Ian Stewart is available from all good book stores and is published by Profile Books: