Campus & Community

Rising research tide lifts math, physical sciences

6 min read
Arthur Jaffe, Clay Professor of Mathematics, hears the “scientific community speaking as one voice, and that’s a very, very powerful voice.” (Staff photo by Kris Snibbe)

Knot Theory, considered a mathematical backwater for decades, is the rage today among genetic scientists as they race to understand how the orientation of tangled DNA strands affects DNA’s functioning.

The theory, with its mathematical description of knots and their permutations, is an unlikely tool for today’s advanced geneticists. It was actually invented a century ago to help describe what was then thought of as the cosmic “ether” that surrounded all things.

When the nature of atoms and molecules was better understood, Knot Theory was forgotten by all but a few mathematicians. For many years, the work of Knot Theorists was considered little more than a curiosity, according to Daniel Goroff, professor of the practice of mathematics and director of the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics, an umbrella organization of professional mathematical society leaders.

The preservation and new significance of Knot Theory is cited today as an example of the importance of basic research and its funding by the federal government. The government is the largest source of funding for work that seeks to expand the boundaries of human knowledge, but that may not help us build better televisions or faster cars in the immediate future.

“There’s lots and lots of examples like this, where fundamental research has fantastic payoffs in ways no one could have expected.”

Professor Daniel Goroff

“There’s lots and lots of examples like this, where fundamental research has fantastic payoffs in ways no one could have expected,” Goroff said. “Science needs public funding rather than leaving everything to the market precisely because the benefits can be so great but so unpredictable.”

Mathematics is one of several physical science fields where federal research funding is expected to climb after a decade of low or no growth. The change reflects not just the increasing availability of federal dollars resulting from the budget surplus, but also a changing attitude in Congress about the importance of research funding of all kinds.

That new attitude addresses an imbalance in federal research priorities that has seen funding for medical research and the life sciences gain significant increases even as funding for other disciplines struggled to keep up with inflation.

Ultimately, it took a political alliance among scientists of all fields, universities, and industry to turn the tide with a consistent message that all science is interconnected, and that advances in medicine are dependent on the advances in basic sciences and in technology.

“Science is unified, we don’t speak out for disciplines, we speak out for science as a whole and that the future of the country is very dependent on science,” said Arthur Jaffe, Clay Professor of Mathematics and the current chairman of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents. The Council represents scientific organizations with 1.5 million members. “Now you have the scientific community speaking as one voice, and that’s a very, very powerful voice.”

The message delivered by that voice is that research dollars need to be increased for all disciplines. Today’s science is more interdisciplinary than ever, with advances in one field affecting work in another. Almost across the board, larger projects plumbing the frontiers of knowledge require larger investments in technology.

“The problems are more complex,” said Dean of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences Venkatesh Narayanamurti. “You want the physicist working with the biologist; you want the applied mathematician working with the engineer.”

Physicists, by banding together and pooling resources for ever-larger particle accelerators, have presented a model of international cooperation for grand-scale research that other fields can emulate.

Harvard Physics Professor John Huth is coordinating the efforts of 30 universities and three national labs on the Atlas project. Atlas, being constructed at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, in Geneva, Switzerland, will be an enormous particle detector constructed near the Large Hadron Collider, the largest particle accelerator ever built. Researchers hope the combined project will provide evidence of some of the tiniest building blocks of nature and help explain how the universe operates.

In the basement of Harvard’s High Energy Physics Laboratory on Oxford Street are several rooms where parts for Atlas – called muon detectors – are being assembled.

The detectors are essentially stacks of thin aluminum tubes. Each tube is filled with argon gas and has a wire running down the middle of it. When a muon – an atomic particle that’s similar to heavy electron – passes into the tube, it strikes the gas. The muon bumps an electron out of the argon molecule, which in turn bumps an electron out of another molecule, causing a cascading effect in which many electrons are bumped out of many argon molecules. When those electrons hit the wire, they create an electronic pulse that can be detected by scientists monitoring the equipment. Atlas has come together despite years of federal physics research funding that has steadily lost ground to inflation, Huth said. “When you factor in inflation, the real dollars you receive decline,” Huth said. “We’ve had a slow decline at the rate of inflation.”

Huth said any increase in funding would be good news, but he added that consistency in funding is also critical. Projects that are well-funded one year and then see funding plateau can rapidly build up staff or buy expensive equipment that future grants can’t support.

“You can really get whipsawed,” Huth said. “Too much money coming in too quickly can be inefficient, but slow starvation is also inefficient.”

The existence of dependable funding sources is also important to promising young scientists considering their career choices. It’s not unusual for young scientists to opt to pursue careers in private industry such as the biotechnology industry or even the data-crunching organizations that exist on Wall Street, rather than choosing academia.

“When you have career uncertainty coupled with low pay, the love of the field can’t [compete],” Huth said. “The people doing it here have a real love of science, and given a somewhat stable outlook, most of them will stay.”