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Pomona Math Professor Earns Spot on Scientific American’s Annual SciAm 50

The real-world application of Assistant Professor of Mathematics Vin de Silva’s latest theorem has garnered him and his research partner a place on  Scientific American’s 2007 SciAm 50 awards list, an annual recognition of 50 science, research and industry individuals who led important advances that year.

Working within the mathematical field of algebraic topology, de Silva assigns a shape to a series of points and can then determine where those shapes overlap and where there are gaps. This knowledge can be applied to wireless sensors that, as Scientific American explains, do anything from detect chemical weapons to monitor moisture in soil. In the future, de Silva says, it could also affect to robotic sensors on unknown terrain.

Mathematics professor Robert Ghrist of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign worked with de Silva on the project. The collaboration began when Ghrist and de Silva met at a 2004 conference in Canada; de Silva’s topology knowledge was the type of mathematics Ghrist needed for work he was doing with the robotics community.

The relationship between de Silva’s math and Ghrist’s robotics-field contacts is ideal, says de Silva: “It could be that we proved our theorem and it got buried and nobody used it. We wanted the robotics people to be aware that these kinds of [mathematical] techniques exist, and we want the mathematicians to be aware that their work can apply [to fields like robotics.]”

Professor de Silva is continuing to hone the project: “The initial theorems will give you a sense of whether a broadcast signal covers a whole region. The next refinement might be if you have a huge surplus of sensors, the same methods will tell you [that] you can switch off some—the ones you keep on are enough.” After that, de Silva and Ghrist want to develop a protocol that allows sensors to repair small gaps in coverage if one sensor shuts off accidentally.

SciAm 50 in Scientific American