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Pomona Math Professor Named to Scientific American's Top 50 Innovators

Pomona College Professor of Mathematics Vin de Silva has been named to Scientific American’s 2007 SciAm 50, an annual list of the top 50 science, research and industry individuals who led important advances that year.

According to the magazine, “Award winners highlighted here have the potential to contribute much more to human health, consumer electronics and numerous other fields than if they were simply offering another antidepressant that tweaked serotonin levels or ratcheting up the speed of a microprocessor. What they have done is decidedly new.”

On the list at number six in the category of an “Untethered Future,” de Silva and his research partner Robert Ghrist, a professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are joined in that category by Apple, cited for its iPhone, and MIT researcher Marin Soljacic, chosen for his work on delivering wireless electricity.

De Silva and Ghrist were selected for adding flexibility to wireless sensor networks. Individual sensors, the magazine notes, can be as small as rice grains or dust particles. “They can mount a vigil for chemical and biological weapons or check for moisture content in the soil. Already they are changing how people monitor the world.”

The breakthrough by de Silva and Ghrist is the development of new algorithms, using mathematical homology, to analyze whether a network of randomly distributed sensors has gaps or overlaps in coverage. Homology analyzes the points, lines and geometric arrangements within shapes.

Future refinements of the algorithm could apply to robotic sensors on unknown terrain. Eventually, de Silva and Ghrist hope to develop a new protocol that will allow sensors to repair small gaps in coverage if one sensor shuts off accidentally.

The researchers’ collaboration began in 2004 and, according to de Silva, the combination of his math contacts and Ghrist’s contacts in robotics is ideal. “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.]”